The music bug bit Boulder-based musician Amy Martin as a child one day as she sat in her mom’s Monte Carlo with the stereo blaring country music. She’s not sure, but it might have been Martina McBride’s 1994 song “Independence Day” that grabbed her ear.
“It was the first time I was moved by music,” Martin recalls. “I genuinely remember looking out the car window and being like, ‘This is it. I don’t know what it is, but this is it.’”
Martin relocated to Boulder from Virginia in 2020 seeking better employment opportunities and now happily calls the city home. She’s embedding herself in the music scene and expects to play the Boulder Creek Festival this summer. But she’s also taking advantage of the outdoors – the hiking, the mountains, the natural beauty of Boulder. She’s playing pick-up soccer games at the park near her house. She grew up in rural Virginia, so a place with a lot of outdoor living was important when she was deciding where to relocate.
A native of Maryland, Martin spent most of her formative years in rural Virginia, places like Harrisonburg, Madison County and the Shenandoah Valley. Even though she’s left it behind, the years she spent there left an indelible mark on her music.
Her mother worked as an accountant by day but spent her nights as a karaoke DJ, so Martin found herself spending a lot of time in karaoke bars, and she will still sing karaoke on occasion. (“What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes is one of her go-to tunes.) She took the stage one night at a Virginia bar and sang another McBride song, “Life #9.”
“I didn’t want to sing without my mom,” she says. “She agreed to sing it with me, but actually told the sound guy to cut her mic. So it was just me coming through the PA. So I was confidently singing and belting it out as a six-year-old and the entire place went wild.”
That moment inexorably tied Martin to music. She spent her entire adolescence playing guitar, honing her vocals and recording herself performing. After high school, she played in a bluegrass band for several years, deciding to become a solo artist in 2020.
“We said we did what we wanted with bluegrass instruments,” she says of her first band. “None of us came from bluegrass, but we came together and picked those up.”
She’s played with Larry Keel, Yarn, The Black Lillies, David Wax Museum, Town Mountain, The Hackensaw Boys, The Brother Brothers, The Grascals, The Delta Saints, Special Consensus, and Miss Tess. She’s also appeared at the Red Wing Roots Festival, Fresh Grass Festival, Misty Mountain Music Festival and at the 9:30 club in Washington, D.C.
She self-released a solo, self-titled EP in March of 2020, a stripped-down set of songs that primarily features Martin and her guitar with occasional piano accompaniment. Her previous band was, as she puts it, her and “six other dudes in a genre-bending jam band,” so it was important for Martin to showcase her own talents, free of unnecessary accouterments. Her vocals are powerful and bear an authentic quality of someone who started off in a rural Virginia karaoke bar. It’s an elusive quality to describe, but one that is undeniable upon hearing her songs.
She takes inspiration from a variety of sources. Martin jokes that her soul is made up of Ella Fitzgerald and 1990s alternative music. Her contralto vocals recall Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes. She says she’s also drawn comparisons to Janice Joplin, Linda Ronstadt and Brandi Carlile. Martin makes music firmly inside the Americana universe – country-inspired but not country in delivery.
“I’m calling it Americana, musically,” she says. “But I think it will always come down to singer/songwriter because there is always going to be that 90s flair.”
Martin says that her creative process mostly revolves around pressing record and playing until she lands on something good. Songs are about whatever comes to mind. She’s written about her divorce, and much of her music details the tension she’s felt living in the south. It’s a place with so many perks, so much culture, yet many people there choose to obsess about the Confederacy.
“Sweet Virginia” for example, details how much Virginia means to her, but at the same time shares her desire to move West and seems timely in light of her relocation to Boulder. Martin identifies as a queer person, so she was also looking for somewhere more open and inclusive but with the hiking and outdoor life she’d grown accustomed to.
“I knew I had tapped it out,” she says. “I needed to go somewhere else. I was starting to get resentful among other things. … In April of last year, me, my dog and two cats got into a moving truck and moved out to Boulder.”
An upcoming single “Antebellum Town” was written in direct response to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, and while “Sweet Virginia” details the upside of the Shenandoah Valley, “Antebellum Town” points out the downside – the racism, the bigotry against LGBTQ people, the Donald Trump flags and Confederate flying above the American flags and her desire to go somewhere else. She remembers just boiling over with anger as she wrote the song.
Martin jokes that she’s not sure she’ll be allowed back in Virginia when the song premieres later this year. She adds that she treads lightly when talking about her home state, because she loves Harrisonburg. It’s a college town and fairly inclusive in spite of being conservative. It’s her community, and she loves it; it made her who she is today. The community financially supported her when she was making her first record. But there’s that duality to the south, and an underbelly that is, sadly, not too far underneath anything.
“Where that comes from is me being a queer musician and growing up in that area of having to tow that line of trying to be who I am, but just enough to make everyone comfortable,” she says. “A lot of those folks storming the Capitol and hanging the flags are the same people claiming to support me and my music and love me.”
Martin is working on a full-length album with Chance McCoy a musician from Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, a former member of Old Crow Medicine Show who has worked with Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, Brandi Carlile, Willie Nelson, Sturgil Simpson, Margo Price, Yelawolf and Kesha. He’s also worked on the music for “The Good Lord Bird,” a show about abolitionist John Brown. She’s calling the new record “Americana” but says it has some classic country styles in the songs. There’s some Johnny Cash-type stuff on the record and some talky Bob Dylan-inspired material and even a piano ballad. The first single will be released in June.
“There’s always this middle, this heart to it that fits in that folk/bluegrass/classic country influence,” she says. “It is me in that you can see the nuance of the different genres that have shaped me as an artist, but when it comes down to it, it’s Americana.”