Big man, little girl

Ex-driver-turned-musician Leland Martin grew up hunting for food and says it’s in his blood – but these days his best time in the woods is with 4-year-old granddaughter Neona.

Want to see an ex-driver who knows how to make a hard-scrabble living, hunt and live off the woods and handle a truck-driving audience with a guitar in his hands turn to mush?

Just set him loose in the woods with his 4-year old granddaughter Neona.

Leland Martin, 48, grew up hunting because it put food on the table of his family’s southern Missouri home. He was born and raised in the tiny town of Success, “population 25” he recalls fondly, amid dairy farms, logging and sawmills.

Today he’s known by truckers as the man behind “Stone Cold Fingers,” a popular trucking anthem about just how hard it is to get the road out of your blood, and his country albums also include remakes of classics such as “Six Days on the Road” and “Looking at the World through a Windshield.”

“I’d take the .22 out when I was just 13 or so and spend the day shooting squirrels or rabbits, maybe laying live traps for rabbits,” he says. “If I could get a few, it helped feed a family of nine kids. Then I grew up a bit, and we’d deer hunt. I never shot animals for sport; it was meat for the table when I was a kid.

“I still love to hunt, even thought I don’t have to. I enjoy it. But still, we never take anything we can’t clean and eat or give to someone else for their table, and it feels a lot better if you know somebody can really use it.”

Martin plunged into adult life while still a teenager.

“I got a gig singing and making money when I was just 15, so I quit high school when I was just a sophomore and started playing my music in nightclubs on the weekends,” he says. “I started working in the sawmills when I was 16, and I got married when I was 16. I was really pretty much a rebel, and Mom wasn’t happy. I turned out OK, but these days I tell young people I run into in my show ‘Don’t do what I did,’ because it’s been rougher on me than if I’d finished school.”

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Much of his life he worked to get money to keep his family and his music going. His father was a legendary over-the-road man with millions of safe miles behind him, and Leland found he could make money doing the same. He worked OTR behind the wheel of Kenworths and Ford 9000 series tractors, then switched to 10 wheelers hauling material like asphalt and produce.

“The problem with over-the-road driving was that I couldn’t be home to play on the weekend, so I found driving jobs that would get me home,” he says.

And he always found time to hunt.

“When I can go hunting with my friends, or if we go off to a fishing camp, that time is precious,” he says. “It’s the sort of feeling you only find when you are hunting with friends. With my music these days, I don’t get as much time as I used to, so it is all the more valuable to me when I do get the chance to go out and swap stories in a camp or to enjoy one of my friend’s success.”

These days just being in the woods is enough for him.

“The older I get the more I love getting into the outdoors,” he says. “I appreciate the beauty of the animals in the wilderness, and there are times I don’t know if I want to hunt them anymore. I don’t think I want to go out and kill them anymore. But once hunting gets in your blood, it stays there and it’s hard not to hunt.”

“I don’t need to hunt for meat any more; I can afford balogna for sandwiches,” he says, laughing. “But I also know that wild herds need to be kept in check and hunters keep the wildlife herds that we have healthy. And I think God put these animals here for us to live off.”

Martin recently took up bow hunting to rekindle his boyhood thrill of getting close to game.

“The bow makes it so much harder – you have to be able to get so close – but I may be a natural at it. I’m doing really good,” he says. “Using a bow has forced me to start thinking and relying on instincts again, and I don’t think I was doing that when I had a rifle in my hand in the past few years.”

Martin is also a caribou hunter, thanks to a trip he took with television’s Outdoor Channel. The outing was filmed and aired as an episode of Backland Experiences.

“We went up to northern Quebec about 300 miles from the Arctic Circle, and man was the hunting different up there. It was awesome, an experience I’ll treasure forever,” Martin says. “It was summer, so the weather wasn’t so bad. They say you can’t even live up there in the winter. The weather is also really changeable. You can get 100-mile-an-hour winds, then it stops and it’s a beautiful day, then it rains, then it’s windy again and its still the same day. But the wind does have one big advantage. Without it you get caked with mosquitoes, and a breeze is about the only thing to get them off you.

“But there were no trees to hide behind, everything was low with water and grasses that were as thick as carpet. On the high ground you can see forever. The caribou could see you from miles away, so for someone used to woods and hills I had to be taught how to maneuver to get a shot because this was totally different.

“I got two bulls – my limit.”

Like most fathers, Leland Martin hoped his son would learn to hunt with him, and Landon Martin, now 23, did just that.

“I didn’t push him too hard; I didn’t want him to feel he had to do it. His grandfather used to give the boys in the family a .22 when they turned 15, but he got cancer so he gave Landon one before he died, and Landon was just 13. It was always a dream of mine to take him out into the woods and teach him things, and I got to do that. He liked to hunt, and I’d take him out and show him trails and how to find game and so on, but he’s one of those kids who’s really smart, and so is his wife, Kaleena, so they got involved with all sorts of things at school and in college. He still hunts with me and he’s shot deer, so it’s really something now that we just enjoy whenever we get the chance.”

These days it’s Landon’s daughter Neona, 4, who really enjoys the woods.

“When my grandbaby girl is staying with my wife Pam and I, she loves to walk in the woods, and I get to teach her things about deer and other game and trees and all the things I learned about the woods as a kid,” Martin says. “So we walk hand in hand, and she asks questions, and I tell her and show her things.

“If I can go walking with her in the woods, well, there is simply no better way to enjoy the woods and feel close to nature. It may be the best feeling in the world.”

Martin is a tough country boy turned country singer who can live in the wild if he has to. But if you ask Neona, you’ll find he’s also a big softy.

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Here’s how one rental company, Timber Bay Lodge and Houseboats in Babbitt, Minn., ( describes its vacations afloat on 20-mile-long Birch Lake in the Superior National Forest, home to eagles, loon, bears, walleye and northern pike: ”

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