Bohemian banjo: Martin, Brickell take bluegrass to new level

While packing arenas in the 1970s, the banjo was just a small part of Steve Martin’s popular comedy act. Forty years later, it’s become the main event. After two successful bluegrass albums showcasing his musical talents, it’s an unlikely collaboration with a famed alt-rocker that’s filling venues this summer.

After a conversation at a social event, singer Edie Brickell started receiving instrumentals from Martin via email asking for lyrics. Given Martin’s resume, it was a surprising and intimidating request for the lead singer of the New Bohemians, a rock band whose hit “What I Am” reached No. 4 on the charts in 1989. Even with decades of songwriting experience, this process was a little different than Brickell’s past creative endeavors.

“I would just improvise with the Bohemians in the garage puttering back and forth,” she said with a laugh. “With Steve, I wanted everything to be great” the first time he heard it.

The duo traded songs for weeks. Soon they realized they were making a record that would become their debut collaboration, “Love Has Come for You.” It’s a 13-track album of light atmospheric bluegrass. Martin and Brickell will promote the effort on a U.S. tour, which will make a stop at the Bryce Jordan Center this weekend.

Despite the modern way of creating the tunes, Martin and Brickell were happy with their songs from the beginning. Not much changed between the emailed tracks and the versions that ended up on the record.

“We almost changed nothing,” Martin said about the early renditions. “We liked them all.”

Brickell’s soft and calming voice is a remarkable break from the jangle and twang of traditional bluegrass singing. Martin’s banjo is intricate and full of personality. The challenge, Martin said, was showcasing both.

They recruited legendary producer Peter Asher (James Taylor, Elvis Costello, Linda Rondstadt) to find the perfect medium of all elements of the music. Martin said that oftentimes they would have to choose between the voice and the banjo. And with having such different musical backgrounds, he thought making that happen would be especially difficult.

“What’s it going to be? Bluegrass or rock and roll?” Martin said. “(What we made) is very different than regular bluegrass. Edie’s voice is more Texas than conventional bluegrass.”

Asher crafted a record that is easy to listen to while letting Brickell and Martin’s talents shine.

What they do best is different enough to build a new sound that both musicians were hoping to make. Martin said the music he recorded with Brickell is a sound he’s heard in his head and wanted to get out for 50 years.

“I thought this is what I want the banjo to sound like if I can ever learn to play it like that,” he said. “When Edie appears ... the way she is able to make the melodies into songs ... it’s a great gift.”

The songs are pleasant, sunny and easy to digest. Brickell’s lyrics are fun and are sung with a pop mentality that creates an atmosphere rarely heard in the genre. She successfully modernizes a traditional genre of music and makes it as accessible as it’s ever been.

That translation of bluegrass from a regional niche genre to music that fills arenas is not something Martin takes for granted. He points to the incredible musicianship of his backing band, the Steep Canyon Rangers, as a major reason people take notice and become fans.

“It’s like watching a string quartet right before them,” he said. “Whether they are into the music or not, the form of it and the musicianship helps the crowd watch and endure for two hours.”

Brickell said working with Martin was a dream come true and that she is thrilled about what they accomplished with “Love Has Come to You.” On tour, she said he always has a banjo tune in the works, and the two continue to collaborate on projects, including a possible musical.