Profile: Leland Martin
Leland Martin’s new ‘Workin’ Class’ album draws inspiration from trucker friendship
Among today’s trucking troubadours, with a new record out in large part inspired by his work with one particular specialized hauler, Leland Martin stands at the top of the mountain looking down, a position well-deserved after a lifetime of guitar picking with no shortage of truck driving to boot. His new “Workin’ Class” record makes good on that history and serves as appropriate showcase for the singer-songwriter’s skill.
Born and raised in Success, Mo., Martin’s music and trucking roots run deep. “My dad drove a truck all his life,” Martin says. “My trucking life got started after I got married and moved to Dodge City, Kan.,” where he took a job with his brothers leased to a United Van Lines outfit. “I got a little practice there, then got into hauling produce. I drove a lot of 10-wheelers.”
As with most of his trucking through the years, the 10-wheeled hauls, which kept him mostly local, were geared toward the advancement of his love for music, where he went after a career by gigging frequently in Southwestern Missouri nightclubs. “I got very popular there,” he says, and soon enough, in 1983, Nashville got wind of the young man. “I got offered a job from a guy I knew” playing lead guitar on tour with then-superstar Freddie Hart.
“That was my first little taste of Nashville,” he says. “And Hart was huge to the truckers. He later started his own truck line and named his trucks after his hit songs.”
It wasn’t until just after the turn of this century that Martin ventured out on his own with national distribution. The “Simply Traditional” record featured a song about a driver on a night haul to Denver reflecting on his dedication to trucking, “Stone Cold Fingers,” that would cement his reputation with the nation’s long-haul public. “It went to No. 60 on the billboard charts,” Martin says, just about the time the big boys of the music industry started in on the Nashville scene and made life hard for the independent labels with which Martin was just beginning to flourish.
All the same, he “continued to have a pretty good independent career” as a musician over the next decade, he says, with six albums all told, the new “Workin’ Class” being the latest. On the cover of the record is a picture of Martin with a tractor-trailer, a deck hauler strapping a load on a lowboy in the background — that’s Colin Stuart, owner of the pictured rig, Working Class. The two met at the Walcott Truckers Jamboree at the Iowa 80 Truck Stop in summer 2010 when Stuart, showing in the truck beauty competition, happened to come by Martin’s booth to introduce himself. “Would you mind coming over and getting a picture with my truck?” Stuart said.
Martin continues the story: “After he showed me the truck, I told him, ‘The name of your truck would make a great song title.’ I got back home and wrote that thing in no time. I recorded it and sent it to him. I just did it for him. I had no intention of an album coming out of it.”
But as Stuart responded and the two continued corresponding and meeting, more songs came out of their friendship, Martin says. “Before you know it I was writing and cutting songs inspired by some of the stories he told me. I give him a lot of credit.”
The album’s opener, “Fast,” is based on a story Stuart told of his days just starting out in trucking. Of “Miles Between Us,” Martin says Stuart gave him the title. “He inspired ‘Scale House Blues,’ and his wife (Ann) wrote the words for ‘I Love You More Than Life Itself.’”
All in all, more than a third of the album stems directly from Martin and Stuart’s unofficial collaboration, and for a singer-songwriter who owes so much of his career in music to the nation’s long-haul freight drivers, he can’t ask for more than that. “Nearly everybody I’m associated with is associated with the industry,” Martin says.