|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
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.”
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.
believe it to this day what these kids did,” says
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
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
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.
family’s accomplishments are especially impressive considering
the only member who played an instrument five years ago was Elvin.
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.
sisters had a record player and they brought that thing down
with stacks of bluegrass records — Reno & Smiley,
fingers sparkle not just from the glitter on her fingernails
but also from her nimble banjo playing.
a lifelong love of bluegrass and began going to festivals, in time
passing his love of the music on to his children.
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.”
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.
grew. Every year we did a little bit more,” Elvin says.
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
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.
lead vocals and plays guitar while his father, Elvin, accompanies
him on bass.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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
“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."
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.
an audience is totally thrilling,” says Dale.
just something about making the adrenaline flow,” Elvin
a feeling there with
the guitar playing and
the bass beating along.”
the banjo,” Janice
a place to sleep
and some good food and,
in business,” says
children are home
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
For a schedule of shows or to purchase CDs log onto www.themartins.homestead.com or call (573) 378-7163.