Steve Martin and Ed Helms are brothers of the banjo as well as of the film and television arts — a fairly exclusive fraternity as crossover disciplines go. So it's not too surprising that Martin would be a hero for "The Office"/"Hangover" star in more ways than one or that he would be first on the invite list when Helms puts together his Bluegrass Situation festival, which has its second annual (and sold out) stand Thursday through Sunday at the club Largo in Hollywood.
On a weekday afternoon, in preparation for the fest, they are in Adirondack chairs in Martin's Beverly Hills-adjacent backyard, kicking out the five-string jams and turning the star's green, green grass blue. It can be serious business, as evidenced by the looks on the faces of the determinedly sober duo. Then someone requests "Dueling Banjos" and they oblige, and start grinning. Apparently it is impossible to play that song without intermarrying or smiling.
"Oh, you played this on 'The Muppet Show'! I've seen that on YouTube," Helms gushes, recalling a vintage Martin performance of the "Deliverance"-popularized banjo standard that made Kermit squeal like Miss Piggy back in the day. "It's fantastic! Were you playing live with the Muppets? What was it like meeting the actual Muppets?"
"You do realize they're … Muppets," Martin says, as dryly as possible.
Unbowed, Helms recalls an even earlier enthusiasm for "Dueling Banjos." "I'm from Georgia, and when we were going to canoe the river where it was shot at summer camp, our counselor showed us 'Deliverance' to show us what we were in for on the trip. That movie got me excited about bluegrass. But I do think there's a stigma attached to banjos, because of Deliverance...."
"Oh, I don't think so," Martin replies. "Because that song was a hit, remember." He ticks off the most popular bluegrass songs, also including "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," popularized by "Bonnie and Clyde," and Earl Scruggs' "Beverly Hillbillies" theme. "I thought, 'What did those songs have in common? Oh, they're all from movies or television shows.' When people heard it, they loved it. But they got to it from another medium." That's where Martin figures he comes in now. "I'll make it my mission. I have access to get out there and play it on Letterman."
"You're the ambassador," Helms says.
He's doing his part to evangelize bluegrass too, if on a smaller scale. In last year's inaugural edition, the Bluegrass Situation festival at Largo had artists such as Fiona Apple, Jackson Browne and Gillian Welch sitting in with more traditional-minded pickers. "People tend to really like bluegrass if you mix it in with other things and kind of dilute it with alt-country," Helms says.
Helms learned to play banjo when he was 18 for a high school production of the musical "The Cotton Patch Gospel," but, he says, "it's only in the last eight or nine years that I've made a concentrated effort to get better at banjo." Martin played a bit in his 1970s stand-up act but mostly kept the habit to himself till he brought his prowess out of the closet for his first bluegrass album, 2009's Grammy-winning "The Crow," an album of mostly instrumentals.
Martin's band is a well-established North Carolina group, the Steep Canyon Rangers, whose leader, Woody Platt, describes Martin as "a hell of a player. He's unique; if you listen to a lot of different styles of banjo and hear his tone and sound, you know it's him." You'll definitely know it's him if you go to their festival-wrapping show Sunday night. As Platt explains: "In bluegrass, there's a lot of tuning involved, because you're playing the acoustic instruments so hard. So, traditionally, there's always been an emcee who fills up that time." Thanks maybe to those tuning breaks, then, these shows offer the closest thing you'll ever get to Martin reviving his old stand-up act.
For his new album, "Rare Bird Alert," Martin wrote more lyric-oriented and outrightly comic tunes, including "Atheists Don't Have No Songs," an answer to the abundance of Christianity in roots music, and the perhaps self-explanatory relationship song "Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back" as well as cutting a bluegrass reprise of his 1978 smash "King Tut."
Both actor-pickers enjoy being part of a grass-roots world where the standards for stardom are quite different. "Eric Idle said to me, 'The great thing about you being in this world is that you're not the star.' That's absolutely right," says Martin. "Here, in a room of 15, I'm No. 14. And the people are so down to earth, with this extraordinary musical talent, and generous. But show business is like that too, I find," he hastens to add. "I've never run into monstrous.... Well, I've run into monstrous egos, but that's been the exception, really."
"You're referring to me, of course," Helms says.
Helms has a true confession. "Do you get nervous playing music? It's been a little bit of a struggle for me. I did stand-up for years and got up in front of 18,000 people at college campuses, and I was always capable and felt fine. But once I change the context into a musical setting, I seize up."
Martin's discipline-spanning experience has been the opposite. "I discovered something recently. We did a show, and somebody came up and said, 'You really looked like you were having fun out there.' And I thought, 'You know something? For the first time ever, I actually am! This show business could actually be fun!'"
"Come on," Helms scoffs. "First time ever?"
"Oh, I've never viewed it as fun. Performing was like some kind of thought process," Martin says, disdainfully. "And it still is. When I was doing [stand-up] comedy, you're doing the joke, then you have another joke right away, then another joke right away.... And when I first started playing music, I would start a song, thinking, 'I wonder if they're [into this],' and I'd look out and people are going…" Imitating an audience member, Martin sways, closes his eyes, smiles blissfully, and blithely taps his foot. "They never did that at a joke! And I'd think, 'Oh, I've got three minutes to go here!' I could relax.'"