Steve Martin has a reputation as one of the toughest interviews in the entertainment business. He's known for clipped yes-no responses to questions about the making of his latest film, his thoughts on the art of comedy or, especially, his personal life.
But bring up a subject that's near and dear to his heart -- like, say, the banjo -- and he's a different guy.
"I'm ready to talk music," Martin said recently between a raft of promotional interviews for "The Pink Panther 2," which opens next week.
The music in question is his debut album as a musician, "The Crow," subtitled, "New Songs for the Five-String Banjo." He may once have relied on his banjo as one of the signature props in his stand-up comedy act, along with the fake arrow through the head and a set of fluffy bunny ears, but now that he's working it back into his life again, it's not for laughs.
Need proof? Just check the list of guests he's rounded up: country and bluegrass heavyweights Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Earl Scruggs, Tim O'Brien and Tony Trischka are there, along with Irish singer Mary Black, helping out on 15 tunes that Martin wrote or co-wrote.
"I really started to think about it last summer," Martin, 63, said. "A record isn't like a movie -- you can get it together pretty fast. I first thought maybe I'd do a banjo presentation record, where I'd play a couple of songs and get a bunch of other players to do the rest. Then I realized I had enough of my own songs to do an album of them."
The album was produced by John McEuen, the multi-instrumentalist from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a friend of Martin for 40-plus years. Most of the songs are instrumentals, a few written more than 30 years ago, Martin said.
He came up with the others in the last three years after collaborations with Scruggs ("He taught me how to play 'Sally Goodin' when I was 21 -- he's very generous") and Trischka reawakened his desire to play more actively than he has in decades.
The title song, which Martin recorded for Trischka's album "Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular" in 2007, "actually became a minor hit on the bluegrass charts," he said. "That got me thinking about other songs and just coming back to the banjo, which I'd always played idly."
The one track with an overt sense of humor is "Late for School," a briskly paced bluegrass workout with whimsical lyrics built around one schoolkid's stream-of-consciousness recitation of his fear of being tardy. He plans to perform it tonight on NBC's "Saturday Night Live."
The wit in "Daddy Played the Banjo," which Martin wrote with Scruggs' son Gary, is more subtle. It's a faux musical folk tale with a surprisingly sweet lyrical twist, while "Pretty Flowers," which reunites Parton and Gill as duet partners, also might generate smiles for the way it gently transforms the time-honored courting ritual.
The album, Martin said, wasn't meant to dazzle the world with his musical skills -- even though he turns out to be an accomplished instrumentalist and an inventive composer.
"It was more like, 'Gee, I've written these songs. What should I do with them?' "
Besides, as he pointed out to Trischka upon being invited to play one of the duets on the "Bluegrass Spectacular" album, "there's about a million guys who could play the traditional tunes better than I can."
Maybe so, but the bluegrass pros have welcomed Martin into their circle. Avant-bluegrass players Trischka and Bela Fleck came along for a televised performance of “The Crow.” Martin also held his own on a “Late Show With David Letterman” appearance when Scruggs led an all-star jam on the bluegrass national anthem, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," with a little help from friends Gill, Marty Stuart, Albert Lee and a slew of other top-drawer pickers.
Still, Martin has his reasons for focusing on his own tunes.
"In the last two years, I went back to tablature, learning different songs like [the banjo standard] 'Nola.' I spent a year learning 'Nola' and got it down pretty good," he said, exhibiting no small sense of pride in the accomplishment. "Then for a little while I didn't play and it just vanished. So I realized it was best to stick to my own songs."
In what was the closest he came to a punch line during the genial interview, he added: "They're easier for me to remember."