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Stan Martin tries finding his roots

By Brian Steinberg, November 2002

To hear Stan Martin tell it, country music has grown away from its roots.

"Country has always had its pop elements, and there's nothing wrong with pop, but if that's all you get, then there's something wrong with that,'' says the Boston-area musician recently by way of cell phone.

Now, he believes, Nashville is focused on putting out songs about suburbia. "I don't think most people want to hear about someone losing money on their 401K. I don't think they want to hear about soccer moms," he says. "They want to hear about how do we get through life, keep our marriage together. I don't think country music addresses that anymore."

Martin, who in September released his second disc of twangy country, "Cigarettes and Cheap Whiskey," finds himself in a strange country category. "It's not alternative enough for the alt.-country crowd," he says, "and it's not folky enough for Americana."

What it is, quite frankly, is straight-ahead country with a rock n roll stomp. The album's opening track, "(Walking On) The Wild Side Of Life," opens up with a guitar lick that evokes Johnny Rivers' "Secret Agent Man" - until the drums kick in and Martin's keening vocal starts up.

Before you know it, you're out at the bar on a Saturday night, and it's time for a dance, though Martin's lyrics have a tear-in-your-beer quality to them. Think Dwight Yoakam with a little more grit and a little less of that dreamy quality in the vocals.

"I think Chris Isaak said it best," Martin says. "They said, 'Why do you always sing about love and heartbreak?'" The crooner's reply? According to Martin: "Well, what else is out there?''

"Cigarettes" contains a dozen songs about broken hearts and recriminations, whether it be the regrets of "Not On Me," where the narrator discloses that "cigarettes and cheap whisky now decorate our home," or the "let's forget about it" ramble of "Thinking You're Wrong."

Scott Joss, a Dwight Yoakam and Peter Anderson regular, turns up to lend a hand with fiddles and vocals, while Massachusetts singer Amber Casares leavens Martin's earnest vocals.

"Everybody has experienced heartbreak, and that would be the common theme," Martin says of his new disc. "If I was going to say there's a theme, it's love and heartbreak. They go hand in hand."

Such commitment to country-music convention might seem odd from a man who grew up in the inner-city projects of South Boston, but Martin suggests his mother got him started on this particular road.

He recalls being six years old and seeing a bluegrass band pickin' away in his mother's apartment (she played in local bluegrass and country bands). "It's easy how I got into it," he says. "My first recollection was Marty Robbin's 'El Paso.' That was my favorite record."

His mother also taught him about Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and the Stanley Brothers. The influence has obviously stuck.

Martin says he picked up the guitar at about age 14, and started playing professionally with his mother at age 16. When not working his day job in the computer field, Martin played with such mainstay Boston country acts as John Lincoln Wright, The Merles and Nola Rose.

Two years ago, he decided to go on his own. "I got tired of spending my energy and money on other people."Martin takes a no-frills approach to performing, but his main goal, it seems from a conversation with him, is to perform in the tradition of some of those musicians he admires and to push his songwriting to the next level.

''I don't dress up weird. I will wear a Western jacket," he says. "My songs are not done tongue in cheek. They are done the way I expect some of my heroes would have done. If you like them, great. If you don't, I have to go back to the drawing board and be a better writer. He likes the idea of stepping out on his own, going from playing guitar for others to playing it on behalf of his own efforts.

"As far as me being everything - the lead singer, the lead guitar player and songwriter - it's definitely a new role for me. I'm definitely enjoying it, and of course, producing my own stuff is very rewarding musically on all fronts."

More is on the way. ''I'm almost done with my next album, as far as the writing. I haven't stopped," he says.

In the meantime, Martin hopes to encourage fans of country music - traditional country, not the modern-day stuff that gets played on the radio - to step forward.

"There are a lot of people who love the old-style honky-tonk or straight-ahead country. In order for record companies to take notice, I think people have to buy it instead of lamenting the fact that it's gone."

He wishes more fans would support musicians like Dale Watson, Merle Haggard and even Yoakam, who finds himself these days no longer attached to the Warner Brothers label for which he recorded for years.

Which isn't to say he doesn't like some more popular music, "Patsy Cline was very popular for her day, but still she had some great songs," he added. "I like pop, but I don't like bad pop, and I don't like bad pop with country hats on it."