I did not know Terence Martin well, but I spent part of last night crying over his death from pancreatic cancer, and praying for his family and friends.
The last time I saw Terence Martin, he was in his black Jeep Wrangler headed east on Pennsylvania Route 6 as the late morning fog was burning off the hills, heading back home to Long Island. We would e-mail a couple times a year, usually initiated by me. I’d drop him a note when I played one of his songs on the Folk Show or he released a new disc; he would respond with gratitude and a genuine interest in my own music. He was gentle, supportive, intelligent and funny as hell - he had a dry acerbic wit, and was a keen observer of the world and the people in it, not unlike my wife. More than anything, he was flat out one of the best songwriters I have ever encountered.
We spent a day and a half or so together once, hanging out and doing a songwriting workshop and evening performance together in Coudersport, PA, along with Jud Caswell and Eve Goldberg. We shared coffee and dessert at a small restaurant on Route 6, talking about songwriting and scrapple and pie and our influences. He played his song Folding Chairs three times for me that day, trying to demystify it for me. Folding Chairs was my introduction to Terence’s music; Folding Chairs, played in my family room on an acoustic guitar by my friend Chris Cinnelli, who gave me Terence’s CD that weekend. I told Terence later how I thought this was nearly a perfect song, i said I wished I could write a song that good, just once in my life. He seemed a bit uncomfortable with the praise, and spent a long time basically telling me that the worst thing I could do was try to emulate Folding Chairs; that what I should concentrate on was being true to myself and my music. He was gently supportive; encouraging, motivating and challenging all at the same time… He listened to the songs I played him, and listened hard. He made me want to write better songs. I could see why his English students often revered him, and probably why some of them that maybe were wasting their potential might not have.
Terence’s guitar style solo was deceptively simple; often working out of first position formation shapes with embellishments, but not unlike Danny Schmidt, had a gift for incorporating crisply picked, flowing melody lines into the picking patterns. It served the songs perfectly. He was playing a sunburst Gibson J-45 that weekend, and the dry woody tone worked perfectly with his voice.
That evening, I played the second of two opening sets, and Terence came up to the microphone next, launching into an impromptu version of about half of my song Mountain Laurels. It fit his voice and style beautifully; I always hoped we would have the chance to do it together somewhere down the road. It was a magic moment, and it made me sad that my wife couldn’t be there to see it happen.
I left that weekend feeling validated as a performing songwriter. Make no mistake, I’m not turning diva. I’m not putting myself above the level I’m on or harboring delusions about where I fall on the folkie food chain, or implying I can’t improve, or even about whether what I do is what people want to hear. But this was the weekend I stopped apologizing for my style, for the performance and simplicity of my songs and started embracing that. To Terence, this was Jim Colbert being Jim Colbert, and I think I came to terms with that notion that weekend.
There have been a handful of performing songwriters who have really reinforced to me the merit in what I do; that have helped me with the ideas of balancing art with life, that sometimes the creation is its own reward, in being true to myself and my music. Joe Crookston is certainly one; Carolann Solebello and Marc Douglas Berardo and Kevin Dremel. Terence Martin is on that list too; Terence who was probably the first performer to really challenge and question my approach that what I was doing somehow needed disclaimers and apologies. “Just play it,” he told me. “Play it like you feel it, play it like you mean it.” I’m no doubt paraphrasing a bit, but that was the point.
And so I cried, for someone I seldom saw or spoke to, whom in the strictest terms, I did not know long or well, but who left a lasting impression on who I am as a writer and performer. I cried the selfish tears of knowing I would not see Terence again, at least not in this lifetime; that my wife would never get to meet him - I think they would have gotten along quite well. That we would never again share a gig or pie or bullshit about Jeeps and philosophy and guitar pickups. But mostly, I cried knowing that, while there were likely dozens of people Terence made a similar impact on, there are no doubt dozens of people who would benefit from his low key, easy going support and validation and will never know that.
To steal one of his own lines, it was the the way it didn’t go.
Rest in peace, Terence, my friend.