Martin Stephenson was 15 the first time his heart was broken. It, however, wasn't at the hands of a teenage flame. Instead, the damage occurred when he was thrown out of a band for being, in his words, "too young and giddy"--at least in the eyes of the long-in-the-tooth 19-year-old who led the outfit.
With the resilience of youth on his side, Stephenson bounced back quickly, discovering the healing properties that come with playing guitar in a rockabilly band. The leader of that group, this time a man over twice Stephenson's age and a onetime semi-celebrity at that, was a tough task master. "He'd give me a whole lot of really obscure rockabilly stuff, and I had to learn every lick," recalls Stephenson with a wry chuckle. "Even the mistakes on the records."
That stint was just the latest in a series of learning experiences that formed the curriculum for Stephenson's musical education. His interest in music started when he was 11, sparked by a youth leader who introduced Stephenson to records from artists ranging from the Doors to Frank Zappa. Then the punk movement hit England in the mid-'90s, exploding loudly enough that he heard the echoes in the little village of Washington in North England where he grew up, and he was inspired to pick up a guitar. "Before that I used to listen to music," Stephenson says, "But I thought you had to be from another planet to make it." Punk taught him the valuable lesson that anybody could have a go at it.
By the time Stephenson started recording, he had been playing for over five years and absorbing as much as his head, fingers, and soul could hold. "By the time I did me first album, I didn't think that you had to have a particular sound," says Stephenson. "I was into the guitar, so I'd get a jazz book and get to page 50 and give up. I'd get a couple of songs out of it, you know? Then I'd do a bit of folk and a bit of classical guitar. ... As they say: a jack of all trades, master of none." It's an eclecticism that served him well on the first two albums with his band the Dainties, 1986's Boat to Bolivia and 1988's Gladsome Humour & Blue. (In fact, a liner note penned by Stephenson describes Bolivia's "Candle in the Middle" as an "alternative Country and Western poem," the first use that I've seen of a term that wouldn't gain popularity for another 10 years.) Among many others, Trouser Press took notice, offering this namedrop-based description: "Those old enough to remember Donovan's late-'60s albums, on which he combined strains of folk, rock, blues, and wispy jazz with sincere, unpretentious singing, have a good reference point for Martin Stephenson and the Dainties."
1990's Salutation Road, produced by Pete Anderson (probably best know for his work with Dwight Yoakam), earned Stephenson an even wider audience, but it was around this time that he began to grow disillusioned with the music-biz machinery. "I was in the middle of it, and I didn't want to be there," is how Stephenson summarizes that period. "We'd play to 10,000 people one night, and the next day I'd go busking. (The big crowds) didn't mean anything to me. To me, busking's the highest level. You stand on the street and you connect with people." The cynical might consider that a quote with press kit written all over it, but Stephenson's subsequent, varied musical adventures and his move to the north of Scotland are testaments to his sincerity.
These days, Stephenson's pursuits are widespread--and all done on his terms. He's got his rockabilly/swing band the Toerags, and in what first may seem like an odd pairing, he's currently recording with David Foster, an original member of the art-rock band Yes. A visit to Stephenson's Web site reveals a massive discography, including a live record and a recent binaural recording, plus books of poems and prose. He's now in the middle of his third trip to North Carolina in the last four years, a cultural exchange program of sorts that stems from his love of the music of Charlie Poole and Doc Watson. (An album titled Haint of the Budded Rose, inspired by Stephenson's Carolina trips and his fondness for the North Carolina Ramblers and other trailblazers, is due out soon on the Charlotte-area label Ramseur Records.) And always the busker at heart as well as an amazing picker and the possessor of a warm voice and manner, Stephenson thrives on intimate shows such as back-porch parties and house concerts.
It's a satisfying life, and when Stephenson launches into the irresistible, reggae-leaning sing-along "Orange Is the Colour of Joy" from last year's Collective Force, the song takes flight in a way that could only happen if the pilot is someone who truly has discovered joy. It's enough to heal any broken heart.
Martin Stephenson is at the Six String Cafe in Cary on July 24, with David Childers opening. On July 25, he's doing a house concert in Durham, joined by the Avett Brothers from Concord, N.C.; for details, contact Mark O'Donnell at email@example.com.