Grammys 2014: Steve Martin busts out his banjo

Comedian/musician Steve Martin.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

By Steve Martin’s estimation, it’s been “a hundred years” since he last attended the televised Grammy Awards, set to air Sunday night on CBS. But the actor (and longtime banjo player) has shown up more recently for the daytime ceremony in which Grammys are handed out in categories like reggae and New Age. In 2010, it’s where he won the bluegrass album award for “The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo.” He also won twice in the late 1970s for his comedy albums.

This year Martin is up for two Grammys, including best Americana album, with “Love Has Come for You,” his rustic collaboration with the singer and songwriter Edie Brickell. He spoke recently about the nominations and the record, songs from which are in a stage musical he and Brickell are scheduled to workshop soon at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre.

You’re well associated with the Academy Awards, having hosted the show three times. How does the vibe at the Oscars compare to that at the Grammys?


Oh, I’d say they’re completely different. The Grammys is very performance-based, where the Oscars really can’t be. You can’t just act out scenes from your movie — especially if, you know, you’re dealing with the wheat fields of Kansas.

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Music for you seems to have served as an escape from the limelight. Yet here you are in the thick of awards season.

The thing about music for me is that it’s live, and performing live is the last thing I expected to be doing at this stage in my life. I’d really given it up, from about 1981 till four or five years ago, when I started touring with the [North Carolina bluegrass outfit] Steep Canyon Rangers. And I was nervous about it. I was kind of coerced into it by my agent, who said, “You have to tour and promote your new record.” I said OK, but then a friend of mine advised me, “Well, you know, you have to be funny out there.” And I just sort of defaulted to this show that I really enjoy doing — or came to enjoy doing, I should say.

What was there to resist?

Traveling around the country is hard. And performing comedy is hard. And playing music live onstage is something I’d really never done to this degree. The longest I’d ever played onstage was, like, three minutes — certainly not for two hours. I didn’t even know if my fingers could last that long. So I really kind of learned a whole new discipline. And, trust me, if you wanna learn something, go do it onstage in front of people and you’ll learn it so much faster than if you sit in your living room.


You’re not just playing — you’re writing songs too.

I had always written music, even when I first started playing the banjo, because I didn’t have teachers. So I kind of had to write music in order to have something to play.

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One of your nominations this year is for best American roots song, for the title track from “Love Has Come for You.”

That means a lot — those songwriting nominations aren’t handed out frivolously. And, of course, half of that belongs to Edie, who wrote some great, great lyrics. But to be associated with the people who are nominated, it’s really — this is a corny thing to say — it’s really an honor.

Three out of the five nominees in the Americana album category are duos: you and Edie, Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell and Buddy Miller & Jim Lauderdale. Pure coincidence?

In folk music there’s a real tradition of duos: Jim & Jesse, Flatt & Scruggs and — one of the great duos — Peter, Paul and Mary. Maybe when you were roaming around in those days playing this music, more people [than two] were hard to find.

Some have speculated that “Inside Llewyn Davis” will revive interest in folk music the same way that “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” did over a decade ago. How invested are you in expanding the audience for this music?

I don’t really think about it, or I think about it only after the fact. I know when we do a show — and let’s say we have 2,300 to 3,000 people — they can’t all be there for bluegrass. And yet they seem to really respond to the music. And I think what they’re responding to is the musicianship. It’s like, if you’re not into classical music, you can still respond to the virtuosity of a string quartet. Now, whether afterward they go, “I’m gonna be a bluegrass fan,” I don’t know. But they do buy a lot of records after our show.

You and Edie are scheduled to play the July 4 Fireworks Spectacular this summer at the Hollywood Bowl. How much time in 2014 are you carving out for music?

Let’s put it this way — it’s overt and covert. Overtly, we’re gonna be doing less touring this year than we did last year. But the reason is that, covertly, we’re working on the musical.