If someone says “banjo,” what comes to mind? Many people may flashback to Deliverance and start looking around for horny rednecks; the relative few who respect that fundamental instrument of bluegrass might think of masters like Earl Scruggs. But does anybody think of Steve Martin? If not, maybe they should. Martin is pretty good, even winning a Grammy in 2001 for Best Country Instrumental Performance. Thus, when he released The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo (40 Share Productions) last year, it wasn’t a surprise to his many fans.
What was surprising was how melancholy the album is. There’s no reason to expect an album full of novelty tunes. “King Tut” for banjo? No, thanks. But despite the wealth of up-tempo tracks, none of the songs on The Crow seem to resonate with any joie de vivre. Even the amusing “Late to School,” an original Martin composition, seems a little muted in its execution. Some of that may be in Martin’s musical demeanor—there are no solos or virtuoso moments here, just a man who is pretty good at pickin', jamming with a lot of talented friends, including Scruggs and Dolly Parton.
Granted, bluegrass is pretty good at mournful, but that’s not all there is to the style. Hard to tell with The Crow, though. The speedier tracks zip along without ever quite taking off, although “Pitkin County Turnaround” and “Wally on the Run” make good stabs at it. Perhaps starting the album with the sadly nostalgic “Daddy Played the Banjo” was a mistake: It’s an excellent song, but it starts the album off on a downer from which it never really recovers. Not even the sweet sentiment of “Pretty Flowers” or the Celtic flavoring of “Freddie’s Lilt” can kick the emotion quotient up a notch.
Overall, The Crow is a good album, but it never shakes loose of melancholy and takes wing. If that’s all you want from bluegrass, have at it, but Martin and his stellar friends are capable of a hell of a lot more.