Nashville-based singer-guitarist Carolyn Martin is a die-hard tradition bearer, one dedicated to country music's wild little cousin, Western swing. While the jazz-informed style has largely fallen from favor in mainstream circles, Martin, who appears Thursday at Burbank's Viva Cantina, is a favorite among an avid, steadily growing cult of Western swing aficionados. Most of these can be found here in California and, naturally, Texas, the state that launched the sound and, not so coincidentally, produced Martin herself.
"I was born and raised in Abilene, Texas, lived there until I was about 21," Martin said. "I was always a horse person, and my mom and dad had Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Rosemary Clooney records, I'd listen to those when I was in the house and when I went out to the stable, I heard country music.
"Radio formats weren't so strict then so you'd hear Bob Wills, a new country hit, a folk song, a pop tune and that background was perfect for me because Western swing incorporates so many different styles — and that's what really pushes my buttons. It has everything country, pop, polka and the African-American influence of jazz, blues, and it has that good beat, that dance beat. I love it."
The music has played an important part in both her personal and professional lives. "I started playing guitar when I was 14," she said. "I was a very shy girl; I'd just sit in my room playing guitar all day, and I was happy to do it. But I also had a girlfriend who fiddled, and we started playing together. Her dad was also a musician and I used to go to the pickin' parties that he organized, I was starting to learn a lot of country songs and then she and I did a few little gigs, as a duo, and hearing that applause brought me right out of my shell — and the next thing I knew, I was addicted."
Martin, who spent a decade playing with the stellar, accomplished Nashville aggregation the Time Jumpers, employs a coolly authoritative vocal style that serves as rich counterpoint to Western swing's red, hot and blue musicality. Her current CD, "Tennessee Local," ably showcases an impressive facility and natural flair for the style.
"It's happy music, forget your troubles music, and it's always fun to play," Martin said. "And it's not Western swing if you don't have improvisation. The magic of the moment, that's what it's all about."
For Martin, Western swing's past and present are inextricably linked, and she draws inspiration from the full historical spectrum.
"I was in Lubbock around 1978 and saw Asleep at the Wheel at a big old dance hall there, and when I heard them playing that music, well, that was it. I loved Chris O' Connell, their original singer. She was a big influence on me," she said. "And also, of course, Carolina Cotton and [1930s trailblazer] Milton Brown. In fact we've just finished a new project dedicated to Milton Brown, we did 16 songs, all of which he recorded back in the '30s, as a tribute album to him."
Martin and her bass-fiddle-playing spouse, Dave Martin, regularly seek out and enjoy the company and counsel of the genre's few remaining elders, socializing with the likes of Roy Lee Brown (the late Milton Brown's younger brother), Rose Lee Maphis — one of California country's First Ladies — and Marilyn Tuttle, widow of the trailblazing post-war-era Los Angeles hit maker Wesley Tuttle. The Martins apply the power gained from these alliances to craft a mixture of reverence and creativity that instills their music with a vibrant quality, one rooted in the past even as it looks to the future.
It's a winning combination: the couple perform everywhere from the Grand Ole Opry to Texas dance halls to the honky tonks of the Deep South to European festivals. In 2011, Martin earned the genre's highest honor, induction to the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame.
"What an honor that was," Martin said. "In Texas, they are very serious about the music. If you start a song and they aren't on the dance floor within 30 seconds, you better try something else, because if they don't like something, they will tell you. When I got that phone call, out of the blue, from the Hall of Fame, I couldn't believe my ears. That's quite something to be able to put on your resume!"
What: Carolyn Martin
Where: Viva Cantina, 900 W. Riverside Dr., Burbank
When: Thursday, Dec. 19, 7:30 p.m.
More info: (818) 845-2425, www.vivacantina.com
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of "Ramblin' Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox" and "Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story."