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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Steve Martin may be one of the funniest guys on the planet. But when it comes to talking about the banjo, he is deadly serious. Eerily so.
Martin, 64, has been playing the banjo since he was a teenager, and is a respected practitioner in the bluegrass community. He has just begun his first concert tour to promote his critically acclaimed album "The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo," which features vocal assists from such A-listers as Dolly Parton and Vince Gill.
The album marked his first appearance on the U.S. charts since a comedy/banjo hybrid in 1981. It won two prizes -- for graphic design and the inevitably funny liner notes -- at the International Bluegrass Music Awards in Nashville on Thursday.
Most of the tracks are instrumentals, and Martin wrote all but one of the 16 cuts, some of which date back to the 1960s.
"I can't imagine what my life would be without the banjo," Martin told Reuters.
The dry-witted comic might have been expected to follow the admission with a punchline and an imaginary drum rimshot. But there was none.
Instead, he explained what drew him to an instrument often associated -- for better or worse -- with the theme song from the "Beverly Hillbillies" TV show and the inbred southerners in the movie "Deliverance."
"I just like the sound of the banjo. I can't explain why. It was the big bang for me. I really like what it can do. I like its range. I like that it's acoustic."
Which begs the questions: did he take the wrong career path? Would he have made a better banjo player who happened to be funny? Negative.
"I was always so interested in vaudeville that I don't think I ever would have taken it up as a profession," he said. "I was really interested in comedy and the banjo was this sidelight that I'm so fortunate I have."
Martin quit the standup circuit 30 years ago to focus on films and writing. His tour provides a rare opportunity to see the comic in a different milieu, with plenty of one-liners thrown in. To wit:
"This is a song ... Well, that pretty much says it all."
"I wrote this song when I was on vacation in St. Bart's, so I have about $35,000 invested in it."
"This song is a sing-along but it has no lyrics, so good luck."
"This next song expresses sadness and melancholy, like the look on my agent's face when I told him I was doing a banjo tour."
Financial matters loom large in the album's liner notes with the observation that it is "the most expensive banjo album in the history of the universe." On stage, he tells the audience that if all goes according to plan, the tour should lose only about $12,000.
There was a lot of flying, he explained in the interview, to Nashville several times, as well as a day trip to Dublin to record Irish singer Mary Black's vocals for "Calico Train." But in reality, the cost was "not a significant number," he said.
Accordingly, he was not as anxious about the album's release as he is for a new movie.
"A failure in the record world, where I am, it's not a public thing. Whereas a film that fails is very public," he said. "This was just: Here's some songs, take it or leave it."
Gill and Parton share a duet on "Pretty Flowers." Martin sings on just one track, the novelty tune "Late for School." Multi-instrumentalist John McEuen, a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band," produced the album.
The roots label Rounder Records came on board after production was completed. Martin has already written five songs for his next album, and he relishes the opportunity to team up with superstar labelmates such as Alison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent. Or maybe not.
"I need them more than they need me," he said, evidently still in a serious mode.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte