Honoring the American

Martin Sexton never planned to take the acoustic folk circuit by storm. His original goal was simply to make music for a living, and to do it sounding like a hybrid of his biggest influences: Led Zeppelin and the Beatles.

But after years of playing in cover bands and strumming for pocket change in Boston subway stations, though, Sexton remembers thinking, “Gee, I’m playing all of these [cover] songs. I should write one of my own.” He’s since released three CDs, each featuring original material, without letting go of the humility he learned playing for meager donations.

Just lines into his first major record-company release — last month’s The American (Atlantic Records) — Sexton confessed, “I ain’t got nothing but my pipe dream and my guitar.” But anyone who’s heard this blue-eyed troubadour knows Sexton offers much more, as he solidly takes his place in the eye of the Americana-music storm.

Sexton seems to rely on nothing but curiosity and messages from his heart and soul to create uniquely American music. He incorporates old-time acoustic rhythms with south-of-the-border sounds, R&B and a hint of big band, and produces a melting-pot music that’s as diverse and eclectic as the “American” he honors in his latest work.

Despite his forays into other genres, though, Sexton is a storyteller immersed in a particular folk tradition, and his lyrics are meant not to dazzle or examine, but to viscerally reflect experience. “[S]ome folk music is like reading a thick novel,” Sexton once said, a turnoff in his eyes. He prefers folk songs that have “a simple lyric, a great melody, and a strong, soulful message that hits [you] right in the gut.

“I don’t think about [the music],” Sexton added. “I hear it, and I feel it.”

Sexton makes great use of Tex-Mex influences on his new CD. The title track boasts a flavor that is pure border-town barrio. In all of his work, Sexton’s vocal range is boundless and may even distract listeners from the finger-style ingenuity he brings to anything with strings.

“When I do a sound check, I always ask the sound guy to think of [my] guitar as a bass,” Sexton admits. His music reaches deep into the backbeat of bass lines for a lower-core sound — a technique that’s primarily responsible for the thickly coated R&B overtones that color much of Sexton’s music. His emphasis on that heartfelt genre, though, is most strongly noticed in his distinctive vocals — driven by a pitch that knows no limits. Sexton once said his biggest vocal influence was Stevie Wonder, “because he was the first guy I heard that really sang the shit out of whatever he was singing.”

Sexton feels the current incarnation of what’s often labeled as “folk” misidentifies a lot of distinctly different work. “[A]nyone in the 20th century who sings and plays guitar is labeled a folk singer,” Sexton grouses. He’d rather be categorized by his own singular sound. “My goal is to reach a point in my career where people just refer to my music as ‘Martin Sexton,'” he explains.

His goal may not be that far out of reach — considering he’s grabbed the attention of industry execs and established a loyal fan base that encompasses an age range even more diverse than his music. At Sexton’s upcoming Stella Blue show, club management will accommodate this phenomenon by opening their over-21 venue to allow an 18-and-under crowd.

The secret to his success in cultivating a wide spectrum of listeners just might be due to Sexton’s penchant for tuning in to crowd response. “I’m really spontaneous; I don’t generally use a set list,” he admits. He’d rather let his own intuition and audience chemistry guide his show. “When I get a reaction, I’ll react more,” Sexton explains. “And when [the audience] reacts more, it becomes a spiral of musical energy.”

Sexton often employs an even-more-simple touchstone to gauge his on-stage success, though. “I can judge a show by how much I sweat,” he says simply.

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