Want to make Bob Martin wince? Call him a folk singer.
Martin prefers “singer-storyteller,” a designation that more aptly describes the plot he’s cultivated for himself in the vast landscape of American music. And while he’s established a musical legacy telling keen stories about other people—and all sorts of people at that—Martin has quite the story of his own.
Born in 1942 in Lowell, Massachusetts, a mill town situated at the confluence of two rivers and whose textile mills played a major role in the American Industrial Revolution, Martin’s father was a house painter who always brought music into the household, usually in the form of his clients’ discarded instruments.
While working summer jobs in the old mill buildings along the river, Martin wrote his first songs—1950s doo-wop rhythm ‘n’ blues tunes. After reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac (a fellow Lowell son), he was inspired to travel the U.S. He hit the road after high school graduation, playing harmonica on the streets and meeting all sorts of people. (He’d also have a chance meeting and short conversation with Kerouac himself outside a bar on Moody Street in Lowell.)
In the early 1960s, Martin returned to Massachusetts, settling in the Boston area to attend Suffolk University. As an undergraduate, he majored in business and minored in education, participated in the anti-war movement, and wrote poetry all the while—in May 1966, one of his poems won first prize in the Suffolk Journal Literary Contest.
He got serious about songwriting in his mid-20s. Martin’s wife had given him a guitar to prod along the songwriting, and he started performing in now-storied Boston and Cambridge folk scene spots like Nameless Coffee House, Club Passim (now Club 47), and other venues. Martin—and his songs—developed a following. He taught economics and business math at an area high school by day and played music by night.
By the early 1970s, singer-songwriters were all the rage on the national music scene—Bob Dylan was hot, and James Taylor, another Massachusetts-bred folk songwriter, had a massive hit with Sweet Baby James on Warner Bros. Every record label was on the hunt for the next Dylan, the next Taylor.
On a whim, Martin answered an ad in the Boston After Dark alt-weekly, one placed by two record producers looking for a songwriter. The collaboration led to a performance at Gerde’s Folk City in Manhattan’s West Village, where Martin was, as they say, “discovered” by RCA/Victor label reps who signed him to a two-record deal.
Not long after, RCA brought Martin back to New York City to play a showcase with other artists debuting new material. Martin played his set to a captive audience, and stepped off stage to make room for the next artist. It was David Bowie, in one of his early appearances embodying his now-legendary Ziggy Stardust persona.
In 1972, Martin traveled to Nashville to record his debut record, Midwest Farm Disaster, with the help of Chet Atkins and many accomplished studio musicians, including session drummer Kenneth Buttrey, who played on Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.
Most critical writing on Midwest Farm Disaster (and all subsequent records) focuses on the quality of Martin’s lyrics and his gift for masterful storytelling. In a profile for Fast Folk magazine, Charlie Hunter writes that in Martin’s songs, “you’ll meet a cast of characters…a midget wrestler and her producer/lover, a horse named Rasputin T. Van Jones, a blind woman street singer, a dying railroad bum, an Appalachian worker who migrated to Cleveland to try to strike it rich, and countless assorted winos, losers, drifters, dreamers, farmhands, cons, ex-cons, half-breeds—in short, America.”
“His characters possess a vitality, a hope, a humanness that is extraordinary, given the rather desultory surroundings in which they find themselves,” Hunter continues.
Upon the release of Midwest Farm Disaster, Martin toured the U.S. and Europe to promote the record. And he had a lot riding on it: He had a wife and two children to support. But he quickly learned that landing a record deal doesn’t always mean success. The RCA/Victor executive who’d signed him fell out of favor at the label, leaving Martin with little booking and marketing support after Midwest Farm Disaster was released, and the label dropped Martin before he could record a second record.
“If he had been given the right opportunities, and received the right breaks, he could have been bigger than Dylan,” said WBCN Boston disc jockey Charles Laquidara.
By 1974, Martin had grown disillusioned with the music business. The advent of disco in combination with the meteoric rise of rock bands like The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and his RCA/Victor labelmate David Bowie (whose The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was released in 1972, the same year as Midwest Farm Disaster), meant that label execs with dollar signs in their eyes were more interested in glam glitter and platform shoes than worn denim and work boots.
According to Lowell historian Richard Howe, Martin had a hunch it’d be this way as soon as Bowie took the stage that night in New York. Martin was through with the business side of the music industry, but he wouldn’t, couldn’t, leave the art behind.
He used the money from his record contract to buy a farm in Monroe County, West Virginia, and moved there with his wife and their two children. They had no running water, no electricity, and Martin farmed the land, brought in the hay with a team of ponies. There, he kept writing songs and helped establishe the Mountain Heritage School, a program that brought traditional Appalachian musicians and craftspeople into area high schools to share their skills and cultural heritage with younger generations. All the while, he never stopped writing and performing. Sitting in with friends and some of the area’s stellar Appalachian musicians.
Martin released his second record, Last Chance Rider, on the June Appel label, in 1982—10 years after his debut. At the time, the album was named one of the top three folk albums in the country by the National Association of Independent Record Distributors.
Martin and his family returned to Lowell, where he started playing shows and touring again, while he worked various jobs to support his family: as a schoolteacher, a carpenter, college instructor, house painter, and taxi driver, continuing to write music, while tucking some money away, bit by bit, for his next studio record.
Martin released his third record, The River Turns the Wheel, on his own imprint, Riversong Records, in 1997. Just like his previous records, it was well-received by both critics and fans; “one of the most honest and truthful records it has been my pleasure to listen to,” wrote Arthur Wood of the record in Folk Roots Magazine. The River Turns the Wheel proved to be Martin’s most commercially successful record, reaching number 16 on the Gavin Americana Chart. He continued to play regional shows, and followed The River Turns the Wheel up with Next to Nothing in 2000.
Martin’s written hundreds of songs throughout his lifetime, and there’s always been a place for them. He’s shared stages with musical icons like Richie Havens, Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, John Prine, and others. He’s opened for Merle Haggard, and played the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Virginia and won numerous awards. It’s because he’s one of the best.
Before playing The Calaveras County Mountain Aire Festival in 1998, Martin played a gig at The Paradise Lounge in San Francisco. Relix critic J.C. Juanis caught that intimate set, and in his review of it for the magazine called Martin “one of the finest practitioners in the fine art of traditional folk music,” an artist who “has certainly refined the art of songwriting and offers a live show that is not to be missed.”
Longtime WUMB FM-Boston DJ and Boston radio mainstay Dick Pleasants says of Martin, “his lyrics are powerful, direct, and moving. This is a writer that has style, economy of lyric, and the ability to tell a good story.”
“He is really one of the genius songwriters of the Northeast,” says Dave Palmatier, another WUMB FM-Boston disc jockey.
Decades after its release, Midwest Farm Disaster is “generally acknowledged as [Martin’s] masterpiece, and perhaps one of the finest singer songwriter albums ever,” noted a March 2008 risingstorm.net review of the record.
“I never expected the long-term reaction to Midwest Farm Disaster,” Martin said in 2007, upon the 35th anniversary of the record’s release. “I get email from younger guys who name it as a musical and political influence. Chet Atkins told me during the making of the album that it was before its time in terms of the political message. Now it’s getting attention from bloggers and critics as an ‘important record.’” The late indie folk guitarist and songwriter Neal Casal once wrote Martin a fan letter telling him he was so “blown away” by the song “Captain Jesus” that he pulled over while driving to stop and listen to it.
But Martin’s never written for the critics. He’s written for his listener, for himself. He’s written for the everyman, songs that are funny, sarcastic, solemn, serious, heartfelt, melodies carrying lyrics that till and traverse the varied landscape of life experience.
More than once, Martin pulled up to a gig to find a fan standing outside, record in hand, hoping for a signature (He’s always signed happily; the delight never wore off). After shows, people would frequently came up to Martin to share stories of their own, to tell him that his songs reminded them of their grandfathers, next door neighbors, friends, lovers, their own life experience.
For Martin, sharing those stories and knowing they’ve heard has been more meaningful than any amount of commercial success. “The most important thing in my music,” he told Fast Folk’s Charlie Hunter, “are the words.”