My first introduction to Jeffery Martin’s music was a mistake on my part, actually. I received a physical copy of his album Dogs in the Daylight, but because it had some intense looking dogs on the cover, I was afraid to play it where my family could hear. I assumed (judging an album by its cover) it was probably harder rock music. I waited until one beautiful day when my family was out and I put the needle to the groove… and out poured one of the most amazing singer songwriters I have ever heard. It had the soul of a lion and the commanding confidence of a prophet. I needed to hear more, so I dug into the story of Jeffrey Martin.
It turns out this Washington-state-based singer songwriter is a teacher by day and has been writing songs for many years. As I scoured the internet for more details on his career, I found that he was right on the cusp. He had launched this incredible album with Fluff and Gravy Records, meaning he was making a go of music, but he also seemed to be flying completely under the radar.
So let’s take a look back at his discography and career, with a hopeful look forward to where he may be going. The first album I can find from Martin was his 2009 Gold in the Water, a nine-song acoustic album that introduces a few songs that appear in later albums. But what really emerges from the album is his characteristic fingerpicking style and slightly smokey vocals. The way the sound blends together is truly unique; while it might be easy to compare him to other singer songwriters like Bob Dylan or Jackson Browne, he is clearly forging his own path and sound here. Martin is an artist’s artist. The title track “Gold in the Water” gives a spine-tingling expression of seeking adventure. The literary images of the ocean, fire, and personal identity reflection dominate the track in a soothing way. It is what you might image Herman Melville writing if he had a guitar.
In 2012 Martin released Build a Home. Although stylistically it’s the same as before, there are some complexities that become evident immediately. Even the turns of phrase feel like they’re coming from a slightly different place. The added mandolin and female vocal help to add texture to the sound that has become Martin’s staple. The title track “Build a Home” has a strum style rather than the characteristic fingerpicking, but it still safely beds into the folk world. The dancing electric guitar and high, lonesome fiddle help to part the sonic seas for Martin’s cutting vocal. Again images of water, sunsets, and love bring out the obvious transcendentalist impulse of Martin’s style and inspiration.
Rather than provide a full album review of Dogs in the Daylight, Martin’s 2014 release, I’ll try to offer a few reflections on some of the highlights. But I don’t want to mince words; this is one of the best albums I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s poetry with a guitar. And, as I’ve written before, it reminds me of “home.” What I’ve learned in the few years since my own initial review of the album is that not only does it remind me of home, but a home that no longer actually exists. The album taps into that wonderful gift of human consciousness known as nostalgia. It’s not always beautiful or wonderful or full of joy, but when we look back on a time or a place or a person from our past, that rush of emotion is nostalgia; that is the single evocative contribution of Jeffrey Martin’s style and for that I am eternally grateful.
“I saw a picture of a picture that reminded me of myself. Like a coal fire burning underground, from up above it’s hard to tell.” That’s just one phrase, one sentiment that reflects the “salt of the earth” quality of Martin’s writing that examines and explains the world. Martin wrestles with personal identity on nearly every song. With an everyman accessibility not unlike someone like John Denver, Martin makes the enigmatic emotions of life seem much easier to understand. The track “Hard Year” is one that spoke to me on multiple levels over the past few years.
Dogs in the Daylight is a bear of an album at sixteen tracks. Sometimes a double album can feel like a lot of fluff and the inability to make cuts, but honestly each track on the album is excellent. It continues to impress me how there can be such similar sonic structures (acoustic guitar, complimentary string instrument, minimalist percussion) but so many rhythms, moods, and messages. It’s pretty remarkable. Potentially my two favorite tracks are back to back in “Slow Road” and “Hard Year.” Both are lyrically moving and sonically pleasing. They also are better listened to than written about, so enjoy them.
But Martin’s story (thankfully) does not end here. He recently finished a Kickstarter campaign for his next album. He’s been touring with the inimitable and wonderfully talented Anna Tivel. The two have captured a timeless musical chemistry that puts me in mind of the earliest days of country music, back when it felt more like folk. They sound like hillfolk singing about the things that make the hillfolk lives go around. The songs are salt of the earth and the people the sing them are of us, too. Jeffrey Martin is a national treasure. Please follow his story and fall in love with his songs as I have. You will be better for it.