Meet the folker 

Riding the peace train with Amy Martin

Amy Martin’s message is pretty simple: Be kind to your planet, and treat your fellow human beings with respect. As a species, we’re totally screwing the pooch on both counts, but Martin feels like the answers will come from inside our own heads.

“It’s called ‘radical empathy,’” she says in a recent interview. “Having the courage to empathize with someone very different from yourself. It can be an enormous transformation of power.” That power could lead to a glimmer of understanding, which in turn could cause more human- and earth-friendly decisions to be made.

Since arriving in Missoula in the late ’90s, this tireless idealist has played dozens of fundraisers and benefits, and drawn a variety of comparisons to other artists. Is she a hayseed Dar Williams? An Ani DiFranco who shaves her armpits? A Tori Amos without all the squirming? Well, she’s all that and more. But Martin uses her appeal to help focus the spotlight on issues of inequality rather than on herself. In her role of activist/peacemaker/folkie chick, Martin has been named Missoula’s Peacemaker of the Year (2004) and helped raise tons of cash for various nonprofits and sociopolitical concerns. A couple years back she raised $10,000 for women-run health and education projects in Afghanistan, from sales of her last full-length CD, This Fall.

Hell, as a fellow musician I’m happy if the money I make from playing a show will cover the bar tab. I used to be approached to play a benefit here and there, but since my first question is always “What’s in it for me?” the offers kind of dried up.

Martin, meanwhile, has just finished Bind Me to Free, an 11-song CD released in partnership with the Montana Human Rights Network. The partnership is designed to help raise awareness of the minimum wage initiative, I-151, on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Martin had the idea of a partnership, she says, “after seeing all these songs together.” The songs deal with struggles of inequity and injustice, and seemed a perfect fit for the issue. Rather than simply donating her proceeds from CD sales, Martin says, she hopes to help put the issue in front of the people who can actually vote and pass the initiative; a series of concerts in Western Montana will follow her CD-release at the Wilma Theatre Sat., Oct. 21.

Bind Me to Free is a world-class collection of gentle folk songs, acoustic ballads and a few jazzy surprises. Of the six albums she’s released since 2000, Martin says this is the one she’s most satisfied and most at peace with. Her band, the Borrowed Geniuses, comprises some of Missoula’s finest—and most in-demand—musicians. One-time Fencemender and current Cleric (as in Tom Catmull and the) Gibson Hartwell brings his distinctive electric guitar to a couple of songs, and Dan Funsch (also a Cleric) adds accordion in a few appropriate spots. (These two also spent a little time slumming last spring on American Piehole, my own not-quite-platinum release of last summer.)

One of the pleasant musical surprises on Bind Me to Free is Lawrence Duncan’s bassoon and soprano saxophone on “Everywhere in Chains.” The horns give a whimsical feel to this yearning song that lopes along behind Martin’s sultry, breathy vocal, which practically sounds like it’s wearing lipstick. She sings about Rousseau’s assertion that “we’re born free but we’re everywhere in chains.” Now, I won’t pretend to know who Rousseau is, but that’s a pretty bright notion. Plus, he was funny as hell in those Pink Panther movies.

In “Consequences,” Amy sings that “We’ve got to storm the halls of power/Right this very hour” with the same lantern-jawed conviction Joan Baez displayed 40 years ago.

“I don’t feel like I’m swimming upstream,” Martin says about carrying the protest-song torch. “These are universal, timeless questions. People need to understand how to disagree without [causing] total destruction.”

“Abu Ghraib” and “Home Uninjured” form the antiwar centerpiece of the album. The protagonist of “Abu Ghraib” is a thinly veiled Lynndie England, giving her side of the story of the 2004 prisoner abuse scandal. Martin wrote the song after seeing the photos on the national news, but before anyone knew England’s name. As the story unfolded, Martin’s lyrics proved prescient. But she doesn’t let England off the hook, instead depicting the transformation one soldier undergoes in the face of adversity once she’s been “trained to listen and obey.” Phil Hamilton’s harmonica gives it just a pinch of down-home twang—fitting to England’s trailer-park roots.

“Home Uninjured” is about “just another day outside of Baghdad,” told from the point of view of a 22-year-old sergeant “with a wife and two kids back in the States.” The story itself is a heartbreaking case of mistaken identity: a U.S. soldier unleashes a burst of machine gun fire on a pickup truck, thinking he’d seen an AK-47 aimed at his cadre. The scene unfolds into a gut-wrenching tableau that’s been repeated hundreds of times in this war. But it’s the music that makes the song an emotional powerhouse, as the strings (Jen Slayden on cello, Beth Youngblood on violin) build subtly, then swell as the soldiers realize their mistake and witness the raw grief of the Iraqi men cradling a dead boy, asking, “Why? Why?” Martin leaves no doubt that is the Big Question so many of us are asking about this horrible waste of lives, both Iraqi and American. The effect is almost cinematic in its scope and emotional impact.

Balancing her desire to help heal a fractured world (“I don’t want to come off as some Pollyanna,” she says) with a need to create appealing music (“I’m writing all the time”) is a challenging pursuit, for sure. But she mostly manages to satisfy these overlapping desires without coming off as an over-earnest, veggier-thank-thou Birkenstocker who calls you an idiot because you’re not a lesbian. Like most intelligent artists with a conscience, Martin has a great sense of humor—even a goofy side, she says. It occasionally surfaces in her lyrics and her music, as with the “chatty whistling choir” (as they’re listed in the liner notes) on the album’s closer, “Amen.” It’s not the dewy-eyed, churchy hymnal the title might imply. Not hardly. Its wry refrain of “And it’s gonna be a hell of a day” lets you in on the joke, and shows how Martin can let some light—and laughter—into her work.

Amy Martin hosts a CD-release party Saturday, Oct. 21, at 8 PM at the Wilma Theatre. A reading by Rick Bass and a dance by Anya Cloud open the show. $7 advance/$10 at the door.

Bob Wire (aka Ednor Therriault) and his band, the Magnificent Bastards, are hard at work recording their next CD, Wake Up and Smell the Country.

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