tv Tavis Smiley WHUT July 14, 2009 8:30am-9:00am EDT
tavis: tonight a conversation with iconic comedian, actor, writer, and musician steve martin. after becoming one of the biggest superstars in the 1970's, he achieved success in some different areas including an actor, playwright, and as a musician. his latest project is a new cd devoted to his love of the banjo. the disk is called "the crow". we're glad you joined us for conversation. >> there are so many things that walmart is looking forward to doing, like helping people live
better but we are looking forward to building stronger communities and a relationship. success is yet to come. nationwide insurance proudly supports tavis smiley. tavis and nationwide insurance. working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. >> nationwide is on your side. >> and by contributions to your pbs station by viewers like you. thank you. captioned by the national captioning institute --www.ncicap.org-- tavis: we're honored to welcome steve martin. the iconic comedian has achieved so much success in a career that includes best- selling books and plays and the distinction of hosting a show
called "saturday night live." we will focus on his music, specifically the banjo. the new cd is "the crow"and he will be making his debut at the grand old opry. honored to have you. >> nice to be here. tavis: before we started, [unintelligible] was on my radio show and he has a wonderful documentary out. about the banjo. >> the banjo originated in africa as -- i learned this from the documentary. it is a foreign looking thing. it is played similar, it has a short string like the five- string banjo. i was doing a show last -- week.
they introduced me aand the introduction said the banjo is believed to be an american instrument but it was invented over 4000 years ago in ancient egypt. which explains why the jews left egypt. tavis: he is funny. when he started telling me the back story when i saw the documentary, most of this thing bluegrass and country music. you do not think africa but i was so fascinated to learn about this instrument. >> it makes a lot of sense that the banjo came over on slave ships, i suppose. it was -- it lay dormant and morphed in the early 19th century. it became what it is. this round thing with the
calfskin had and strings. a lot of entertainers started playing it on stage. it is a joyful instrument. it caught on and was played in appalachia. and the backwoods. it had its own time to nurture and developed a special sound that it has. >tavis: you got turned on to this instrument how? >> it was the 1960's. i was a teenager and i lived in orange county. the folk music craze had started. there was the kingston trio and pete seeger. a lot of that came through orange county. i fell in love with the banjo. i could not believe it. i watched them play. it was like watching a mystery. i bought a book, how to play the five-string banjo. and an instrumentalist taught me some things. i took a 33 rpm records of banjo
songs and slow them down and lowered the attuning so would be note for note. so you learn the song that way. >tavis: you are self-taught. >> i guess so. tavis: you never took formal lessons. >> i never did. the farthest i got was in the book. here is the way your fingers roll and you memorize that. and you start combining them. as time goes on to become more relaxed. it is scary for someone who is an actor to put out a music record. it is the -- it could be the height of embarrassment. the worst album covers in history are celebrities. i love my album covers. tavis: explain what this album cover is. >> it was submitted as design -- as a design.
it is one of the pastiche amusing covers that i fell in love with. they even -- to look in the upper right hand corner. there is a slight error to my head. tavis: to your point of the potential embarrassment that an actor or anyone else who was not known as a musician. the potential embarrassment that one can suffer for putting out a horrible project. how did you get over that enough to and upon pbs with this project? >> at some point you have to believe in it. over four years -- 40 years ago and the last were in the last six years. i played on earl scruggs' album about eight or nine years ago.
it is ironic, it was a group effort. we played "foggy mountain breakdown." because i was part of the group, we all won grammys. my grammy says best country western instrumentalist. anyone who was a performaner says, what? i practiced enough to know and in plain -- i had played on another album. this became a hit. i was encouraged in that way. tavis: i'm always fascinated,i had an artist on my program. i am amazed how an artist writes a song that sits for so long, in your case four decades before it
gets recorded. >> even stranger -- i have recorded some on the back of book, the record i did in 1979 because i was out of comedy material. i had no more and i was at the end of my stand up career in my own head. i recorded them on the back of this comedy album. some of them had been recorded before. there is one song on there that i had just the melody for for 40 years. bluegrass songs are constructed with an a part. i had this melody for this. another came up with the b part. tavis: we will come back to this music a few times in the course of the conversation.
in 1979, you said you were out of comedy material. what does that feel like and how does a comedian, especially given the success you had in the 1970's, how does one decide that he or she is out of comedy material? >> i was stand up. psychologically, i was finished. i took it as far as i could take it was going to be very redundant if i kept going for me. fortunately, i did this movie called "the jerk" and became a hit. someone said something to me once, stand-up -- they go from day to day and you have to keep working and be out there. if you are an actor you cannot do something for three years and people still remember who you are or what you are. it is like you never went away and i liked that idea.
>tavis: how did you discover that acting was the role -- the goal? >> it was the comedy. i became an actor which was burned while you learn. in those movies i got a chance to work with some great directors who taught me about acting and i'm morphed into becoming an actor. -- i morphed into becoming an actor. tavis: i was doing some reading. when you were younger, you were pursuing your dreams and following what you wanted to do. as your career is unfolding you are still going to school. >> i went to ucla. tavis: what were you -- i love the love of learning.
>> i was at -- the high schools in orange county, there was no homework. it was something you did during the day. it was an obligatory council meeting with a counselor. he said will you go to college and i said i do not know. he said it will be good in your career because you are interested in show business if he studied history. it made sense to me. you have these references. you know about things. i did not want to be a guy who grew up in show business. i wanted to have a collegiate background. is this your nest -- is this necessary for your own intelligence? you cannot do comedy without having -- i want to use the word intelligence, but an education. some people have street smarts. i did not have that.
i learned a lot from college. tavis: you did not develop street smarts working at disneyland? >> i did not. tavis: i think that, the new school year, the enrollment will go up significantly. >> they know there is no hallmark. tavis: if i had known that i would have gone there. at any point in your career, did you put this thing down or have you always kept it? >> i always kept playing. there might have been times when i did not play it for six or eight months, if i was traveling and i did not want to carry it with me. i started taking it with me everywhere i went. through the years i accumulated a couple banjos so i put one in every room. nd bedroom, the family room.
i always could pick it up. i cannot imagine what a hole there would be in my life without having the banjo around. tavis: this is in your trailer on location? >> yes. i learned a lot of songs waiting around for a movie to start and i have forgotten them when the movie is over. tavis: would you mind picking that up? you have a few of these. you told the story about this particular banjo. i want to have you demonstrate what this is. >> this is a 1927 gibson. they used to play these on stage in the 1920's and they were four-stringed banjos. i cannot play because it is not
in the right tinning. there were showpieces. it was the only instrument loud enough to get over the sound of the orchestra. they were very popular. they were made with four strings. almost -- all the five-stringed banjos you have were originally a four-strings. it is still -- and has a beautiful tone. you hear how low they are. i have a friend who is a banjo teacher. he takes the banjo from the student and goes like this. see how loud it is? be careful. tavis: it would be hard to steal this. it has your name here. >> that will not stop it from being stolen. tavis: tell me about this.
that was c modal. i will play a scruggs style. that is something you will hear on a bluegrass record. that is a sample played in this three figure style of "foggy mountain breakdown." -- a three-finger style. tavis: when you hear this instrument, the sound that you can create with it. what turns you on about this sound? what do you like about it? >> it is a strange thing. that is what got me into the of banjo is it sound. it can be quite melancholy. surprisingly.
i am trying to think about something -- ♪ it has allowed some kind of thing going for it. there is a high energy thing. it is quite versatile in a limited way. tavis: i want to go back to the cd. what is on the cd? what did you choose to put on there? >> there ardolly parton, mary bd tim o'brien,, the great blue dressing. there were some songs that i wrote as instrumentals. some of these -- i sat down and give it a go.
i got vince gill and dolly parton to sing. "three flowers", it is called. it is thrilling when you great artists like them singer music and know they are not singing it because it is made but because they actually like it. tavis: what do you make of your work as a songwriter? >> i think the songs -- i do not want to brag. i think the songs are new for the five-string banjo. i like mostly that they are melodic. a lot of banjo playing can be extremely fast and extremely shy away. extremely complicated. to bring it back to the old melodies i grew up with. >>tavis: who is the
audience in 2009? >> absolutely no one. there is a huge country -- this is a different kind of music than that. for traditional music or an end -- in-amplified music. it is a full audience and bluegrass. there are festivals. you go to a bluegrass festival and there are 25,000 people there but they do not make news. they are not covered by the media. not like a rock concert. tavis: do you play these things? >> not really. i grew up going to fiddle contests in california. there are banjo and fiddle contests and everything -- there is a market, it is an esoteric market.
"o brother, where art thou" sold 7 million copies. tavis: we will play some footage for you, an appearance steve martin made the other night that you referenced earlier. this was your first time. >> playing in public doing more than one or two songs. i play in my stand-up act but i have never done a music show. i was tried to get my feet wet and see what it was like. it might be something interesting to do but i do not want to charge people money. this is for charity if i am not ready for a period tavis: what did you make of the experience? >> i liked it and i got a good feeling. i did not prepare any comedy but i was kind of joking around so that was fun. tavis: are you ready to charge now? >>are you there yet?
will you take my money? >> i old concert ticket of mine from the 1970's that was $10. i am stunned to hear that tickets are 100. all i have to do is sell one ticket. tavis: you could command that. the experience of having done this has convinced do -- i do not want to color the question. the experience of playing has convinced you of what, if anything? >> that music -- playing music can be a joy. my whole life i really played that night i had a band with me, the steve canyon rangers. they played with me and back me up. you can make music with the band
and it is not just like doing standup comedy alone. is a smoother feeling. an easier feeling. >> hertavis: here is a ridiculos question. if you absolutely have to give up acting, or the banjo, what goes? if you had to give it up? you could only do one of these things, which are you giving up? how stupid a question is that? >> it is not as stupid as one i had the other day. i would say i would have to give up the banjo. because i enjoy comedy so much and i love comedy. it has afforded me so much but i hope that would never happen. you need both.
the interior and exterior. this is an interior and actingi. tavis: very nicely done. the new cd, the first cd playino is called "the crow". just as wonderful and just as advertised. nice to have you on the program. thanks for bringing your state. that is our show for tonight. you can catch me on the weekends on pri or our website. i will leave you with some of steve martin's performance at a benefit for the l.a. public library. thanks for watching and as always, keep the faith. ♪
looking forward to bringing -- building strong communities and relationships. >> nationwide insurance proudly supports tavis smiley. tavis and nationwide insurance. working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. >> nationwide is on your side. >> and by contributions to your pbs station by viewers like you. thank you. >> we are pbs. >> we are pbs.