The Steve and Edie Show

What do a banjo-playing former stand-up comic and a stage-shy former pop star have in common? Texas, for a start.
Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

“Absolutely,” Steve Martin says, sitting at a small cocktail table inside the Los Angeles music and comedy club Largo. Though it’s been more than sixty years since his family moved from Waco to Hollywood, Martin considers himself a Texan. It’s the first thing I asked. But the terse, one-word reply and what felt like a quick flash of stink eye made me think I might have opened with a dumb question. It’s easy to develop an inferiority complex around Martin. He’s an iconic multi-hyphenate: a comedian-actor-author-playwright and a formidable banjo player who in recent years has been embraced by the acoustic music world’s A-list. As it turns out, he knows his Texana too: he speaks knowledgeably about the state’s pecan production, Austin’s reputation for live music, and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art’s collection of Western paintings.

Less surprisingly, Edie Brickell also considers herself a Texan. She lives in Connecticut these days, but she was born in Oak Cliff, and in the late eighties she and the New Bohemians established Dallas’s Deep Ellum as the country’s most-talked-about post-Athens, pre-Seattle music scene. She too finds Steve Martin a little intimidating. The pair’s forthcoming album, Love Has Come for You (Rounder Records), was actually born out of that intimidation. The two musicians have been casually acquainted for a long time, through Brickell’s husband, the legendary singer-songwriter Paul Simon. Nearly three years ago, after they bumped into each other at a New York party, Martin asked Brickell to pen lyrics for a banjo piece he’d written. He played it for her live, and Brickell instinctively did what she’s done for years: on the very first listen, she hummed and mumbled gibberish, trying small phrases and random rhymes, feeling her way toward words that would eventually fit.

“He kept asking, ‘Wait, what are you singing?’ ” Brickell says. “I’m used to just singing until a song evolves, but I was so intimidated by his intelligence that I kept thinking, ‘What if he thinks what I’m singing is stupid?’ So I mumbled a lot. And ultimately I asked him if I could just record it on my own and send it back to him.”

After Brickell sent him her initial song—“Sun’s Gonna Shine”—the pair worked up another dozen tunes via email. Martin would write a banjo melody and send a recording of it to Brickell, who would write lyrics, sing them, and send the MP3 back. What seemed, even to them, like an odd pairing quickly led to places they couldn’t have gone to alone. For Martin, it was time to test the musician’s truism that the notes you don’t play can be as powerful as the ones you do—even when it comes to the banjo, which usually encourages maximal, high-velocity picking. “I worked under the premise that a banjo piece could have a lot of air in it and still be very evocative,” says Martin, who played the banjo in his seventies stand-up act and has released two albums based around the instrument, 2009’s Grammy-winning The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo and 2011’s follow-up, Rare Bird Alert. “Initially the banjo is about technique, but eventually you get to the place where you’re comfortable enough to make music rather than show off.”

Brickell, for her part, saw an opportunity to write in a more linear style than usual. The bulk of the songs on Love Has Come for You read like

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