Steve Martin harnesses an archetypal conceit — “Come to California!” — for his new song with the Steep Canyon Rangers. Called, simply, “California,” the bluegrass come-on is written from the perspective of a man beckoning his love in Oklahoma to move West and chase her dreams as a writer.
Not surprisingly, the song doesn’t travel the predictable route. Martin, who has written for stage, screen, song, stand-up routine and printed word, knows his way around a yarn. He also knows his way around his banjo. Since 2010, he’s awarded worthy players the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo & Bluegrass, a prize he began giving out on “The Late Show With David Letterman.” Earlier this month, he announced he was donating the one-of-a-kind, gold-plated banjo given to him by the Kennedy Center when he won the Mark Twain Prize in 2005 to the American Banjo Museum in Oklahoma City. And for the past decade he’s participated in a series of collaborations with Grammy-winning bluegrass players the Steep Canyon Rangers.
Martin first performed with the Asheville, N.C., band at a 2009 benefit for the Los Angeles Public Library, and has since recorded two acclaimed bluegrass albums with them. The new song, “California,” is their first work since “The Long Awaited Album” in 2017.
“Took a house in California / Overlooks the Sunset Strip,” Martin sings to open the song, his phrasing short and sharp. “Said you’d join me when I’m settled / Now I sit here six weeks in.” Scene thus set, the singer and the band maneuver through a round of fiddle and banjo runs.
“I’ve written about Santa Fe, where I used to live, and a couple other places,” Martin said recently from his home in New York. “And ‘California’ just came up because I’ve lived there my whole life. I don’t live there anymore, but I just love it.”
Needless to say, the protagonist hits a few road bumps in the song. Manuscripts are pitched, HBO is name-checked. The aspiring hero meets a love interest at a Whole Foods. They smoke weed in a house in L.A.'s Bird Streets neighborhood. All over the course of three spirited minutes.
Martin, who will spend the end of January touring around Florida with his friend and fellow comedian Martin Short (and heads to the U.K. with Short in March), recently spoke to The Times about the genesis of “California.” The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What sparked you to write “California”?
It’s kind of bizarre. I’d just done an album with the Steep Canyon Rangers. It was called “The Long Awaited Album,” and right after we recorded it, I thought, “Well, that’s it. I’m probably not going to be writing any more songs.”
But then I just started working on this song, and I think it might have been inspired by a couple of things. One is, about 10 years ago, I was searching on Google Maps, and I realized that the area above Sunset that I always loved — Brasher and Wren and Oriole — had an actual designation, the Bird Streets. We’d always called them the Bird Streets, but now they’re on the map as a locale. And I thought, “Oh, that’s really interesting that this has become a place.”
In one of my books, I talked about this feeling when you’re sitting in the Hollywood Hills and you can watch the airplanes line up for LAX, for landing. And sometimes you get the right angle and it’s as though they’re still, that they’re not moving. And it’s kind of beautiful because it’s so peaceful. So I just started using that imagery.
A lot of narrative bluegrass songs end up with somebody dead at the end. On first listen, I was worried that your hero might experience the same fate.
I have written songs where people end up dead, but this just felt right. It felt like a true story. And also, you know, I have lifelong friendships with Ed Ruscha and Mason Williams, who both came to California from Oklahoma as young men. There’s something logical about that journey. L.A. has this allure, especially for creative people. And there was some kind of nice truth in having the woman be a writer, or potential writer, coming to L.A. as part of [the narrator’s] sales job on her.
The sweetest line in “California” is in the verse where the narrator smokes weed in the Bird Streets house with a woman he’s met at Whole Foods: “Left the house, did not inhale it / I could only think of you.”
You know, I had written the song and I was playing it for a friend of mine, [movie producer] Walter Parkes, and his wife, Laurie. He’s a great guitarist, by the way. He said, “You know, I really liked it, but I think it needs to be a little more emotional at the end.” Right there, I wrote those lines. So it was really his inspiration that made me go there.
The video for the song alludes to the early selling of California, with imagery suggestive of orange crate art and midcentury Hollywood postcards.
Absolutely. In the late 19th century, early 20th century, orange crate art made a very big deal about the selling of California to the rest of America. [Director Peter Reeve], who did the video, struck on something really appropriate. That was the way California was sold to the rest of the country early on.
Last year marked the 10-year anniversary of your first performance with the Steep Canyon Rangers, a benefit for the Los Angeles Public Library. Did you expect that the set would lead to a decade-long collaboration?
Do you know what our next gig after that was? Carnegie Hall [laughs]. We were so unready.
You’re headed to the U.K. with Martin Short to continue touring your show “An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life.” Is “California” a teaser for a new album or tour with the Steep Canyon Rangers?
No. It’s intended as a single. It’s intended to not be too heavily promoted. We’re not going on any television shows. It’s just a single for today’s distribution of music. An album, you’ve got 12 songs. You’ve got to attend every one and try to get one played. A single is, “Take it or leave it. Here it is.”