If you want to collaborate with Steve Martin, the first step is to be at the same party with him. At least that's what happened for the bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers and songstress Edie Brickell, both of whom ended up turning casual conversations into rich creative partnerships with the white-haired, joke-cracking, art-collecting, novella-writing, banjo-picking Renaissance man. It probably helps to be incredibly talented, too, but hey — you've got to start somewhere.
It's a well-known fact now that Martin, the comedic genius behind The Jerk, Roxanne, and Three Amigos, is also a master banjo player and songwriter. He released his first solo banjo album, The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo, in 2009, which also happens to be the year he first met the Steep Canyon Rangers. As we've established, it all started at a party. "We'd known Steve's wife for a long time, and we got invited to a dinner party where she and Steve were going to be," says the Rangers' Woody Platt. "Steve was there with his banjo, and we had a kind of informal jam session. After that, he got in touch about sitting in at this Brevard music festival we were playing, and we just seemed to click."
The band played with Martin once again in New York, but they didn't think it would lead to much else. "We thought that would be the end of it," Platt says. "Then he asked if we would be interested in being the band for his [The Crow] tour, and I guess the rest is history. That's been four years now."
In that time, the Rangers and Martin have not only toured together but also released the Grammy-nominated bluegrass album Rare Bird Alert, a collection of songs written by Martin, Platt, and other members of the Rangers. From what Platt says, it seems to have been a charmed partnership from the start. "The music seems to come really naturally," he says.
The same might be said of Brickell and Martin, who just released their first album together, Love Has Come for You. It's a beautiful, understated, simple offering, featuring little more than Martin's banjo playing and Brickell's sweet, plaintive vocals. It's like stripped-down bluegrass with hints of country and folk. The songs run the gamut from truly tragic ("Tell me she didn't go to the river / Tell me she didn't throw herself in," "Yes She Did") to cheeky and fun ("I like your Siamese cat / I like your cowboy hat / But I don't like your daughter," "Siamese Cat"), and there's not a bad one in the bunch.
The pairing of Martin and Brickell is at first a surprising one, given Brickell's background. She rose to stardom in 1988 with the song "What I Am," which she recorded with her band Edie Brickell and New Bohemians. But her unusual voice — it's somehow raspy and feminine at the same time — is actually a great fit for Martin's style of writing and playing, which is soft, often melancholy, and usually bittersweet.
Brickell and Martin had known each other for 20 years — she's married to Paul Simon, who is good friends with Martin — but it wasn't until recently that they considered making music together. At a birthday party they both attended, the pair started talking about Martin's solo album. He mentioned that he had some banjo tunes with no words, and asked her if she'd like to write lyrics for them. Brickell was a little nervous, she says, but was eager to try.
"It happened as if by magic," Brickell says. "He would send a tune and it was a full song — there'd be a verse, the chorus, sometimes a bridge. I had this big emotional response to these tunes, and I would just start singing. Once there's a feeling, a sonic landscape, then you just have to let what comes out come out."
That sonic landscape was especially strong for the album's title song, "Love Has Come for You." It's one of the album's few songs that tells a full story — lyrically, it's practically a folk ballad. "I got up really early one morning, and I sat in the kitchen, just me and the dogs," she says. "I had this tune, and I grabbed my iPhone and hit Voice memo because I wanted to record my first impression. [The tune] felt dark and warm at the same time, it was this gritty, earthy story." That story and the characters in it came to her at once, almost in final form. "I heard myself sing, 'She had a child by that man from the bank,' and I thought wow, really? When you hear that line, you know the story about her. She got in some sort of trouble."
In the song, "that man from the bank" is married, and the woman's family tells her to give the child away to avoid disgrace. But when she holds her son for the first time, the song goes, "she heard the quiet angels sing / Love / Love / Love has come for you." She keeps the child, who grows up strong and kind. When she grows old and dies, he's right there by her side.
Another of the album's standout tracks is the lead "When You Get to Asheville." It's one of Brickell and Martin's more poignant songs, sung as a one-sided conversation or maybe a letter (make that e-mail) to an ex-lover who's moving to Asheville. The song has one line that's been remarked upon over and over in reviews: "When you get to Asheville, / send me an e-mail." Somehow, the word "e-mail" seems like an anachronism when sung over banjo music, even though there's no real reason that should be the case. The fact that it's noticeable at all just goes to show what we expect of banjo music — old-timey songs about mountain people who probably don't have electricity and certainly don't have computers.
But Brickell never felt tension between the music and the words they inspired in her. "I think it's really important to honor your era," she says. "There's lots of old music that I like ... but I want to take what [those old-time singers] are teaching me. And what they're teaching me is they're looking at the life in front of them and saying, 'This is what I see.' You don't want to pretend you're from another time, because then you don't honor yourself or your time. It's not honest." It turns out that a sung e-mail can be just as pretty as a sung letter.
Brickell's joining Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers on tour this year, and although she's the newcomer to this traveling band, she's had zero trouble fitting in. "They're the sweetest guys. I always wanted brothers, and this feels like having them." In the show Brickell sings with the Rangers as well as solo, and she loves the sound that they all make together. "Having them sing with me, I just melt. It's such a warm, beautiful sound. It's a dream."
So it seems Steve Martin can add one more skill to his mile-long resumé: putting together music acts who not only work together seamlessly, but are also incredibly nice people. This guy sure knows how to pick 'em.