MODESTO -- Steve Martin long ago proved that he's more than a "wild and crazy guy." He's not only a comedian and a famous movie actor, but also an author, playwright, producer and composer.
Oh yeah, and he's a highly skilled banjo player. He and the Steep Canyon Rangers will perform a sold-out show of bluegrass and comedy Thursday as the 2012-13 season kick-off at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto.
Martin, 67, is well aware that most audience members buy tickets to his concerts because of his fame as a comedian rather than their deep appreciation for bluegrass. At a recent performance in Canada, he compared his concerts to "an evening of Jerry Seinfeld playing the bassoon -- a must see."
But Graham Sharp, a banjo player in the Steep Canyon Rangers, said Martin really is good. "One of the best things about him is that when he's playing you recognize it," Sharp said. "It's very much his own style. He's a self-made banjo player. He's such a great writer. His voice really comes through in the songs and also in the banjo."
Martin won a 2010 Grammy Award for best bluegrass album for his first all-music album "The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo."
Lynn Dickerson, executive director of the Gallo Center, said she always tries to get a big name for the season opener but was a little hesitant to book Martin at first because she worried audiences wouldn't like the emphasis on music. But she said other venues who have hosted the show, such as the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts in Davis, said audiences loved Martin's performance. "He is very funny and interjects a lot of humor," Dickerson said.
It wasn't easy to get Martin pinned down once Dickerson decided she wanted him.
"I had an offer in to him for over six months before I had an answer," she said. "I lost two or three other great acts holding dates trying to get him. By the end I was getting so cranky with him because he wouldn't give an answer. In the end we got him and it sold out super fast."
Martin got his start in show business working as a writer for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" in 1967. He went on to write for "The Sonny and Cher" show and to make appearances on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" and "Saturday Night Live." He recorded four comedy albums from 1977 to 1981, winning Grammys for "Let's Get Small" and "Wild and Crazy Guy."
His film career started in 1979 with his starring role in "The Jerk." He went on to act in numerous other films, including "Father of the Bride," "Parenthood," "Cheaper By the Dozen," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," "Leap of Faith" and more.
He wrote the play "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" in 1993, published the novella "Shopgirl" in 2001 and contributed numerous stories to The New Yorker Magazine. He has more than 3 million followers on Twitter and recently released the book "The Ten, Make That Nine Habits Of Very Organized People. Make That Ten: The Tweets of Steve Martin."
At the Gallo Center show, Martin and the band will play a lot of songs off their first album together -- 2011's "Rare Bird Alert," which features guest appearances by Paul McCartney and the Dixie Chicks and was nominated for a Grammy Award for best bluegrass album. The album includes a bluegrass version of Martin's 1970s hit song "King Tut."
The Steep Canyon Rangers met Martin several years ago through their friendship with Martin's wife, Anne Stringfield. They knew Stringfield years before she and Martin married in 2007 and used to stay at her apartment in New York City when they were in town. The musicians were star-struck when they first met Martin. "We were fans," Sharp said. "Since then we've got to do so many things and meet a lot of people."
The band already had success in the bluegrass world, leading Martin to joke that the group isn't his band, he's its celebrity. The Steep Canyon Rangers were thrilled to work with Martin and made sure they learned all his songs before their musical practice session, which impressed him. "He was excited to have a band that really knew his stuff," Sharp said.
For "Rare Bird Alert," the band helped arrange the songs and then they all recorded it in the band's hometown of Asheville, N.C. "It had a very relaxed feel to it," he said.
The collaboration has won the respect of the bluegrass community. Last year, the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards gave Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers the trophy for Entertainer of the Year. Cybergrass, a bluegrass Web site said the team performs bluegrass to a larger audience than any other group in the genre and has introduced more people to the art form.
"Within the bluegrass world, we were fairly well established when we met Steve," Sharp said. "In the wider world, it has definitely been a boost to us. Musically, it's been really good for us to stretch out -- to see where our strengths lie as a band."