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In the liner notes for his new album, Steve Martin recounts a conversation with his agent in which, “as a warning, he said, ‘Remember, Steve, you’re selling something no one wants.’ He meant CDs, but I also heard it as ‘music from a 70-year-old comedian.’” Well, sure, if they want to put it that way. Beyond little things like the death of physical media, ageism, and aversion to actors crossing over to other disciplines, there’s also the nearly global disinterest in acoustic string bands. Martin is too much the bluegrass booster, of course, to cite as an additional reason why “The Long-Awaited Album” might not move in the quantities “Jerk” videotapes once did.
But with this new record, actually, just as he has for the last decade, Martin is giving fans exactly what they want — at least that admittedly smaller subset of fans who value both his absurdity and his seriousness of intent. He seems to feel that the time for doing it all in movies like “Roxanne” has passed, but now he’s able to independently pull it off in his music, where lowbrow joke songs are juxtaposed with tender ones, and where the chops are serious even in the ones where the words aren’t. These primarily musical last 10 years of his have been on par with his first decade as a star, and if the mixture of comedy riffing and clawhammer banjo he’s doing out on the road have distracted him from fielding any “Grandfather of the Bride” offers, all the better for everyone (except maybe that agent).
The very title of “The Long-Awaited Album” tells you that Martin has gotten a lot more comfortable with making comedy a crucial part of his bluegrass persona than he was when he released the less wackily titled “The Crow: New Songs for the Five String Banjo” to kick off this part of his career in 2009. It’s a veritable variety show of an album, with three overtly laughable numbers that Martin sings, six less comedic tunes in which he defers to the Steep Canyon Rangers’ Woody Platt for more melodious lead vocals, and five quickie instrumentals. It’s a good mix that lets you know Martin realizes no one wants to hear him sing novelty tunes for an entire album, and that he also realizes no one wants to hear him sing no novelty tunes for an entire album.