Jeffrey Martin talks about the English language the way most people talk about their favorite sports team, or a decadent dessert, or the TV show they binge-watched last night.
"I'm obsessed with words," the Portland-based folk singer says. "I'm just in love with words and literature and writing of all types."
Martin gets that from his dad, who didn't play an instrument but did spend a lot of time listening to lyrically driven musicians like John Prine, Neil Young and Jackson Browne. And he made sure his son Jeffrey listened to them, too.
"As early as I can remember, he'd kind of walk me through the song if I didn't quite understand what was going on," Martin says. "He always made a point to say, 'You've got to listen to the words. You can't just bob your head to the music.'"
Jeffrey Martin's music is not head-bobbing music. Instead, the man specializes in slow-motion story songs packed with exquisite details and easygoing vocal melodies, set to a handful of chords strummed on an acoustic guitar. On his excellent new album One Go Around — released last fall on Portland's Fluff & Gravy Records — he writes mostly about blue-collar families, down-and-out folks, jilted lovers and others who've had better days. Recurring themes include struggle, heartbreak, restlessness, anguish and, every once in a while, a sliver of hope.
Martin gets his interest in hard-luck stories from his father, too. He grew up in Eugene, where Dad led a church that focused its efforts on reaching and helping the local homeless population. Most days, Martin would accompany his dad out into the streets to hand out food and clothes to people who needed it.
"I feel like I have all these stories in me from that," Martin says. "I learned over and over again the lesson that an overwhelming percentage of people on the street ... are really, really good hardworking people that just got screwed by a medical bill or something that's out of their control."
That's the message that courses through "Poor Man," the stunning first track on One Go Around. It tells a story of a young couple — he's a road worker, she's pregnant — struggling not only to make ends meet, but also with the psychic weight of trying to get by in a world that feels like a dam ready to burst at any moment.
The song's coda, sung from the road worker's perspective, is endlessly haunting:
"I'm not a bad man, I'm a poor man / I'm not a bad man, I'm a poor man sinking."
Martin understands where his narrator is coming from. In June of 2016, he quit his full-time job teaching English in Junction City, Oregon, to focus on his music career. That decision has worked out well enough: More people have heard One Go Around than Martin's previous albums, booking gigs is getting a little bit easier, and the bills are getting paid.
Still, teaching provided a stable income. Writing stories and singing them for people keeps Martin closer to the edge.
"It's such an embedded part of our culture. If you have money we assume that you are a decent person, and if you don't have money we assume there's something wrong with your character," he says. "What's great about being a singer-songwriter is you're kind of deadlocked into a life of counting your pennies at the end of the month. ... It keeps us honest."
And for Martin, being honest is what it's all about.
"In a lot of ways, my music has grown really organically, where I've just been writing songs and taking them on the road," he says. "And that's just what I'm going to keep doing." ♦
Jeffrey Martin with Marshall McLean and the Holy Rollers and Taylor Kingman • Sat, February 3 at 8 pm • $12-$15 • All-ages • The Bartlett • 228 W. Sprague Ave. • thebartlettspokane.com • 747-2174