Actor Steve Martin is no stranger to bluegrass. A banjo player since he was 17, Martin has performed with the legendary Earl Scruggs, received a Grammy for his 2009 debut music album, “The Crow,” and stood on the stage at Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium to accept the entertainer of the year award from the Bluegrass Music Association for the 2011 release “Rare Bird Alert.”
But even Martin is astonished at what he and collaborator Edie Brickell have created with the new album “Love Has Come for You.”
“I knew there was some kind of story [in the music], but I couldn’t see it,” Martin says by phone from New York. “What she did with it was remarkable.”
The story of “Love Has Come for You” began with simple party chatter: Martin, a longtime friend with Brickell and her husband, Paul Simon, mentioned that he had a couple of songs that might lend themselves to lyrics. Brickell, best known for her 1988 New Bohemians hit “What I Am,” agreed to give it a try.
The music on the actor’s popular bluegrass albums, often accompanied by the Steep Canyon Rangers combo, is typically an instrumental showcase for Martin’s sophisticated five-string banjo work. But these new songs were different, Martin says.
“I have a theory that the sound of the banjo, as I have always heard it, is narrative. These tunes were evocative of something,” Martin recalls. “I had no vivid story in mind, but it was all very moody.”
Martin says one of the first songs he sent to Brickell was a spare, plucky melody (later augmented by piano and strings) that became the album’s opening song, “When You Get to Asheville,” which Brickell turned into an aching love letter from a woman left behind. When Martin heard the first two lines, he knew it was a relationship that would take his songs in a special direction.
“The song came back, and there were the opening lines: ‘When you get to Asheville, send me an email …’ and I thought, ‘This is great, we’re not writing phony songs about working in a coal mine or things that would be extraneous to most listeners. We’re writing in the present,’ ” Martin says.
The back-and-forth composing continued at a rapid pace, sometimes a song a day, says Martin, who describes opening Brickell’s email responses “like Christmas Day.”
For her part, Brickell remembers an almost effortless writing process.
“I would sing along to the melody, and the lyrics would come all at once. Then, I'd pull out my iPhone and record it,” she says in a publicity statement. “With most of the songs, it was so easy. I'd just hear the tune, and there were all these images and pictures, and all you had to do was pull the lyrics out of the air.”
The result is an album of beautifully rendered post cards from small-town America (Martin points out that he and Brickell are both Texas natives), filled with family suppers, stray dogs and close friendships, but also a haunting loneliness and the dark emotions brought on by alcoholism, suicide and various forms of abuse. Brickell layers the joy and pain in a delivery remarkably free of sentiment, assigning each song’s heroine a complicated mix of power and resignation.
Typical is the song “Love Has Come For You” (with its elusive double-entendre title), about a woman whose affair with “that man from the bank” yields a son that family members try to shame her into giving up. But as she holds him, “She heard the quiet angels sing, ‘Love, love, love has come for you.’”
Brickell says she drew on the stories of her youth: “I grew up around a real matriarchal society. My grandmother was one of 11, and she and her sisters were always at the house playing cards and casually gossiping and telling all these colorful stories of scandals and tragedies about ‘down home’ — Paris, Texas. There's a lot of that in these songs.”
Martin supports the 13 stories on “Love Has Come for You” — most under three minutes long with Martin providing only brief background vocals — with a spare, economical approach to playing that puts the lyrics in the forefront. It was both a service to the songs and a personal challenge, Martin says.
“Most people associate bluegrass banjo with playing 90 miles per hour, filling every passage with notes,” he says. “Sometimes, it’s hard to convince yourself that it’s OK to leave notes out. But once you accept that — I’ve talked to many other players about this, like Tony Trischka and Vince Gill and Earl Scruggs — some songs benefit by letting air and space in. I really believe in that.”
Martin, Brickell and the Steep Canyon Rangers will offer plenty of new music when they perform Friday night at the Kravis Center, but there will be more to the show than that. Divided in two with a short intermission, Martin performs with the Rangers, and then they are all joined by Brickell. While Martin has long since put away the arrow-through-the-head gimmickry, he says there will be laughs.
“There will be lots of comedy, lots of banter,” he says. “It’s not just a concert. I like to put on a real show.”
IF YOU GO
Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers perform with Edie Brickell
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach
Contact: 800-572-8471 or Kravis.org
Photo: Mark Seliger