An Appreciation Of The Songwriting And Music Of John Arthur Martinez
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/28/08
Recently, my wife and I spent a night at a local resort called the Canyon Of The Eagles, northwest of Burnet, Texas. As it was a week before Halloween, things were decked out in orange and black, and faux spider webs abounded. On out first evening there, after we returned from eating in Burnet, at about 7:45 pm, we saw that there was to be a small concert in front of the resort’s restaurant area. About 25 people were gathered about, the stars were out on a clear night, and a musical trio prepared to play. At the time, we did not even know the name of the group that was to play. It was obvious, however, that the music was to be country. Having grown up on Motown, then hard rock and heavy metal, I’ve never been partial to country nor classical- and certainly disco always turned me off. But, as I was aggravated by a number of life’s petty annoyances, and all that awaited us as an alternative was early sleep, a Bible meeting held in one lodge, and a gathering of senior citizens in another lodge, we decided to listen. The group was scheduled to play till 10 pm, but I figured we’d put in a polite 15 or 20 minutes, then retire.
But, after the first two songs we heard, Cherry Springs Swing and The Man Who Holds The Bow, it was clear that the lead singer- a fortyish Hispanic fellow in a black hat, was several cuts above the typical bar band singer-songwriters one meets. And, believe me, I’ve seen dozens of bar singers. Even the best of them can usually claim to be only as good as the best pop singers out there, meaning it is mere luck that separates the known from the unknown. After a few more original songs- including a terrific love song, Home Made Of Stone, the trio played several covers. They were all good, but the lead singer’s songs were significantly better. First, in the way that I can explicate, the lyrics were far superior- generally void of clichés (the expected sentiment or wording carefully inverted or subverted) in the refrains and places that are the ‘hooks.’ Secondly, the songs displayed an amazing range of musical diversity. Most pop musicians stick to power ballads, harmonies, dance beats, etc. But, this group’s songs ranged from Mississippi Blues to Bluegrass to early Rock-n-Roll to Country to Salsa to Gospel to Big Band Swing to Rock Ballads to Bluesy Rock to Southern Rock, plus a few other categories not easily identifiable- such as the silly country ditty, The Armadillo Song.
After about 50 minutes of a first set, the group broke, and I bought three of the CDs for sale, as I felt a desire to help a fellow artist of quality. After all, as a writer who cannot currently be properly remunerated for his art and its excellence, I felt a duty to help support this singer-songwriter, who I found out was called John Arthur Martinez. Not only was he a good musician, but he was a personable guy, who knew how to engage an audience. I complimented him on his songwriting, and my comments were more specific than merely, ‘I like the songs.’ He clearly appreciated my recognition, as well as my stating that his songs were better than the songs he covered. The three CDs were two self-produced CDs- Spinning Our Wheels and Rodeo Night- by Martinez’s own label, JAM Records, and the third was Lone Starry Night (all three CDs reference Vincent Van Gogh visually, musically, or in other ways), put out in 2004, by Dualtone Music Group. This CD is put out by a major label, and came about after Martinez finished in second place on the USA Network’s Nashville Star country music competition. Martinez (who professionally goes by john Arthur martinez, with the j and m in his first and last names deliberately lower case) spoke of his first time playing at the Grand Ole Opry, the same night Carrie Underwood, winner of Season 4 of American Idol, debuted. Now, having watched American Idol for years, I was familiar with Underwood, and while a very nice and attractive young woman, with a good, solid singing voice; the truth be told, she is a wholly manufactured product, not a real artist. She does not write her songs, she does not know how to emote lyrics, and she would not have won her season were she not a beautiful blond who was easily marketable. I commented to my wife that it is unfair that Martinez, in his mid-40s, has to play such small venues (the second set dwindled to a dozen listeners- including us- before it swelled back up to 25-30 by show’s end), while an Underwood never did.
Of course, at least Martinez can release his own work on small CD labels, and not be ghettoized as a ‘vanity’ musician, the way writers who self-publish are. Granted, in the Twentieth Century, there were good reasons why vanity press writers were ghettoized, for there was a clear qualitative difference between the bulk of material published by for profit publishers and vanity presses. In recent decades- especially since the advent of the internet, the big publishers have generally lowered their standards to a level of deliteracy that shows absolutely no qualitative difference, for editing and talent have no place in modern literature. The same is not true for music, for, while there are many wannabe musical artists awaiting their break, the number of wannabe writers dwarfs them, for paper and pen are still cheaper to procure than a musical instrument. Also, an Indy musical artist can hawk a tune of his to local radio and sometimes catch a break. One single tune that does well can set up a musician for life, in ways that even a single best selling book cannot.
Now, while I realize that pop music and performance art is not high art, the way literature, painting, or even Classical Music, is, the fact that this was an excellent artist moved me. A comparison to prior musicians only made Martinez stand out more, but an example was provided within the set, itself. First, the two other members of Martinez’s band, called Tejas, were also capable musicians. The lead guitar was well played by a portly thirtyish musician called Chris Reeves, and the bass played by B.B Morse (a large bearded man who did a hilariously infectious ditty called Chicks Dig Me); there was no percussion- but Morse’s excellent bass showed how utterly superfluous drums are in most modern pop music. Then, late in the second set, Martinez took a breather, and a few songs were sung by a guest musician, a guitarist named Andre Bouvier. Bouvier was from New Orleans, and was also a large man, with a typical bluesy N’Awlins singing voice. His tunes were slow, bluesy, and good. However, they were generic. In all my years in cafes for poetry readings, I’ve heard men like Bouvier come and go. This is not to say that he was in any way a bad musician nor singer, but, had he been the featured singer, my wife and I definitely would have spent only the obligatory fifteen or so minutes listening. He simply was like many other blues singers- the older male equivalent of a Carrie Underwood’s voice, or that of any obese black female gospel singer. His voice was interchangeable, as were his songs- lyrically and in their performance. And this is the point about Martinez. He stood out, not because he was merely good and competent, but because he had something different, and that difference was excellence- perhaps songwriting greatness. Furthermore, Bouvier would have been seen as a better musician than he portrayed had one not been exposed to Martinez. Too often, in these days, critics praise or overpraise mere competence or solidity as goodness, excellence, or greatness, and then can go no further when they encounter a better artist like Martinez. Thus, the critics box themselves in, refuse to revaluate (especially downward), and end up with a pantheon of artists who are mostly solid, thus effectively making the praise they offer to truly exceptional artists or works of art meaningless, for it is indistinguishable from that offered to the merely solid.
In sum, in the arts, a difference of degree does become a difference of kind, and what separates a John Arthur Martinez from an Andre Bouvier, or hundreds of other singer-songwriters out there, is the excellence of his craft for, in truth, Martinez is just a good capable singer. What sets him apart is his lyric ability, as well as a willingness to not hem himself in musically- something Bouvier did in a mere handful of songs, which were generally indistinguishable from each other, musically, technically (via his guitar playing), and lyrically. As someone not trained in musical composition, I will let the musical daring and excellence of his compositions be tackled by someone trained in that field. But, I will tackle some of his lyrics, to demonstrate why Martinez is amongst the better singer-songwriters I’ve ever heard- and this goes for not only his country genre, or those folk alive, but I would argue that his songs hold their own against the best songwriters of the Rock Era- such as Neil Diamond, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, or The Doors’ Jim Morrison, Pop music- like Burt Bacharach, Barry Manilow, or Neil Sedaka, or even the composers of Broadway- from Tin Pan Alley through Andrew Lloyd Webber or Jonathan Larson.
For example, in The Man Who Holds The Bow, Martinez (who was a poet as a child) shows a good grasp of original metaphor. The refrain is:
If I’ve learned a little
my Granddad told me so
It ain’t so much the fiddle;
It’s the man who holds the bow
Now, on a plain level, there is a good rhyme scheme going on. But, look at the very metaphor. A person who plays a fiddle (or violin) is called a fiddler (or violinist), because that is the instrument. The bow is just a larger version of a guitar pick. But, it is the bow that allows the fiddle to be the fiddle. In other words, this refrain states that what one possesses (materially or immaterially) is not as important as how one puts that in to service of others. The playing of the musical instrument thus becomes more important than the instrument. But, Martinez frames this in a catchy hook lyric that makes it very easy for a listener to get the deeper meaning the words explicate. Thus, the meaning sticks like a bur in the mind that only in thinking about it, as one hums the tune and words, does the average listener get that ‘Aha’ moment that keys one into the song’s deeper meaning, one simply beyond Martinez’s filial feelings for his kin. The rest of the song is a terrific blend of prose and poesy that references classic Western themes that prevail in much Cowboy poetry (which, while not great art, is usually much better than what passes for poetry in MFA classes). The song references June bugs, heat, rain, prayer, chores, hay, cotton, and a harvest ball. But, trust me, the closest thing to a cliché is the phrase ‘the cotton was picked,’ but since it’s a literal description, not a metaphor, it veers away from cliché.
Let me next look at the love song Home Made Of Stone, which, to any poet, evokes images of the great poet Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House. Here is the opening verse:
I can count the walls of our singlewide trailer
On the fingers of my two hands
Now, stop and look over this phrasing. There is the immediate familiarity of counting walls (with the number four in mind) and the familiar idea of counting fingers. But look at how Martinez bridges the two near clichés and subverts their potential triteness. He tosses in the image of a singlewide trailer, which, if it has any other walls, they are paper thin, and barely walls. Thus, the solidity of the metaphor of walls as definitive boundaries is rent. Now, recall that this is the intro to a love song, so we have subverted the expected which, subliminally alerts the listener to the fact that this ‘love’ is likely different from others. The metaphor implies something deeper and more self-aware, but most folks will only get that in replaying the song in their minds- and it is another catchy tune. The fact that this lyric also ends the song lends the whole idea of the home made of stone being a desideratum, for the ending is wistful and soft, musically
The refrains and hooks of the song are standard love ballad fare- things like ‘I’m your man,’ ‘Woman I adore,’ ‘want to give you more,’ and ‘lucky stars.’ But, song lyrics cannot be judged by the same exacting standards as a poem is- for a poem depends solely upon its words for music and meaning. Songs have literal musical sound to convey emotional content, therefore lyrics have a lesser haul to carry. The lyrics also have to palliate the lowered expectations of the listener, for the lull of a good tune makes a listener less willing to actively cogitate on things like meaning. Thus, good songwriters will toss in familiar platitudes to go with the flow of the music, while sticking in a few burs that force their way into meaning when the person hums the song back to themselves. It’s in the deviations from the expected, as well as the way a songwriter juxtaposes the expected phrasings in unexpected ways, that determines the quality of the lyric.
Another song that Martinez performed, and explained that he wrote after meeting a woman literally named Texas Flowers, is A Girl Named Texas. The metaphor of the state with a female is thus made plain, even if one does not know the tale behind the song’s origin. It opens:
She’s my favorite senorita on a warm fiesta night
A breeze along the Frio underneath the pale moonlight
A cattle rancher’s daughter and a river you can’t tame
Love everything about her Texas is her name
Note how I stated that the expected- like pale moonlight- has to be subverted. It is, in that we get what is underneath the moonlight is a breeze along the Frio- presumably a topographical feature (one of many used as metaphor’s for the female body of Texas). We then get a subversion of the trite bull or horse that can’t be tamed with that of a river. The rest of the song also has similar familiarities and subversions that, even as a literal poem, displays a good skill with words and how they work to form ideas and images in the audience’s mind.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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