Bluegrass star Mac Martin stayed local but achieved national fame
There’s one person not making a big deal about Mac Martin’s “retirement.”
It’s Pittsburgh bluegrass legend Martin himself.
There will be accolades and proclamations, even a visit by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who will designate Sept. 17 as Mac Martin Day prior to the final concert that night by the musician and his long-time band, the Dixie Travelers, at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, but the Brookline resident says, “I’m not making a big thing of it.”
It has been and remains a full life, says Martin, 90, whose real name is William Colleran. “I’m just slowing it down a little bit,” he says.
He does not consider it a sad time.
“I always had a full-time job as an accountant, five children, a beautiful wife, and, as opposed to a lot of people, music did not obsess me, though it is a big thing to me,” he says. “I have a great faith in God, played music in church and am quite involved there and with family.”
Martin and his wife, Jean, have been married for 63 years, and he attends Mass daily at Our Lady of Loreto in Brookline.
He has tried to keep it all in balance and in perspective.
“The only rider in our contracts with Mac when we booked him for a tour in California was that I find him a motel within walking distance of a Catholic church,” says Peter Thompson, a veteran California radio producer-host and concert presenter, who featured Martin’s classic album, “Dixie Bound,” on his first radio show in the state.
Though Martin might not be a full-time musician, Thompson says, “His immersion in and commitment to the music runs deeper than any musician I’ve ever met. Mac hears and points out the internal connections within the music and deepens everyone’s appreciation.”
Thompson is in awe of how the artist continued making “such vital music” despite having a full-time job and little opportunity to travel.
That did not go unrecognized at the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Ky., where a plaque lists the 250 musicians considered to be the founders of bluegrass music. Included on that roll of honor, with internationally recognized names such as Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, is Mac Martin.
“Mac is bluegrass in Pittsburgh. Period. Without Mac, there would be little or no bluegrass in this town. He has great leadership qualities as well as an uncanny talent to organize and keep a band together,” says Ron Mesing of Finleyville, who played dobro quite often for Martin through the years.
Martin, a World War II veteran who was in the Seabees in Okinawa, says he never sought national fame, and he believes even some of his neighbors aren’t aware that he plays music at the level that he does.
“I knew it was not meant for me. I was involved in too much locally to get up and go. I didn’t want to leave my family,” he says. “I played music in different ways (on radio, in clubs and festivals), never getting to the point of doing it as a career. I’d barely started Central Catholic High School in 1939 when I began playing. I’m proudest of the mere fact I’ve been able to play music.”
And though the time seems right to part ways with his beloved Dixie Travelers, Martin is confident that opportunities to play will present themselves, such as the Tuesday-night bluegrass jam sessions at the Starlight Lounge in Blawnox or with the musician members of his extended family and friends.
“I’ll never stop playing music,” he says.
Thank goodness for that, says California-based national recording artist Kathy Kallick, a guitarist, singer-songwriter and band leader for 40 years, who met Martin in 1990 when her tour came through Pittsburgh.
“He is the best role model for anyone in bluegrass,” she says. “The more I’ve had the chance to listen, to watch, and sing with Mac Martin, the more I’ve felt I’m lucky to be in a ‘master’s class’ for bluegrass singing. I’ve learned so much about the phrasing, ornamentation and complicated nuances of the style from him.”
Martin’s singing, she says, is strong and sweet, full of rich bluegrass inflection, “but never, ever corny.” His sound, though influenced by Flatt, Monroe and all the first-generation masters, is highly nuanced and all his own, Kallick says.
“He sings to the people in the audience, as individuals, not as a faceless blob. They feel part of the experience, not just observers,” she says. “It’s personal and also seamlessly professional.”
Though he rarely toured outside his region, Kallick says Martin made “fabulous recordings” that spread by word of mouth to a large area. Renowned musicians, including the Kingston Trio, traveling through the Pittsburgh area sought him out at places like Walsh’s Lounge in East Liberty, and his repertoire became a source for those looking for “cool and interesting” material.
“Mac’s interest in finding and learning new songs and making them his own has never waned, and he continues to introduce obscure older songs,” she says.
Thompson, who is married to Kallick, still vividly remembers hosting a party with her at the conclusion of a Martin tour on the West Coast.
“It seemed like every bluegrass and old-time player in Northern California showed up, wanting to play and sing with Mac. No one could suggest a song he didn’t know, and no one left without learning something about the music,” he recalls. “There was Mac in the middle of our kitchen, playing and singing with a rotating cast of dozens of musicians until he’d outlasted them all.”
“Someone said I might know 1,000 songs and that might not be an exaggeration.” Martin says, chuckling.
Bluegrass is no less than an American art form, he says, “and I am proud to have been a part of keeping it alive.”
Bluegrass deserves to be played “accurately, skillfully and with drive and a clean sound,” he says, noting that his band takes that approach. “It should be presented with all the beauty it deserves.”
From the early days, Martin was drawn to the poetry of bluegrass lyrics and the sound of the open-hole rhythm guitar, the mandolin and fiddle, the vocal duets and “backing it all up with a good bass player.”
“It has some pretty melodies,” he says. “The instrumental part is just like listening to a beautiful symphonic orchestra with the tone and skill of the instrumentalist.”
He found the Appalachian heritage of the genre similar to the Irish-Scottish roots of his parents.
“Some people just hear something and follow it all their life,” Martin says. “It’s gratifying and enjoyable to introduce your music to new people.”
Thompson admires the fact that the artist, known through the years for his outreach at places like Pittsburgh’s Jubilee Soup Kitchen, gives freely of himself to musicians and fans, as well as his family and community.
More than a performer, musician, band leader, recording artist and respecter of tradition, “Mac Martin is one of the finest human beings I have ever had the privilege to know and work with,” says recording engineer Wes Homner of New Castle, who engineered four of his recording projects and played mandolin with Martin.
“Some have labeled Mac as the ‘Bill Monroe of the North,’ ” Homner says. “He is much more than that. Although influenced by Monroe, he has his own style, which is ‘Mac Martin.’ While keeping to the traditional roots of Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers, Mac develop a music which is his own and just as traditional as the masters.
“Never have I seen him angry or downhearted. His love of God, family and music have kept him on ‘The Sunny Side of Life,’ a spirit which I hope continues to shine on others,” Homner says.
Martin says he has tried to embrace a spiritual sensibility as a natural part of life. “It’s all one thing; it gives you priorities,” he says. “I have no regrets. I just try to stay going. You recognize you are in your 90th year, but you don’t dwell on that fact. You just live your life and, whatever your gifts and abilities, you try to use them.”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or [email protected].