To understand the two sides of Steve Martin’s performing talents, check out his one and only hit single, 1978’s King Tut. On the A‑side was the novelty funk hit about the Egyptian boy king. On the B‑side, two deep cuts that showed off Martin’s formidable Americana/banjo chops: the traditional “Sally Goodin” (circa 1860, but existing on recordings since 1922), and “Hoedown at Alice’s” an original written for his then stand-up manager Bill McEuen’s wife.
It’s not what you’d expect from the “Wild and Crazy Guy,” but Martin’s banjo had always been a part of his act. He taught himself at 15 years old, playing along very slowly to Earl Scruggs records. He told an interviewer:
The reason I played it on stage is because my act was so crazy I thought it’s probably good to show the audience I can do something that looks hard, because this act looks like I’m just making it up. I really wasn’t. I worked very hard on it.
Which is a long way of saying: When Martin recorded an album of banjo favorites in 2009, The Crow, won a Grammy without relying on a single joke, then enlisted the help of the North Carolinian Steep Canyon Rangers to go on a tour, it should not have really been a surprise.
When he teamed up next with The Steep Canyon Rangers and recorded Rare Bird Alert in 2011, Martin started to combine comedy and music once again, and with this above novelty song, he gets to indulge in the beautiful harmony singing that bluegrass groups like The Stanley Brothers, The Louvin Brothers, and the Osbourne Brothers made so popular in the mid-century. (There wasn’t just banjo pickin’ on those LPs, you know.) The above appearance on Letterman is a great rendition of a concert favorite, “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs.”
So in this month of arguments over the Starbucks holiday cup, let Mr. Martin and group add a palliative to any hurt atheist feelings. You guys rock.
P.S. Martin got a chance to play with his hero on the same late-night program.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast. King Tut was the second 45 he ever bought as a kid. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.