Artist Interview: Oregon singer songwriter Jeffrey Martin brings working class music to the Rust Belt

Standing in front of the Rialto Theater in Akron, Ohio, I awaited the rental car of Jeffrey Martin and his duo partner, fiddle-playing singer songwriter in her own right, Anna Tivel. Martin parked and walked over, tall, bearded, with working man’s hands and a firm handshake. It was nice to finally meet this man who had spoken such truth into my life from so many miles away. We wandered a bit before making our way to the most logical place for an Americana interview, a Chinese restaurant.

We cracked open the first round (sensible soft drinks, thankyouverymuch) and I stammered into my first set of questions. It was all I could do to avoid saying “long time listener, first time caller, love the show man.” I wasn’t exactly star struck to sit with someone my own age with somewhat similar backgrounds, but I was at very least impressed with his style and persona. He was kind, articulate, appreciative, and perhaps unsurprisingly… almost poetically wise with his phrasing, even in casual chat.

I asked about his background. Up to that point my research showed him as a fully grown man in his 30s, seemingly spawned into the world with a guitar and book of sad songs. Where had he come from? I needed to know. Martin grew up in Oregon, “son of a preacher man,” who went off to college. It was there in college that he began playing guitar first for fun, then as back up for open mic nights for a friend, and finally performing his own music. Humble beginnings, right? He went to a Josh Ritter concert and sat up front, mesmerized by the music. That began a life long love of both performing folk music but also the songwriting process.

Martin’s big break came, much like the iconic John Prine, after being “discovered” at his weekly gig at a place called Lucky’s in Eugene, Oregon. He was discovered there and was given an opportunity to open for the North Carolina folk singer David Wilcox. The huge draw to the Wilcox show helped jumpstart Martin’s career, allowing him to get regular gigs along the West Coast.

In one of the best stories I’ve ever heard from a songwriter, Martin described his next “big break” in music. It was a songwriting competition based in New York City. There were a few hangups with it, though. One, it was across the country and you were required to attend to be eligible to win and two, artists had to sign away their songwriting for a period of time. It seemed like an awful deal. He signed. Not knowing if he won the competition or what he played, I sat raptured by the story. Martin’s storytelling, aparently, does not stop with guitar in hand. Then, after talking about the great gig and the people he met there, he deadpanned, “and I got second, so it was great.” He didn’t have to sign away any music rights, he still gained great exposure outside of his home market, and the experience makes for a great story. Everybody wins.

I could talk about Martin’s personable style, the way he listens and relates to the interviewer, or even the way he talks about his songs like a proud papa. But honestly, the thing that will stick with me most about Martin is the way he talked about his other life as a teacher. Although his lyrics echo his life working construction and other manual labor jobs, it’s his Master’s degree in teaching that shapes a lot of how he sees the world. Having worked with students who needed their own father figure, Martin clearly drips with the authenticity of a great teacher. He described the “nobility” of that work and contrasted it a bit with the self promotion (and sometimes self indulgence) of the music industry. The way he talked about his love for literature was interesting, but the way he longed to help more students stuck with me. “I miss it every day” he said. May he see the same resolve in the way so many of us appreciate his music.

It was a great privilege to tell Martin about my favorite tracks of his, “Hard Year” and “Poor Man” where he told some of the back story on those songs. Not surprisingly, they come from his own labor and financial experiences. “Hard Year” was in the wake of a long relationship, dealing with grad school, “laying stone and playing music.” What a candid response. The story of “Poor Man” might hit too close to home to actually share, but let’s just say Martin’s heart for poverty is evident; don’t let the folksy charm fool you. Martin is conscientious and bright, full of thoughtful analysis of themes far beyond standard three-chord fare.

At the risk of going on one story too long, I have to talk about Martin’s experience writing his iconic track “Billy Burroughs” about the Beat writer William Burroughs. It was born like most good stories from the challenge of an excellent professor. The teacher encouraged Martin to look into the backstory of the writers he was idolizing as a bright-eyed college student. In that research, including transcripts from the trial of William Burroughs, Martin found some despicable men. Burroughs’ drunken (and accidental) killing of his young wife is the substance of the song. Watching Martin talk about that experience from research through the song, even talking about how people receive the song, shows his engagement with his art. It’s a beautiful melody with a horrifyingly tragic message.

Martin’s stage performance is absolutely captivating. Following his fantastic opener Anna Tivel, Martin walked to the stage with a drink. His guitar style sounds record-perfect and his vocal was expressive and eloquent. If you’ve ever seen videos with him, you’ll know he likes to go fully into the music allowing his facial expressions to say almost as much as his words. Seeing him perform live allowed me to see his full body movement and engagement with the music. When his harmony vocalist and fiddle accompaniest Anna Tivel joined the set, the music moved easily and comfortably. There’s so much more I could say about the performance, but really I would encourage you all to just go hear him live. He is a treasure of a performer.

Since one good turn deserves another, I have to publicly thank Martin for the interview. I scrambled as many notes as I could and, honestly, some of what he said was so good I will just have to keep it to myself. He was as approachable and wise in the interview as I had hoped. His candid style, even extending to an after-show bar chat, was a breath of fresh air in what can be an extremely suffocating music business. It’s my hope that One Go Around continues to find more listeners, that Martin can keep touring the world, and that we can all enjoy his next salvo of thoughtful, insightful, poetic folk music. One thing he said from the stage will stay with me forever. “People find a lot of joy in a sad song.”

Photo credit: Jeffrey Martin IG

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