Carolyn Martin’s first music-related remembrance was paved with calamity.
She was age 16, and her heart felt as if it had just been shattered into a million cuts. She sat forlornly at a diner, at a booth alone. Deep into the night, she flipped through the mini-jukebox on the table, settling on a slow country song about the loss of love. The connection was made: the song’s timbre and tone magically validated her misfortune.
“It was a country song which made me feel like I wasn’t the only one who was feeling this heartbreak,” recalls Carolyn Martin. “I was destroyed. But I felt as if I wasn’t the only one in the world who’d ever felt like that. I’d go to my room and play those records for hours and play the same ones over and over.”
Music became something of a counselor, somewhat of a guru, and soon Carolyn associated the guitar with many of her changeable moods. Her first guitar was inexpensive, stiff, and almost impossible to play, yet it still provided the mood enhancer she had needed until a more advanced instrument came along.
“You’ve heard the term to play until your fingers bleed? Well, I actually did. My fingers were cut up because it wasn’t a good instrument. Once my parents realized that I was going to stick with it they bought me a better guitar.”
Decades removed from these early memories, Martin has long since found her slot as a Western Swing artist. From saloons in Texas and Tennessee to European concert halls, Martin has cultivated a stage presence and a voice reminiscent of Virginia-born vocalist Patsy Cline (1932-1963).
Born in Abilene, Texas, Martin grew up under the musical influence of Cline and Hank Williams and flexible radio playlist rotations. “When I was in high school, on the radio you would never hear the same 40 songs, and it was more of a mixed bag, and not a strict format. You’d hear swing, country and western, rock n’ roll and folk music all on the same station. There didn’t seem to be such a sharp divide between genres. Bands would play everything. That spawned some of the Texas songwriters who seem to be in endless supply.”
In the beginning, influenced by this diversity, Martin experimented with “countless bands, countless styles of music,” mostly playing what she believed the audience The desired results were often questionable – at best.
“Around Texas there were places with the chicken wire across the stage, and that was a real thing. If they liked you, they would dump the beer first before they would throw the bottle. If they didn’t like you, they would throw the full bottle of beer.”
Carolyn and her husband, Dave Martin, gravitated toward country-swing, parading to the nightclubs, dance halls, and hotel lounges of Texas before relocating to Nashville, Tenn. in 1985. While several varieties of swing music have developed over the decades, Martin says that the distinction between most types of swing is minimal.
“The only difference between Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and Count Basie was the instrumentation,” Martin explains, being a member of the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame, the Northwest Western Swing Music Society’s Hall of Fame and the Western Swing Society of the Southwest’s Hall of Fame.
“Wills used fiddles and steel guitars. Count Basie used horns. It’s a little different from region to region, but it’s all Western Swing. After WWII, swing was it. People would go out on a Saturday night and dance to swing music and orchestras. Call it Gypsy Swing or Western Swing – it’s all music that makes you want to dance and tap your toes, and all about the beat.”
In 1999, Martin joined Time Jumpers, and 11 years, three CD’s, and two Grammy nominations later, she left the band to perform full time with her own troop, Carolyn Martin’s Swing Band. She said that her tight relationship with her husband Dan and bandmates continually fuels her excitement.
“I am extremely fortunate enough to have found someone whom I consider to be my soul mate,” says Martin. “We have the same value system, and we love to play music together.
Extending that to the other musicians we play with in various bands, they are all extremely dedicated and passionate musicians. When we are on the stage it’s a give and take; we are having a conversation on stage.
“The audience is also a part of that conversation. It’s just the greatest thing in life. You feel fully alive when people are enjoying it and the other musicians are enjoying it.”
Swing is a niche marketplace, Martin concedes. Yet she has been fortunate enough perform for a living for approximately 42 years. Martin is open to always learning new guitar chords or new finger placements, and her longevity is a testament to her capacity to make the sound and stage bursting with life and jam-packed with pleasure.
“People play this kind of music because they love it,” said Martin, who now calls Fort Wayne, Indiana home. “It is not based on Top 40 music. To write these songs solely to make money, that really doesn’t appeal to me. I’m at a place where I have to do it. My mind and my heart are in it, and if I don’t do this I’d go crazy.”
When everything springs – the music, the pure, gonzo joy inherent in its conception – Martin says that is when she feels like she is a successful performer. “If people aren’t moving, then you have a problem. If they aren’t dancing, then we need to go to plan B, and we need to step it up.”
Thinking beyond the musical genres, Martin says she believes in the deeper power of music as ritual, as spirituality, as a central organizing principle of life – hers and ours.
“There is quite a bit to discourage you about humanity. But there is such beauty in humanity.
Going to the Montana Folk Festival is just such a stark reminder that we are all the same. We all want the same goals. We all need the same goals. Being exposed to and hearing a new form of music that you’ve never heard before, it alters the mind. It changes you from that point forward. That’s exciting to be a part of that.”
Carolyn Martin steps it up at the Montana Folk Festival in Butte July 12-14.