CD Review of The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo by Steve Martin
Steve Martin: The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo
Recommended if you like
Tony Trischka, Bela Fleck,
Mark O’Connor
Steve Martin:
The Crow: New Songs
for the 5-String Banjo

Reviewed by Jeff Giles


o anyone who’s only familiar with Steve Martin’s career as a comedian, the prospect of him recording an album of banjo instrumentals might seem like a joke – and one funnier than any movie Martin’s released since 1991, ha ha ha – but he’s always had an interest in the instrument, incorporating it into his stand-up and occasionally playing it in the movies; he even padded the back half of his last comedy album with songs he’d written. As he moved away from stand-up, he set aside the banjo in favor of other pursuits, including writing novels and scripts, but his playing always had fans – including Earl Scruggs, who invited Martin to play on his 2002 album Earl Scruggs and Friends. The result, the track "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," earned Martin a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance.

The award didn’t go to Martin’s head – he’s called it a "fluke" and joked that he likes to take it out when musicians come over to his house – but it did rekindle his passion for the banjo, and over the last several years, he’s made a point of dusting off his chops, even going toe-to-toe with Tony Trischka and Bela Fleck on "The Crow," a cut from Trischka’s Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular. "The Crow" was a high point of that album, and it resurfaces here as the title track on The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo, Martin’s first all-music release.

For an instrument with such deep working-class roots, the banjo has been known to inspire some pretty boring music, and albums of contemporary banjo music – what few there are – can be fairly dodgy, focusing on instrumental prowess over songcraft. Not so The Crow – it successfully threads the needle between dizzying fingerpicking, memorable melodies, and big-name guests (Tim O’Brien, Vince Gill, and Dolly Parton contribute vocals to the mostly instrumental affair, and Martin himself steps up to the microphone for the lone funny track, "Late for School"). It’s a joy of an album, one made all the more unexpected with the knowledge that Martin wrote the material himself, and some of it goes back to the ‘60s. Not bad for the guy who’s about to pinch one out over Peter Sellers’ grave with "The Pink Panther 2."

The presence of actual songs makes The Crow a perfect gateway drug for people looking to start a collection of banjo music, but it’s Martin’s instrumental skill that really elevates the material. Admittedly, you’d hope that any artist who took over four decades to compile his debut would be able to come up with at least an album’s worth of songs worth listening to, but still – this doesn’t sound like a patchwork collection, it sounds like the work of a seasoned, confident performer. Anyone who passes it over because Martin’s name is attached is doing themselves a major disservice.

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