Edie Brickell fires his imagination in much the same way.
"A collaboration like with Edie is where you need something from them and they confound your expectations," Martin said. "That's what I get from Edie—where you go, 'I'm so grateful for these surprising lyrics.' We're working on a musical and what I get from that is something that I couldn't have done that's better than what I expected... You're always grateful when someone else comes up with something wonderful when you're working with them."
It's a special time for Martin and Brickell. They just won a surprising Grammy Award for American roots recording. Their "Great Performances" concert, "Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell Live," is set to air on PBS this week (check your local listings) with a companion CD/DVD set that includes two hours of comedy and music with four previously unrecorded songs. And they will start a tour later this month that includes three concerts at The Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles over the Fourth of July weekend.
Martin spoke with The Associated Press by telephone recently to discuss his friendship with Brickell, his unexpected second career as a musician and a new musical he hopes will make it to Broadway.
AP: This musical odyssey you're on seems to have brought you a lot of joy in an unexpected way...
Martin: It's truly unexpected because it got me back live performing and I had removed myself from live performing for almost 30 years. So that's really unexpected.
AP: Why did you decide to stop live performance?
Martin: It's just very difficult. Doing an hour, hour and a half of live standup is an endurance test. You almost have to do it every day to stay up on it. And when I went to movies I really didn't want to travel around and do it anymore. But performing music is a way to do comedy also, but without the obligation to do a solid hour, hour and half of it. I could intersperse it with music, so it became a really good format for me.
AP: The "Great Performances" concert is your first concert recorded for broadcast. Are you happy with it?
Martin: When I look back and see that our second performance, almost our first performance together, was at Carnegie Hall, I almost cringe because the show has grown so much, and I'm really happy to get this iteration of it on videotape. I think we're just about to change it, and I don't mean deliberately, you can just tell it's about to evolve into a new form. So I'm happy to have this version of it recorded so we can move on and get some new material and kind of feel like we're not leaving behind something that wasn't preserved.
AP: What is it about your relationship with Brickell that makes it so fruitful?
Martin: You have to be able to get along with someone, though I think a lot of collaborators don't get along—I've heard stories about that. I think our sensibility is we don't want a war with someone, a personal war. We both like to get along with the people we work with, and most of the people I work with like that kind of partnership. Right now, we're in the middle of this musical, and that's mostly on my mind, and we both at a very free state in our creativity, meaning we work quickly and without inhibition. That is perfect for what we're doing.
AP: What can you share with us? Will this be a traditional musical or will there be some twist?
Martin: Well, let's put it this way: There's a new type of musical out there. I don't mean like a rock 'n' roll musical. There's sort of a new sound of a musical that's different from the big orchestra. It's got more of a pared-down orchestra with stringed instruments —in this case there will be the banjo, fiddle, cello, piano, maybe seven instruments. And the musicians will be on stage, integrated into the show. It has a beginning, middle and end and a strong story. The story's very strong.
AP: Music has offered you a new creative outlet you didn't expect. What do you think might be next?
Martin: I don't know, I really don't know. This musical is taking most of my time right now, and that'll be in place within the next nine or 10 months, I think, or at least a year. Then we'll look and see what I'm doing. You can't stay on the road forever, so I just don't know.
Follow AP Music Writer Chris Talbott: http://twitter.com/Chris—Talbott