Another time, another place
November 14, 2006
For most of his 48 years, Frank Martin knew what to do with an acoustic guitar in his hands. A mandolin, too. And stick a microphone in his face, and Martin could handle that as well.But stick a pen in his fingers, and, well, Martin thought he knew what to do.”I think, in my hubris, I always considered myself a writer,” said Martin, who will perform tomorrow night at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale. “I didn’t tell people I was a writer, but in my own heart, I wanted to do that.”Since his teenage years, Martin didn’t need to tell people he was a musician. As a 15-year-old in Colorado Springs, he was a frequent, if not exactly glimmering presence on the stage at the Tillerman Teahouse.”I got caught up in the coffeehouse thing at 15. Did lots of Cat Stevens,” said Martin, a resident of Glenwood Springs. “I’d sweat bullets and look down the whole time.”As a freshman at the University of Wyoming, Martin began to have second thoughts about his course of study – engineering – and the whole idea of college. He told his parents he was taking a year off to play music. His family – a mother who was a violist with the Colorado Springs Symphony, a father who had sung in a church choir years before, and two older sisters, one a pianist and the other a cellist – probably wasn’t too distressed by the idea. But as one year stretched to four, concern began to grow.
During those years, Martin established himself as a musician. He started in acoustic bands, switched to country-rock, crossed over to bluegrass, then traditional country. When the lack of money began weighing on him, Martin moved to the Roaring Fork Valley, enrolled in Colorado Mountain College’s photography program and became a photojournalist (including at stint at The Aspen Times from 1986-95). Many nights, however, were still devoted to music; Martin was frontman of a rock-band, Sneaker, and a guitarist with a party band, the Sirens.Early in his band days, Martin had given song-writing a go. Those efforts are not what made Martin think himself capable of writing. “I don’t think any of those songs survived because they didn’t deserve to live,” he said. Still, Martin thought he had some songs in him. He had taken some journalism courses at CMC, was surrounded by presumably competent writers at The Aspen Times, and was convinced he could put some worthy words on paper. It was just a matter of doing it.”My first wife said, ‘If you were a writer, you’d be writing songs,'” said Martin. “That threw down the gauntlet.”As it turns out, one of those very early songs did deserve a hearing. “Rebecca,” from Martin’s first, largely unsuccessful stab at writing, appears on “in the slanting light,” his first CD, from 2002.”Rebecca” was not only the sole survivor of Martin’s initial batch of songs. It also established something of a template for the second phase of Martin’s song-writing career, which has been far more fruitful than the first. “Rebecca” is a song with a specific narrative to it. It is set in an imprecise past, but sometime back when there were dowries, and people uttered lines like, “Nay, he is a poor man.” With images of rivers, horses, violence, drinking and life on the lam, it is steeped in an old rural America. It is a story of family ties and obligations.Martin has returned over and over to those themes and settings. “Memphis Train,” the opening song from his new CD, “Postmark,” dips into his family’s ancestral roots in the South. The story is rich with family history; it starts with the narrator traveling to buy a gravestone for his father, and ends with the lines, “He married Amanda / … Now 10 children carry his name.” Throughout the album, Martin peeks in on families in their kitchens and workplaces, recalls ancestors who have passed, journeys to West Texas and Louisiana. “Postmark” is dedicated to the grandfather for whom Martin was named, and three of the songs – “Killing Flu,” “West Texas Stars” and “Memphis Train” – are taken from his granddad’s life. “Hurricane Ivan” goes back even further in time, in a way; it is written from the perspective of a dead person.
“The roots of that, I think, are in ‘Rebecca,'” said Martin. “For me, I like things that are old, or timeless. The Band is a great example of that.”The Band – which was made up of four Canadians and one Arkansan – is also a fine example of singers conjuring the South from a distance. (Another band of outsiders that frequently sang of the South, Los Angeles’ Little Feat, also came up in our conversation.) Martin does have strong Southern roots: He was born in Houston, and spent a year in Huntsville before his family moved to Colorado when he was 7. His sense of the South is a romantic one, the South of songs and childhood memories, and of his visits to relatives from Waco to the Bayou.”I have experience from the South,” he said. “I have these images – and maybe they’re distant enough to be romantic to me. But they’re also very personal. And the South, in being old, has its language, the sound of that language. Not just the twang.” One of Martin’s most recent songs is based on a World War II love letter: “The language of it, I love. It’s words we use, but the way they’re put together – you know it’s the ’40s. I like to appropriate that sound, that language, that tone.”I spent time going down there, East Texas and Waco. It’s just very rich there, that great love for my grandfather and grandmother. There’s plenty of stories there.”Martin sees himself sticking to telling other’s stories, rather than his own. It’s a holdover from his days as a journalist.”I’m not really good at writing confessional, Joni Mitchell songs,” said Martin, whose day job is art director at the ad agency, the Design Studio. “Maybe someday I will.”I like stories. I learned about stories from working at the newspaper. One thing I learned is, you don’t have a story without conflict. And it’s how quickly can you establish that conflict in a story, or a song?”
The sense of familiarity in Martin’s songs runs to the way they are built. Martin admires writers who bend the rules of song-writing; he mentions Alanis Morissette as one. But maybe because he came to serious song-writing relatively late, Martin is content to stick to the tried and true.”Another side of the coin is the structure of folk and country music,” he said. “I don’t try to reinvent the structure. The architecture is there. The traditional structure – it’s easier for me to deliver the content.”On “Postmark,” Martin’s second CD, he jumps impressively from one foundation to another. “Hurricane Ivan” recalls Little Feat’s mix of Cajun and rock; “Sixteen Tons” is up-tempo Texas swing, while “West Texas Stars” slows down the swing tempo. “Always, Always” brings in a gospel feel. Martin covers many of the instrumental bases here – guitar, lap steel, mandolin and bass – but he gets plenty of help from local players. Drummer Paul Valentine, fiddler Randy Utterback and bassist Doug Whitney form the core band, with Sue Krehbiel, Chris Bank, Lisa Dancing-Light, Peg O’Brien, Roberta Lewis and Steve Cole adding vocals. Martin produced the CD, recorded in his home studio, himself, but had engineering help from Gordon Wilder. The band and most of the guest vocalists appearing on “Postmark” will join Martin onstage at Steve’s Guitars.People seem to be of the opinion that Martin’s songs deserve to be heard. Martin took third place at this summer’s Troubadour contest at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and eighth (out of several hundred) at the Folks Festival Songwriter Showcase. In 2002, he took fourth at Folks Fest. But Martin is somewhat dubious about song-writing as a competitive pursuit.”There’s a whole industry that’s preying off people like me – contests, recording gear, song camps,” he said. “It’s a business.”The writing part, however, is a way of life.”That song-writing thing is a powerful experience,” said Martin. “It’s mystic. There’s this alchemy of this song that comes out of nowhere, out of nothing, out of the vacancy of your mind. It’s the thrill of this thing, born in front of you.”
The Frank Martin Band will play a CD Release Party on Saturday, Nov. 18, at 8:30 p.m. at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale. Martin will give a solo acoustic performance on Thursday, Nov. 30, at Fin’s in Glenwood Springs.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.comThe Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.