When Steve Martin asked singer-songwriter Edie Brickell to come up with lyrics for one of the banjo melodies the comic, actor and writer had composed in his latter-day career as a bluegrass musician, she was intrigued but unprepared for the new understanding of her own life the effort would produce.
"It inspired so many memories of my early upbringing in Paris, Texas," Brickell, 47, said in a recent phone interview along with Martin, her current tour partner with whom she'll perform Wednesday at the Hollywood Bowl and highlight material from their collaborative album, "Love Has Come for You."
"It made me remember the way my family talked to one another, the dogs on the porch — it seems like all the animals lived outside rather than inside," she said. "It was a different way of being. I have never expressed that side of myself, and I came to realize how deeply connected I am to that part of my life. I understand it so much better than the cultural expression of the generation I was born into."
That may be why the baker's dozen songs on the album, released in April, sound so effortlessly connected to the bluegrass tradition.
"It's been a fantastic change up in my career," said Martin, 67. "The Crow, his 2009 debut album with the Steep Canyon Rangers, won the Grammy Award for bluegrass album. The Rangers accompany him and Brickell on the new album and also will be at the Bowl. "Otherwise, what would I be doing? Making movies? I don't know, it just doesn't feel right somehow.
"I really enjoy working that creative part of my brain," said Martin, who was born in Waco, Texas, then grew up in Inglewood and Garden Grove. "I'm performing live and writing songs. It's the strangest thing that has come over me, at this stage of my life. I never thought I would be doing this."
As might be expected given Martin's roots in humor, there are lighthearted moments, such as "Siamese Cat" and "Get Along Stray Dog."
"When I heard that ['Siamese Cat'] banjo tune, it sounded very playful and fun," Brickell said of her tale of the trouble a child whips up when one of his parents remarries. "I think the idea of flipping the wicked stepmother idea on its head to have the wicked stepchild — I've definitely seen it in people's lives, when teenage stepchildren can make life a living hell. I haven't heard it addressed before, and that melody seemed to bring that out."
But Martin and Brickell also delve into the kind of soul-deep themes that are the hallmark of the great bluegrass songs by the likes of Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and other pioneers of the genre. The title track is a heart-rending scenario of unconditional love, and "Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby" explores the transformative power of love.
At first, Martin asked Brickell, whom he'd known socially, to craft lyrics for one banjo melody he'd written. It quickly expanded into a full album's worth of new songs. They initially worked largely by email.
" 'Sun's Gonna Shine' was the first song we wrote together," Martin said. "I liked what I was getting back from her, and I just thought, let's try another one. I hadn't really collaborated with anybody except by accident with the Rangers on a couple of tunes. At that point I had most of the song already written.
"This was the first case where I sent someone some melodies and some music. I had no idea what was going to come back. But it started to work. In a way, I was already collaborating in that I knew that lyrics were something I couldn't do. So we just kept going. I didn't do it with any intent of what would come out of it, it just seemed to be fun. And then at some point we realized, 'Oh, we've got a record.' And here we are a year later with what seems like a hit album."
Despite Brickell's years on the road and in the recording studio since she first surfaced in the 1980s, joining Martin and the Rangers is a new adventure.
"It's a lot more fun," she said. "I'm so much more relaxed.... It's a great joy for me to get to hear the Steep Canyon Rangers sing with me. I haven't had other people sing along and harmonize with me the way they do. It affects your chemistry, your heart. It's joyous to hear other people join in like that.
"The other thing is, to have Steve stand there, with the focus on Steve, and you know every night he's going to deliver fun and great music, then I get to really relax like I never have before," she said. "There's no pressure. It feels great."
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell
With the Steep Canyon Rangers, Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Madeleine Peyroux
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood
Cost: $23 to $58
Information: http://www.ticketmaster.com or (323) 850-2000
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