Star-studded debut, 60 years in the coming.
Some debut records emerge blinking into the daylight without so much as a by-your-leave. There is no build-up, no genealogy, no backstory even. They seem to appear as fully crafted artefacts out of the imaginations of their creators, ‘as if by magic’ if you like. And then there is the entertainingly authentic and engaging “Music Man”, the debut (sort of, but we’ll come to that) LP of Nashville-based songwriter Layng Martine, A record whose origin story is littered with so many twists and turns that it should grab hold of the attention of any Americana aficionado worth their salt.
To begin, “Music Man” is a debut LP, delivered by an octogenarian who is nearly 60 years into a music career. Whilst we may be getting used to late-blooming artists, this is right at the apex of such accomplishments. Martine has recorded before, releasing a number of singles in the 60s and 70s and even completing an unreleased LP with Ray Stevens in 1971. However, he is much more widely regarded as a writer, rather than a singer, of songs. He has been a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame since 2013 and has penned tunes cut by Jerry Lee Lewis, Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, Kathy Mattea and Ray Stevens… even The Pointer Sisters. His most celebrated turn by far though is having Elvis record ‘Way Down’ as his final number-one single.
That Martine got round to recording and releasing “Music Man” is thanks in large part to his son Tucker. Martine (T), a renowned producer in his own right (My Morning Jacket, Laura Veirs, Neko Case and The Decembrists) who presented his dad with studio time in his Portland studio as a Christmas gift. In addition he assembled a company of players fit to grace the finest of independent Americana recordings, including Pete Buck, k.d. lang, Scott McCaughey, Karl Blau, Bill Frisell and Laura Veirs. The LP was actually finished over 5 years ago but is only now coming out as the first new LP on the revitalised Bloodshot Records. The Chicago label remains home to some of ‘insurgent country’s’ © most uncompromising artists such as Robbie Fulks, Lydia Loveless and Sarah Shook and “Music Man” is right in line with the spirit of these artists in the simple unfettered joy of music making that it exudes – though it does remain something of an outlier in its core sound.
There is a welcome and welcoming old-fashioned sensibility to proceedings here. “Music Man” makes no pretence at modernity, which is unsurprising for a set whose songs are for the most part over 30 years old. There is a nostalgic and poppy, Brit invasion tinge to much of “Music Man” and despite the defiantly old-school inclinations of some of its songs (‘You Don’t Need a Ring’, ‘Summertime Lovin’) listening to the record still feels timeless rather than out of time. It hums with a real loose family party vibe that allows us to ignore the occasional anachronistic blemish and just soak up the overall good sensations that it circulates. Martine (L). has maintained his irresistible zest for life and all the things that made it exciting when he was 20. The record is at once naïve, gracious and innocent, yet tremendous fun and it manages to communicate all these impressions with Martine’s (T) production creating a consistent personality for the record as a whole, yet managing to be sympathetic to each song’s individual identity.
It was Tucker Martine who selected all the songs on “Music Man” from his dad’s back catalogue. It opens with the swampy country soul of the title track, the moodiest tune on here and is followed by ‘Surabian Lament’ which lopes into view like a carnival jug band in an Am-Dram production of Tom Waits’ Frank’s Wild Years. Such an opening really gives no indication of the poppier fare that is to come. This emerges with ‘Summertime Lovin’ and ‘Little Bit of Magic’ which are powerpop of a perfect Raspberries, Turtles or Lovin’ Spoonful ilk. ‘Try me Again’ could be a Nick Lowe tune swathed in Peter Buck’s trademark twelve-string jangle and recorded for Glenn Campbell’s farewell LP. Then ‘Love Comes and Goes’ leaps out of the speakers like a breakneck lost Everly Brothers song and speeds out of earshot in barely 2 minutes.
Overall there is a swamp pop-vibe that lingers, somewhat in the recent tradition of Li’l Band of Gold or Tommy McLain whose own contemporary return came with a similarly star-studded project. Lyrically the LP is guilelessly optimistic in tone and Martine L. sings throughout with a warm true voice that is weathered and full of the wisdom of the world and his presentation of the songs is at least a match for the more feted McLain.
The beauty of the record is its innocent, almost naïve, revelling in the joy of music for music’s sake. It is evidently the work of people who see writing songs and making music as a craft with which to engage and entertain listeners rather than as a way to proselytise about the world’s injustices. “Music Man” is not trying to chronicle our troubled times or reflect wistfully on life’s experiences. It just says “here’s some music we enjoyed making and we hope you enjoy it too”. The whole experience sounds like a thoroughly joyous one, everyone is right at home and having a great time, just like the finest family get-together. This record is a small, perfectly formed thing. It won’t change the world and it wasn’t designed for that. It will brighten up your day though and sometimes that is more than enough.