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Rural Missouri Magazine

The family that plays together
In just four years the Martin family learns to play and makes a name for itself

by Bob McEowen

The Martin Family Band performs on the Bluegrass Stage during Silver Dollar City’s annual Festival of American Music and Craftsmanship. Shown, from left, are Janice, Jeana, Elvin, Dale and Larita. The Versailles-based family band performed seven days at the Branson theme park in September and October.

Almost as soon as Elvin Martin and his four oldest children take the stage at the Lathrop Bluegrass Festival the proud father is bragging about his kids. One by one, he introduces the children, calling them forward for a solo as the Martin Family Band works through its concert set.

Always he taps into the natural support for children and budding musicians typical of bluegrass audiences.

“She’s only been playing three years. She’s just 13 years old. On the Dobro, here’s La-reeee-tah,” Elvin says, drawing out the name as he introduces his youngest daughter who launches into a blistering attack on her resonator guitar.

If Elvin didn’t tell audiences of his children’s relative inexperience they’d never know. The four Martin children — Jeana, 18, Dale, 17, Janice, 16, and 13-year-old Larita — are all talented musicians. Together with Dad on bass, they form a tightknit musical ensemble that thunders through bluegrass standards.

“I call it straight down the middle bluegrass but we like to set it up a notch,” Elvin says. “The kids like to rock. Dad does too. I enjoy it.”

Jeana Martin plays fiddle and sings lead vocals. Like her siblings, Jeana is an accomplished musician despite having only begun learning her instrument a few years ago.

The small crowd of mostly retired people seated in lawn chairs for the Thursday performances have come to Lathrop to hear traditional bluegrass music. They, too, clearly enjoy the band’s driving renditions of old standbys like “Sitting on top of the world” and “Don’t you hear Jerusalem moan.”

“They’re doing a lot of the older traditional bluegrass songs and upping the beat and speed. They’re putting the drive in the show. That’s what it takes,” says Nelson Prewitt, a Springfield-area musician who, together with Waterloo Boy Band partner Peter Sterpe, organizes the Lathrop festival.

“You can get up there and do a great quality show and put the crowd to sleep. The Martin Family keeps them on their toes,” he says. “It’s a good, hot show.”

The Martin Family is not the only family band on the bluegrass circuit. In fact, the Martins shared the Lathrop stage with a family band from Kansas. But unlike the Farris family, whose patriarch is a veteran of the Grand Ole Opry, the Martins are entirely self-taught and none have been playing more than five years.

“All we had was instructional videos. Jeana, she had a tape and book,” says Dale, a fiery guitar player who rips through spirited solos with an ease that belies his lack of formal training.

“I can’t believe it to this day what these kids did,” says Elvin.

Gene Skinner, the festival’s announcer agrees. “I hadn’t seen them for about six months and I’m just blown away by how much they’ve improved.”

Dale, Janice, Jeana and Elvin warm up in a dressing room prior to an appearance at Silver Dollar City.

Skinner, a disc jockey who hosts bluegrass and gospel shows on a number of southwest Missouri radio stations, first saw the Martins perform when they were just starting out but has lost touch as the band traveled the Midwest.

“They were OK but like a lot of family bands they weren’t that polished,” Skinner says. “They have come a long way in two years. The timing, the singing, the instrumentals, it’s all there.”

The band is so good, in fact, it was named 2004 Instrumental Group of the Year in the Midwest competition of the Society for Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America. Perhaps equally impressive, the Martin Family placed fourth in that organization’s international band competition.

The family’s accomplishments are especially impressive considering the only member who played an instrument five years ago was Elvin.

“I was a music nut from day one,” says Elvin, who earns his living as a finish carpenter. “When I was 9 years old I had rheumatic fever and they stuck me in bed for two months. My dad’s sisters had a record player and they brought that thing down with stacks of bluegrass records — Reno & Smiley, Lewis Family.”

Janice’s fingers sparkle not just from the glitter on her fingernails but also from her nimble banjo playing.

Elvin developed a lifelong love of bluegrass and began going to festivals, in time passing his love of the music on to his children.

“Dad would take us to bluegrass festivals and he would buy these Jim and Jesse tapes and different artists like the Lewis Family. So we can credit it to our dad,” Dale says. “Ever since we were little kids we wanted to play.”

“We would stand on the couch and have a baseball bat or something and pretend we were playing,” adds Janice, the band’s banjo player.

In 1999 Dale and Jeana took their father’s instruments down from the shelf and began teaching themselves to play. Elvin accompanied them on the mandolin as they practiced at open jam sessions. “I chopped on the wrong beat and everything,” he says, recalling his awkward playing.

Inspired by a family act they saw perform at Branson, the Martins decided to form their own band. In 2000 Elvin bought an upright bass fiddle and Janice, then 12, joined the effort, taking up banjo.

“It just grew. Every year we did a little bit more,” Elvin says.

The band’s big boost came in 2002 when it won the Youth in Bluegrass band contest at Silver Dollar City. Since then the band added Larita on the Dobro and has settled into a routine of nearly constant touring.

Each week, the family returns to a relatively normal life of work, chores and home school lessons at its home near Versailles. As the weekend approaches the band — joined by the children’s mother, Verna, and two younger siblings — packs instruments and stage clothes into a 15-passenger van and heads to yet another bluegrass festival or concert.

Dale sings lead vocals and plays guitar while his father, Elvin, accompanies him on bass.

The Martins played more than 30 weekends this year. During the past two years they’ve averaged more than 30,000 miles a year traveling to shows in places as far flung as Georgia, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Louisiana.

“We did a Northeast tour up in Maine and New York and Vermont,” says Jeana, a quiet teenager who plays fiddle and shares lead vocal duties with Dale. “It was awesome up there. They really love bluegrass.”

“We brought the house down at Blistered Fingers in Sydney, Maine. They’re talking about it yet,” adds Elvin, who says he still hears compliments about the band’s performance at that festival.

All the touring is beginning to produce a loyal following. Ironically, the band may be better appreciated outside Missouri where audiences have heard a road-tested and experienced Martin Family Band.

“We played in Missouri more when they were just getting started,” Elvin says. “Some people forget that the kids are growing up. It’s going to take a little while to recognize the Martin Family not as a kid band.”

Still, the band is catching on closer to home. One diehard fan is Byron Guthrie of Kearney who says he’s seen the Martin Family perform nearly two dozen times.

“I don’t attend a bluegrass festival generally unless the Martins are playing,” he says. “They’re the finest, youngest group I’ve ever heard in all my life.”

Few musicians ever achieve fame and fortune on the bluegrass circuit but Elvin says the act pays its way as long as the kids are under his care.

“As a family it works,” he says. “But when you talk about them getting paid, that’s going to be hard to do. It’s hard for any band to make it on bluegrass."

Larita and Jeana gather their stage clothes from the family van in the parking lot of the Lathrop Bluegrass Festival. The family travels more than 30,000 miles a year to perform.

For now, though, performing has its own rewards.

“Entertaining an audience is totally thrilling,” says Dale.

“There’s just something about making the adrenaline flow,” Elvin says. “There’s a feeling there with the guitar playing and the bass beating along.”

“And the banjo,” Janice adds.

“That and a place to sleep and some good food and, man, we’re in business,” says Elvin.

Because the children are home schooled travel does not interrupt their education. Touring also offers its own educational experiences as each child takes on responsibilities. Dale navigates, Jeana organizes the song sets and Janice helps with bookings.

Besides, like the old cliche about a family that prays together, it seems that playing together has benefits as well. “I think it’s kept us together,” Jeana says.

For a schedule of shows or to purchase CDs log onto www.themartins.homestead.com or call (573) 378-7163.

 

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