Up until fairly recently, I knew Steve Martin only as a great comedian. But when I discovered the music of Paul Simon, I discovered that not only was Steve Martin a friend of Paul’s, he was actually a highly regarded musician in his own right. His instrument of choice? The banjo. Who under 50 would have guessed?
When I saw that Steve was writing and recording a new project with Paul’s wife, singer/songwriter Edie Brickell, I was very interested. After it came out, I immediately found that the record company had posted the whole thing on Youtube the other day.
It’s very rare for me to sit in one place and listen to an entire album all the way through. But for this one, I did. The music flowed together from one song to the next, almost as if it was all recorded in one sitting. It’s been a while since I heard such a cohesive project. And it’s been a while since I encountered an album that satisfied me on so many different levels.
It caught my attention from the first line—disarming, quirky, and wistful all at once: “When you get to Asheville, send me an e-mail.” Did she just say send me an e-mail? Yes she did, very simply and sweetly too. Before going further, I should pause here to praise the unpretentious warmth and richness of Edie Brickell’s voice. It has some of the qualities I appreciate about Amy Grant’s voice, but with a heavier country accent. Some feel that her understated style holds the project back from being all it could be, but she hits exactly the right tone for me. On this opening track, she immediately sets to work quietly breaking your heart. We meet a character who doesn’t demand our pity but graciously lets us share her pain, as she writes a tender letter to an ungrateful ex-husband. She reports the latest news about the dog, asks him if he’s found a new job… and leaves him with this simple chorus of proffered redemption:
Ooh, if it don’t work out
Ooh, if it don’t work out
Ooh, you can turn around
And come on back to me
You can come on home to me
Much like her husband, Brickell has mastered the art of conversational lyricism—the art of putting words in someone’s mouth that feel natural, almost casual, yet poetic at the same time. She also touches on a wide range of emotions throughout this project. Some tracks are sad, others are humorous, others eerie but compelling. Each one tells a story. Sometimes it’s a ghost story (the English folk-tinged “King of Boys”), a tragedy (the upbeat but bleak “Yes, She Did”), a comedy (“Who You Gonna Take”), a slice of Southern life (“Get Along Stray Dog”), or an honest parting of the curtain to a soul in need of love (“Remember Me This Way”).
By the first few bars of track two, I was also keenly aware of Steve Martin’s deft touch on the banjo. His playing is joyful and tasteful, rich and melodious without showing off. And he writes some fine bluegrass tunes. In fact, he wrote all the music you will hear on this album. I should also mention that he has a star-studded backup in the form of guest musicians like Esperanza Spalding, Waddy Wachtel, Nickel Creek alumni Sara and Sean Watkins, and the Steep Canyon Rangers. Sara Watkins and Rangers alumnus Nicky Sanders each contribute zesty fiddle to tracks like “Get Along Stray Dog,” “Who You Gonna Take?” and “Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby.”
However, I should note that while I found almost every track to be worthwhile, there was one in particular that I just couldn’t embrace. That’s the honeyed minor-key “Fighter,” which is… well, just think “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” bluegrass lullaby version, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of why this one’s no good. If, like me, you decide to give this album the stem to stern listen, I highly recommend skipping over this one. Also, the clever “Siamese Cat” is meant to be comical, but as you listen it becomes apparent that it’s told from the perspective of a woman dating a man with children (a daughter, in this case). Essentially, “I like your cat, I like your cowboy hat, but your daughter’s a real piece of work.” In our casual divorce culture, even a light piece like this should give us pause. And perhaps it’s especially the light songs and comedies that should give us pause, because they show how normal and run-of-the-mill such situations have become in our society. As Christians, we should keep a sober awareness that such things are not normal, but tragic, even if we can accept a healing through re-marriage in certain cases.
On the flip side, two songs that celebrate life are very uplifting, if serious in subject matter. The title track, “Love Has Come For You,” presents a sad story of a girl who’s become romantically involved with a married man (details are left sketchy as to whether it was seduction or a fully compliant affair) but decides to keep the baby. Others press her to give the child away (which considering contemporary alternatives is relatively good advice), but she opts to raise him herself. The boy grows up to bless her, and the repeated refrain “Love has come for you” takes on redemptive, deeply layered meaning as the song progresses. It’s ironic that somebody like Richard Mourdock took heat for suggesting that God could bring good out of sexual sin, even provide a blessing in the form of a child—yet here’s a secular song recognizing exactly such a thing:
The exuberant “Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby” is another song about the blessing of children, this time spinning a yarn about a foundling thrown off a train in a suitcase. The woman who becomes a mother to the boy made me think of the lady in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, also named Sarah, for whom every boy was a son and every girl a daughter.
I mentioned “Remember Me This Way,” the closing track. This one is just as heart-breaking as the first track, perhaps even more so. A woman is asking a painter to paint her “portrait” — herself and her life story the way she has always dreamed it would be. It’s impossible not to get a lump in the throat as Brickell’s voice notably breaks on this line: “Don’t forget my dear companion. Put someone who loves me by my side.” Perhaps the saddest and most profound are these few lines:
Make it a work of art
A real sight to see
Make it a work of art
A real masterpiece
How subtle and beautiful this message is—if only the woman in the story could see that she is the work of art. She is already God’s masterpiece. Some of you might have seen Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign on Youtube. This song reminded me strongly of it, and you should check out the short video here if you haven’t already.
With the caveats I already outlined, I can’t recommend this album highly enough for those mature enough to appreciate it. Not only is it a well-crafted piece of music, it’s a thoughtful collection of lyrics. Here’s a little promo vid where Steve and Edie talk about the creative process, together with producer Peter Asher. I’m so jealous of Edie when I hear her talk about how the stories just “came” out of Steve’s banjo melodies. Humph. Wish all my lyrics just “came” out like that. (Oh, almost forgot to mention—an uncooperative collar elicits a “damn” from someone during the photo shoot, so if that would really bug you…)
And as a bonus, here’s an old video of Edie with hubbie Paul and oh look, Willie Nelson on backup!