Advertisement

Country’s Comeback Player of the Year

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mary Martin is such a colorful figure around the country musical capital that it’s a tossup whether the first thing you’ll hear about the record executive is that she once managed Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison or that she once punched out a loudmouth in a music club.

Wes Vause, director of media marketing for the RCA Nashville label, can fill you in about the latter.

“I had just started as an intern here when Mary stopped me in the hall and introduced herself by telling me about the time she couldn’t hear the music in a club because this woman behind her was talking so loud,” Vause recalls.

“Mary said she asked the woman to be quiet, but it didn’t help. So Mary turned around again and said, ‘Would you please just shut up.’ When she realized the woman wasn’t going to stop talking, Mary just turned around and decked her.”

Advertisement

Martin’s music credentials are equally striking.

Besides helping singer-songwriter Cohen get his first record contract and then introducing Bob Dylan to the Band in the ‘60s, she managed Morrison briefly and signed Emmylou Harris to Warner Bros. Records in the ‘70s. She also worked closely with Clint Black and Lorrie Morgan at RCA Nashville in the late ‘80s. Other acts she’s managed or worked with along the way range from Vince Gill to cult favorite Rodney Crowell.

Given those credentials, it’s hard to imagine that Martin spent most of the last decade on the sidelines here, at least partially a victim of sexism in male-dominated country music, many believe.

“For years, everyone talked about the old boys network in town and about how young blood would change things as far as sexism, but in many ways it’s just turned into a new boys network,” says Holly Gleason, a leading Nashville publicist whose clients include Brooks & Dunn, Patty Loveless and Kenny Chesney.

Advertisement

“The truth is Mary Martin is the best at what she does, and that’s sometimes the worst thing that can happen in Nashville, because when you have strong opinions about what you should be doing at a label, it makes lots of other people uneasy--especially if you are a woman.”

But Martin is back on the scene in a big way after co-producing a Hank Williams tribute album that goes into Wednesday’s Grammy ceremonies with five nominations. “Timeless,” on Mercury Nashville, is up for best country album; Sheryl Crow and Lucinda Williams are nominated for female country vocal and Ryan Adams and Johnny Cash are nominated for male country vocal for their contributions to the collection.

Her work on the project led to her being named vice president of artists and repertoire at Mercury Nashville Records. Even if “Timeless” is shut out Wednesday night, its success has reestablished Martin as a key figure in the music industry here, a reminder that it’s not just artists who are bolstered by Grammy recognition. Record executives too can benefit.

No one is happier than Martin.

Advertisement

She’s so pleased to be back in the business that she seems to be floating on air as she strides into her office at Mercury Nashville Records in the heart of Music Row. She’s been at the label for months, but her office walls are still bare, a rarity in a business where platinum albums and celebrity photos are the rule. When a photographer stops by to take her picture, he has to take her across the hall to find an interesting backdrop.

Martin is just too busy to bother with her surroundings, and she’s so enthusiastic about her work that her eyes frequently twinkle while she talks about favorite artists or songs. The only sign that someone actually uses the office is the pile of tapes and discs, the tools of the music trade, on her desk. Co-workers stop by regularly for a dose of Martin’s enthusiasm the way others might turn to a morning cup of coffee.

As vice president of A&R;, Martin searches for new artists and works with publishers and producers to find songs for the label’s singers.

“This whole ‘Timeless’ project gave me enormous amounts of joy,” she says. “It truly validates my ability to deliver something that is of merit, and it means that I get a chance to exercise my opinions again, a chance to be passionate again about music that I love.”

Advertisement

The Canada native has loved songwriting ever since the mid-'60s. She fell so in love with such Leonard Cohen songs as “Bird on the Wire” and “Suzanne” that she went into the management business just so she could work with him.

“When I went into the business, people said I was too young,” she says, closing the office door to stop the stream of cohorts. “People would also say, ‘You’re not a musician or a songwriter. Why do you think you know anything about music?’ Well, I knew my instincts were good and I knew I cared passionately about music.”

After working in A&R; at Warner Bros. Records for much of the ‘70s, Martin moved to RCA, where she did the same job. She and the label severed ties as part of some executive changes around 1991. While she was trying to figure out her next move, tragedy struck. Martin was raped by an intruder in her home, and it took time to mend emotionally. As part of that process, she became active in a victims’ rights organization.

“In the case of rape, your spirit is murdered, and it’s important to learn that if you don’t talk about it, you don’t heal,” Martin says. “After I got involved in programs that offer counsel for rape victims, I called on a lot of my pals in the music industry to sing at some of our events, and they responded. Vince Gill was always at my side, along with Gretchen Peters and Kim Richey and Patty Loveless. It was an amazing period.”

Advertisement

It’s likely that if a male former executive had gone through some trauma, such as drug rehab, his colleagues would rally around him and find him a new job. But Martin was virtually forgotten by the industry for much of the decade.

She doesn’t waste time speculating on how much of a role sexism might have played in it or how much her outspoken manner, or ageism, may have contributed to the lack of offers before Luke Lewis, chairman of Mercury Nashville Records, signed her last year. And there is lingering sensitivity about the age issue.

“No,” she says sharply when asked to tell her age.

There was a time when women over 30 routinely declined to give their ages, but it’s surprising when someone as sophisticated and as successful as Martin does so today.

Advertisement

Martin tries to make a joke of it: “Just say I’m 95.” But it’s a serious point.

When pressed, she refuses to budge. “I’m absolutely certain age hurts you in the music business,” she says.

Lewis approached Martin two years ago with the idea for a Williams tribute album. He had done such an impressive job at Mercury Nashville, where he was instrumental in launching the career of Shania Twain, that he was rewarded last year with his own label. Lost Highway, a joint venture with the Island Def Jam Music Group, is off to an impressive start with “Timeless” and a roster that includes critics’ darlings Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams and Willie Nelson.

Lewis won added applause around town for his bringing Martin back into the business.

Advertisement

“I wasn’t trying to be a good guy in hiring Mary,” he says in a separate interview. “The fact that she was a woman didn’t have anything to do with it. I just figured that anyone who signed Emmylou Harris and worked with Van Morrison is someone I’d want on my team. You don’t lose that kind of great ear for talent.

“As soon as I met her, she was like a breath of fresh air. I saw her light up when we started talking about the Hank Williams album and we started drawing up a wish list of the artists we wanted on it. The more I saw of her, the more I realized I wanted to keep working with her beyond this project. I wanted her to help me find new artists.”

Like many women in country music, Renee Bell, vice president of A&R; at RCA Nashville, cites Martin as a role model. “She has been a huge inspiration for me because she signed or managed two of my all-time favorite artists, Emmylou Harris and Vince Gill, and she always had such devotion to her artists.”

Bonnie Garner, who also co-produced “Timeless,” has known Martin since the days three decades ago when Martin was managing Morrison.

Advertisement

“I love that she’s back in the business,” Garner says. “She is so fiercely protective of her artists and their integrity, which is a point every record company needs to remember.”

It’s not just women who laud Martin. Tony Brown, co-founder of the new Universal South label and an executive who has been considered progressive in the hiring of women in Nashville, first met Martin when he was playing piano in Harris’ band in the ‘70s.

“She was already a legend in my eyes because I had heard she had put Dylan together with the Band, and she didn’t let me down,” says Brown, who has signed or worked with such artists as Gill, Steve Earle and George Strait.

“I learned a lot from just watching her. The fact that Mary is back in the music business is a significant step on several levels, so it’s great to see her work recognized at the Grammys. When Luke hired her, some people were probably surprised because they think you need someone young and on the cutting edge in A&R;, but Mary Martin has always been on the cutting edge.”

Advertisement


Advertisement