4 Songs You Didn’t Know Steve Martin Wrote

In the late 1960s, Steve Martin started appearing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and landed a gig writing for the variety show, which won him an Emmy Award in 1969. By the mid-’70s, Martin picked up another Emmy nomination for his work on Van Dyke and Company, while making appearances on Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Gong Show, and more.

A banjo player since he was 17, Martin, born August 14, 1945, was still bringing his music and comedy to the stage in the 1970s, opening up for bands like The Carpenters, Toto, and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. His 1977 comedy-bent debut Let’s Get Small went platinum, and earned him his first Grammy for Best Comedy Album. Martin’s second album, A Wild and Crazy Guy in 1978 went to No. 2 on the pop chart and featured his novelty hit, “King Tut,” which he wrote and famously performed on SNL and peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100.

“I was not naturally talented,” said Martin in his 2007 memoir Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life. “I didn’t sing, dance, or act, though working around that minor detail made me inventive.”

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Throughout the ’70s, Martin released two more musical comedy albums, Comedy Is Not Pretty! in 1979 and his 1981 release The Steve Martin Brothers, his final album before quitting stand-up comedy to focus more on music and acting.

“My act was conceptual,” said Martin, who returned to stand-up 35 years later as the opening act for Jerry Seinfeld in 2016. “Once the concept was stated, and everybody understood it, it was done. There was no way to live on in that persona. I had to take that fabulous luck of not being remembered as that, exclusively. You know, I didn’t announce that I was stopping. I just stopped.”

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In 2002, Martin won a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance for his collaboration with the late banjo musician Earl Scruggs on his 1950 song “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” A few years later, Martin expanded on his music, releasing his 2009 debut, The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo, which picked up another Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album.

Photo of Steve Martin (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Throughout the 2010s, Martin continued writing and recording more with five collaborative albums with Brickell and Steep Canyon Rangers, including Rare Bird Alert in 2011, featuring Paul McCartney and The Chicks. He also wrote the music for the 2016 musical Bright Star with longtime collaborator Edie Brickell, and Meteor Shower from 2017, starring Amy Schumer and Keegan-Michael Key.

“As the years have gone on, I’ve been more of a writer and have paid a lot of attention to storytelling, and am always looking for experience in it,” shared Martin in 2017. I do feel comfortable telling stories in a three-minute song.”

Here are the stories behind just four songs Steve Martin wrote throughout his recording career.

1. “Grandmother’s Song” (1977)

Written by Steve Martin

Martin’s 1977 Grammy-winning debut comedy-music album Let’s Get Small went to No. 10 on the Billboard 200 and featured a collection of live comedy bits featuring Martin on his banjo. “Grandmother’s Song” was written from the perspective of a more elder woman giving advice on being courteous, kind, and forgiving before singing a different tune with more absurd guidance—Be tasteless, rude, and offensive.

Be courteous, kind and forgiving
Be gentle and peaceful each day
Be warm and human and grateful
And have a good thing to say

Be thoughtful and trustful and childlike
Be witty and happy and wise
Be honest and love all your neighbors
Be obsequious, purple, and clairvoyant

Be pompous, obese, and eat cactus
Be dull, and boring, and omnipresent
Criticize things you don’t know about
Be oblong and have your knees removed

Be tasteless, rude, and offensive
Live in a swamp and be three-dimensional
Put a live chicken in your underwear
Get all excited and go to a yawning festival

At the end of the recording, Martin can be heard telling the audience “You guys are gonna be on a record. Maybe someday—not mine, of course.”

2. “Pretty Flowers,” Featuring Dolly Parton and Vince Gill (2009)

Written by Steve Martin

Martin’s 2009 debut The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo was the first album of his that showcased him as a musician. The 15 tracks also feature bluegrass musician Earl Scruggs, novelist Tim O’Brien, banjoist Tony Trischka, and Irish singer Mary Black.

On the delicately drawn “Pretty Flowers,” which also features Scruggs and and Pete Wernick on banjo, Dolly Parton and Vince Gill take turns singing the under three-minute ballad, each verse steps toward falling in love, while harmonizing together through the chorus.

If I gave you pretty flowers
If I took you out to dinner
If we walked on by the river
Would you invite me in

If we sat down on the sofa
If I told you funny stories
If I moved a little closer
Would you put your hand in mine

If I told you, you were lovely
If I put my arm around you
If I touched you on the shoulder
Would you rest your head on mine

If I took you out to dinner
If I moved a little closer
And I touched you on the shoulder would you make love to me

The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album.

3. “Best Love,” Featuring Paul McCartney (2011)

Written by Steve Martin

In 2011, Martin released his first in a series of collaborations with the North Carolina bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers with Rare Bird Alert. The album, which topped the Billboard Top Bluegrass Albums chart, closes on a rerecording of “King Tut” with the band and also features guest vocals by The Chicks on the ballad “You.” Paul McCartney also sings on the mid-tempo “Best Love.”

“I wrote all the songs on this record—and by the way they’re all terrible,” joked Martin. “Actually the idea of having Paul McCartney sing a song that I wrote has to be one of the most exciting things of his life.”

Things were nice in California
Loved our trip out to the coast
Did I say your mother phoned us
You are my best love

You look in good in fancy dresses
Wish we bought that one that day
I even like your old ex-boyfriend
You are my best love

Hardly heard and hardly spoken
Hard to talk when things are rough
Can’t you hear my heart is saying
You are my best love

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Martin was urged by SNL producer Lorne Michaels to “impose” more on his friends when making music. When thinking of “Best Love,” Martin had McCartney in mind, but they were far from friends. “I met Paul McCartney maybe three times in my life, so I can’t really call him a friend but Paul doesn’t know that. He might think we’re friends as he meets so many people he can’t remember who his friends are.”

After sending a “modest” demo of the song recorded on his phone to McCartney’s assistant, Martin didn’t get a response for a month. McCartney eventually obliged, and when it was time to record, he didn’t realize that Martin wanted him to sing the entire song.

“Paul thought he was going to back you up and I thought ‘What, with all the emails [did] I mislead him or something,’ and I said “Okay but I’m a terrible singer.” Then I got an email back from Paul and he said “Well as a little-known band from Liverpool once said, we can work it out.”

4. “Won’t Go Back” with Edie Brickell (2015)

Written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell

In 2013, Edie Brickell and Martin released their first collaborative album, Love Has Come For You,” which included two songs—”Sun’s Gonna Shine” and “When You Get to Asheville”—that appeared in their 2014 musical Bright Star. By their second album, Martin and Brickell wrote the entirety of So Familiar together, including the slower-paced “Won’t Go Back” on not repeating past mistakes in love.

Got my four wheels on the pavement
If you look, you’ll fine me gone
Got the pedal to the metal
My radio, my radio on

Got you in my rearview mirror
I intend to keep you there
I’m never going
I’m never going down that dark road
The road you’re on

I been there, I done that
I’ll go anywhere, but I won’t go back

 “The whole thing was a giant accident that, in our view, turned out to be very rewarding to us,” said Martin of his musical partnership with Brickell. She added, “I was shy around him. When I first started singing in front of him, I didn’t want to sing anything that he didn’t like. And I didn’t know what he liked.”

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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