Steve Martin calls this “The most expensive banjo album in the history of the universe… and that includes possible other universes, too”. He’s not kidding. If you record in Los Angeles, New Jersey, Nashville and Dublin, and employ the likes of Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Earl Scruggs and a handful of the finest from the bluegrass fraternity, it’s going to set you back a bit.
So yes, it’s a vanity enterprise. Martin has indulged himself in a way other banjo players could only dream of – because he can. When a huge film actor and acclaimed comedian gives you a call, the likelihood is that you’re going to say yes. Apart from the kudos involved, it’s going to be fun for sure.
But none of the above reflects in any negative way on this album’s quality. The main point is that Martin really can play, from good, driving Scruggs-style fare to delightfully delicate frailing. Unlike so many solo albums put out by banjo players, he expresses imagination in his tunings and intelligent arrangements, a trait no doubt enhanced by his cohorts on this recording. Perhaps most notable amongst these collaborators is his producer and high school chum, the redoubtable founder member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt band, John McEuen. But even discounting such influences, it’s obvious Martin’s stylistic sensibilities are remarkably refined.
On screen, Martin can come across as an obsessive individual – both in the characters he plays and the way he plays them. Luckily, such a characteristic is something of a prerequisite for a banjo player. The instrument is counter-intuitive, fragile and unreliable; its parts move around all the time and it is never in tune. If you invented it now you’d be thought mad, so to learn to play it at all you have to be a little odd.
Martin is obviously a hardened case. He explores all the sounds this glorious instrument has to offer, and weaves them into his own charming, unaffected songs. --Nick Barraclough
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