Bluegrass Pioneer Keeps the Faith
by Mark Sullivan
Bluegrass legend and pioneer Mac Martin is the exception to the rule that you have to sacrifice having a family life in order to have a successful music career. While other members of bluegrass’s founding generation were criss-crossing the country making a name for themselves, Martin had a day job in Pittsburgh where he was helping to raise his five children.
Martin gigged regularly around Pittsburgh with his band the Dixie Travelers and became a top flight ensemble. International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame journalist Bill Vernon once said, “Among the great Bluegrass bands whose accomplishments have gone largely unnoticed, no group stands taller than Mac Martin & the Dixie Travelers.”
At the age of 82, Martin is still going strong, releasing albums, and playing gigs. His recordings are treasured by his fans around the country for their uncommercialized sound. He’s increased his touring radius from the 100 mile area around Pittsburgh to include California. He has a following in Australia. Four of his albums are available from iTunes. And no matter where he goes, he still makes it to mass everyday, which he’s been doing for as long as he can remember.
“I’m not a fanatic about going to mass everyday. It’s just something I really like to do,” Martin said recently from his home in Pittsburgh where he’s lived for over 50 years.
“My wife and I like to take the train. When I found out that our train for Philadelphia was leaving at 7:20 a.m., my first question was can I make it to 6:30 a.m. mass and still catch the train? That would be cutting it too close. Instead, we found an evening mass in Philadelphia near where we were staying. You get to see new places this way,” Martin added.
Martin, whose birth name is William Colleran, is the son of Irish immigrants and grew up in Pittsburgh listening to country music and traditional Irish music. The idea of bluegrass music was already forming in his mind before he even heard Bill Monroe, widely considered the inventor of bluegrass. But once he did he was off and running.
In 2001, the International Bluegrass Music Association recognized Martin as one of the founders of bluegrass music.
“What’s unique about Mac is that almost everything he’s recorded in the past 50 years is still in print. He’s still selling records. Not many people can say that,” said Bob Artis, author of the first book length history of bluegrass published in 1975. Artis was also a member of the Dixie Travelers in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Martin says the secret to his success is that he never let the music come between him and his family. “I think that’s how we kept the music so pure. We always had other jobs. We didn’t have to commercialize our music.”
His family agrees. “I think my pop brought the discipline of his professional life as an accountant to his music. He is very good at organizing his time and energy. His music never interfered with our family life,” said his son Dan who manages the Dixie Travelers web-site.
Striking the balance between faith, family, and music sometimes took heroic efforts and didn’t allow Martin much time for sleep. “He’d be out playing bluegrass in a bar until 2:00 a.m. on a Saturday night and then playing at 8:00 or 10:00 mass the next morning with me and my other siblings. He has a different power supply,” Dan said.
“The common denominator with the faith and bluegrass is that there are so many great people involved. I’m surrounded by great people,” Martin said.