The first-generation bluegrass lead singer, guitar picker, and band leader from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, William (Bill) Dermot “Mac Martin” Colleran passed away on Monday morning, February 28, 2022. He was 96 and would have been 97 on April 26th.
He built quite a reputation for his rock solid, booming rhythm guitar work. Vocally, he adhered to Lester Flatt’s approach.
Martin, the son of Irish immigrants from Galway, spent his formative years enjoying the music of his heritage and listening to the radio, soaking in as much as he could from Wheeling, Virginia’s WWVA and Nashville’s WSM.
He had his first guitar at the age of 15, although he didn’t have any thoughts of making music as a career, not even semi-professionally.
During the early 1940s he met Ed Brozi, a mandolin player from Pennsylvania’s Fayette County, and the duo began performing some old-time country music songs, taking their repertoire from the Blue Sky Boys, the Bailes Brothers, Mainers’ Mountaineers, and the Carter Family.
After High School Martin joined the US Navy, as a Seabee, and was stationed on the island of Okinawa.
Following the end of WWII, he studied accounting at the Robert Morris School of Business, bought himself a new Martin D28 guitar and, in 1948, formed his first band, the Pike County Boys, a high-lonesome bluegrass trio that also included fiddle player Bill Higgins and Bill Wagner (bass). To reduce confusion, he adopted the stage name of Mac Martin, keeping that identity throughout his career.
They performed regularly on Radio WHJB in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, adding a fourth member (Earl Banner, a mandolin player from Kingsport, Tennessee) in 1950. They made a few local personal appearances – at dances and park events – as Martin retained a day job as an accountant.
After about two or three years the band switched to WHOD, Homestead, Pennsylvania, and briefly Martin dabbled with the banjo. For a few months Martin and Banner worked in some north Pittsburgh clubs as a mandolin-guitar duo.
About 1954 Martin formed a new trio called the Dixie Travelers, this time with banjo/guitar player Billy Bryant and Mike Carson (fiddle). For around 20 years, beginning in 1957, they were regulars at a club called Walsh’s Lounge, in the East Liberty neighbourhood of the Steel City.
The Dixie Travelers continued to perform, and from September 1963 they did their first recordings, for Gateway Recordings, Inc. (owned by the Pittsburgh-based National Record Mart), with an LP and two single releases. Except for some rare gems, most of the material was pretty standard fare. Apparently, there are some unreleased cuts from this era.
In the late summer of 1968 bluegrass historian Bob Artis replaced Banner on mandolin, adding a fourth voice to the mix also.
From about 1963 during their regular appearances at Walsh’s Lounge Martin and the Dixie Travelers were often accompanied by Ed Brozi.
For the next few years, the Dixie Travelers recordings were released (and eventually re-issued) by Rural Rhythm Records.
As well as working local clubs the band did various other show dates, including college concerts, and, occasionally, appeared on the WWVA Jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia.
Those sessions for Rural Rhythm were recorded by Tom Knight, an engineer at WQED in Pittsburgh, who would leave his equipment at Fred Pement’s house in the Shadyside district of the city. This led to Martin and Brozi (along with Artis) doing some ‘home recordings’ there in May 1970. These, along with some tracks done in November 1972, were issued by Patuxent Music in September 2010.
After 20 years of working a day-job, helping to raise five children and performing at weekends, Martin took a five-year break from playing music.
Notwithstanding that Martin and the Dixie Travelers did 16 sides for David Freeman’s County label, some of which remained unissued until, in 2001, they became available with other material from the 1968 – 1972 period on a White Oak Records CD.
Artis was custodian of the band until October 1975, before Martin resumed his musical career in 1977 appearing at Walsh’s Lounge on Friday nights while the Dixie Travelers did so on Saturdays. By the end of that year, they had re-united and began performing at Gustine’s Lounge, in Oakland, working there until 1983.
Mac Martin and the Dixie Travelers, TV show 1980s
For a brief period, they were just an itinerant group until settling at the Elizabeth Moose Lodge, where they had monthly gigs and often made appearances every other week for many years.
Early in October 1977 they did an album for Revonah Records and a decade later two LPs released by Old Homestead.
Martin was recorded in two other settings, one of which was live with Don Stover at The Moose Lodge and the other was with Charles “Buzz” Matheson (the mandolin and tenor singer who is featured on Travelers’ Portrait). The first samples of some soulful and edgy ‘brother’ duet singing, from October and November 1990, were issued by Rosewood Records. Others by the duo from January and February 1998 were released by White Oak.
The Dixie Travelers continued to perform well into the early 21st century. Contrary to what the band name suggested, it didn’t tour extensively; New Jersey, upstate New York, and Indiana was as far as they went.
Mac Martin retired from performing at the age of 90, playing his last concert, at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, with his Dixie Travelers on September 17, 2015. This was designated by the mayor of the city as “Mac Martin Day” in Pittsburgh.
Interview – Mac Martin: Brookline Bluegrass Legend (September 2015)
Produced by Matt McDermit for Duquesne University’s online publication, Off the Bluff Magazine.
Nevertheless, he still played at a weekly bluegrass jam at the Starlite Lounge in Blawnox, Pennsylvania.
During his career Martin unearthed many early country music songs and reworked them into bluegrass classics. These included Alcatraz Island Blues and Southern Moon (both from the Delmore Brothers); A Faded Rose, A Broken Heart; The Evening Bells Are Ringing (A.P. Carter) and Doc Hopkins’ Sinner Where You Gonna Hide.
Also, he included a few classic country numbers such as At The End of a Long, Lonely Day (Marty Robbins, 1953), Old Lonesome Times (Carl Smith, 1955) and Standing At The End Of My World (Bobby Helms, 1957), as well as the Gospel song Gethsemane (another Columbia recording from Carl Smith) in his repertoire, which was vast.
It is said that Martin knew at least a verse and the chorus of every song that he heard, leading his daughter to dub him an ethnomusicologist, much to his bemusement. Speaking to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette she maintained, “He probably knew the words to over a thousand songs, and so his albums reflected this sort of deep knowledge.”
Among the songs that Martin wrote are the wonderful Does It Have To End This Way, Frances Lee, Don’t Think Anymore About Me, In The Cool Light Of Dawn, My Faithful Servant, Are You Lonely Now, and A Dark Starless Night. He put together the instrumental Dixie Bound also.
Martin was a devout Catholic, attending Mass daily. When he and his wife, Jean, visited California, as they did at the request of Peter Thompson, then Artistic Director of Redwood Bluegrass Associates (RBA), in March 2005; October 2006 and March 2009, he had to find Martin lodging within walking distance of a Catholic church. For many years he volunteered weekly at the Jubilee Soup Kitchen in the lower Hill District, near Downtown.
This good work was recognized by the Diocese of Pittsburgh with a Manifesting The Kingdom award, which honours those Catholics who generously give of themselves to enrich the life of their parish.
His kindness was noted elsewhere, with Danny Paisley noting …
“I was very young when my dad bought me a record of his. I was hooked. A few years later I meet Mac for the first time, and he gave me every recording he had with him. Then sent me more in the mail. Can ya imagine for a pre-teen!”
Travers Chandler endorsed that …
“Mac was a beautifully kind man and devout Catholic.”
Paisley added this about one of his greatest influences …
“Mac always had the best songs. Mac had this beautiful spirit about him. A very devout man. Easy to talk with, always suggesting song.
Mac RIP. Thank you for your friendship. Thank you for your music.”
Likely as not, Martin’s low-key approach to his long life in music led to him being largely unheralded; “very underrated” according to one knowledgeable British fan. However, he was quietly influential, having a positive impact in the bluegrass world.
Pete Kuykendall, far from being an impressionable youngster, noted Martin as “a pioneer,” “a creator, a songwriter”; great praise indeed from the late owner of Bluegrass Unlimited for someone who kept a band together for about 60 years, and who released many albums that were invariably well-received by the reviewers of that magazine.
His practical influence extended way beyond the north-eastern states, as Kathy Kallick was able to learn first-hand during those visits that Martin made to California during his shows with the RBA, at the Freight & Salvage, and other Northern California venues. Kallick (upright bass), Keith Little (banjo), Butch Waller (mandolin), Paul Shelasky (fiddle), and Lisa Berman (Dobro) formed his ad-hoc band, dubbed ‘the California Travelers.’
In 2001 the International Bluegrass Music Association recognized him as one of bluegrass music’s ‘first generation.’
R.I.P. Mac Martin
Friends will be received from 3:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Friday, March 4, 2022, at the Beinhauer Funeral Home in McMurray, Pennsylvania.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be held at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, March 5, 2022, at Resurrection Parish, St. Thomas Moore Catholic Church in Pittsburgh. Interment will take place at Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Pittsburgh.
In lieu of flowers, the family appreciates donations to the organizations at which Martin was a volunteer; the Jubilee Soup Kitchen, the Saint Vincent De Paul Society, and the Saint Joseph House of Hospitality.
- Folk And Bluegrass Favorites (Gateway GLP-2080, March 7, 1964)
- Mac Martin and The Dixie Travelers With The Travelin’ Blues (Rural Rhythm RRMM-201, ca July 1968) [With The Travelin‘ Blues (Rural Rhythm RRMM 201, 2017-02-06)]
- Goin’ Down The Country / 20 Traditional Bluegrass Classics (Rural Rhythm RRMM-214, ca December 1968) [Rural Rhythm RRMM 214, 2017-02-06]
- Just Like Old Times /20 Bluegrass Favorites (Rural Rhythm RRMM-232, ca July 1970)
- Backtrackin’ (Rural Rhythm RRMM-237, 1971)
- Dixie Bound (County 743, August 1974)
- Travelin’ On (Revonah RS-928, October 1978 (reissued in 2004 on Copper Creek 0928)
- Basic Bluegrass (Old Homestead OHS-90178, 1987)
- Traveler’s Portrait (Old Homestead OHS-90195 – 12-89 [Basic Bluegrass Portrait – Mac Martin & the Dixie Travelers (Old Homestead OHCD 90178/95, 2006)]
- Live At The Moose! (White Oak WO-103, February 15, 1992) w. Don Stover
- 24 Bluegrass Favorites (Rural Rhythm RHY-267 (CD), October 27, 1998) (sampler)
- A Dark Starless Night (White Oak WO-CD-105, August 12, 2001)
- Venango (Copper Creek CC-0235-CD, April 26, 2005)
- The Shadyside Sessions: Sun Racer And Other Tragic Ballads (Patuxent Music CD 207, 01-09-10 – with Ed Brozi
- Live at Walsh’s Lounge (1971 and 1972) (Rosewood, 2019)
Buzz Matheson and Mac Martin
- Duets (Rosewood RA 102190, 1990)
- Echoes Of The Past (White Oak WO-CD-104, January 15, 1999) [This includes recordings on the Duets cassette.]