Tony Martin: Four Decades In Song

Tony Martin

Tony Martin

Not many country songwriters can say their very first cut was also their first No. 1 hit, recorded by the legendary George Strait. But Tony Martin can.

“That was like hitting the country music sweepstakes lottery,” he says of Strait’s 1988 single, “Baby’s Gotten Good At Goodbye.” “My first demo, the first cut, the first hit, the first single, it was all the same song.”

The son of Nashville songwriter Glenn Martin (a writer for Charley Pride, Eddy Arnold, and Roy Clark), Tony grew up regularly hearing artists and songwriters such as Mickey Newbury, Hank Cochran, and Merle Haggard doing guitar pulls in the living room, interspersing hit songs with favorite unrecorded compositions. “Like a lot of kids, it was just kind of what your dad did,” Martin recalls.

Tony directed his own writing talent to the journalism field, working for a Chicago daily newspaper and later for The Tennessean. He amused newsroom colleagues with parody songs, then his father challenged him to write a serious tune. On his tenth try, Tony composed “Baby’s Gotten Good At Goodbye.”

“When I saw my first check, I thought, ‘This is how much I made this year as a reporter. I think I’ll switch,’” Martin says.

Though both professions involve creative approaches to the written word, Martin says not many writing rules traverse journalism and songwriting. “The only thing I say I’ve taken from journalism is I don’t like a lot of adjectives. Get the right verb, because it makes your picture move. Nobody goes to a movie to watch the person sit there. They want to see movement, even if they are looking at someone’s face. They see that emotion come up. It can be still as rain, but there is movement.”

To date, Tony Martin has notched 16 No. 1 hits, including at least one chart-topper in each of the last four decades. He earned hits with Strait’s “Living and Living Well” and “Go On,” Tim McGraw’s “Just To See You Smile,” Josh Turner’s “Time Is Love,” and his latest, Jason Aldean’s “A Little More Summertime.” Plus, he’s earned a slew of Top 5 hits for Martina McBride, Sara Evans, Mark Wills, and others.

“Planes are easier to catch when they are on the ground”

Martin credits at least part of his success to collaborating with artists early in their careers. “They have their whole lives and they haven’t written about hardly any of it,” says Martin. “I used to come into a writing session like, ‘I have this idea,’ and I realized I was going about it all wrong. They have these interesting lives and stories, so let’s find out what’s going on with them. It’s about drawing those stories out.”

Martin’s No. 1 hit for Dierks Bentley, “Settle For A Slowdown,” came in 2006, as the final single from Bentley’s sophomore project Modern Day Drifter. Penned by Bentley, Martin and Brett Beavers, the song became Bentley’s third No. 1 single.

“The line I always love is, ‘This land is flat as it is mean.’ If you’ve been out in those places like West Texas, it’s like, ‘I have to watch you leave me for a long time, because I can see so far.’ It’s a scene in a movie. I want you to see the picture of the guy standing there. And to be in that vulnerable place, Dierks sells that. I think it’s all his years playing that high lonesome in clubs.

“Dierks is a great writer, and this is writing with an artist who hadn’t really taken off yet. They had just finished his first album, but we were just writing anyway. With artists, you get to play to their strengths. Planes are easier to catch when they are on the ground,” Martin muses.

“It’s nothing more than a bunch of creative choices”

“Whatever You Say,” a 1997 hit for Martina McBride, pulled double duty. Not only did Martin score a hit song for McBride, but “Whatever You Say” also initiated a writing relationship with rising artist Sara Evans.

“The thing that helped us was that [co-writer] Ed [Hill] was using a great demo singer, who had a deal on RCA, named Sara Evans. She took it to RCA to play for Renee Bell. Sara told the label how much she liked the song, and then all of a sudden we get calls from people putting it on hold for Martina. I don’t know how that happened over there, but a whole bunch of credit goes to how Sara pulled it off in the studio.”

Evans returned to Martin, along with co-writer Tom Shapiro, for what would become her own first No. 1 hit, “No Place That Far.” Originally a pop-infused up-tempo track, the song was reconstructed as a more traditional, albeit vocally powerful, ballad after a co-writing session with Evans.

“It’s nothing more than a bunch of creative choices, from the very beginning,” Martin says of his process. “Once you start writing within the construct of what you are creating, you are creating the rules and limitations of it, too.”

While radio listeners can hear a finished song for what it is, like most writers, Martin hears what a song could have been.

“You see all the choices you left out,” he says. “What they see is the framework in which they now fill in their life and their story. In some ways, by you not being able to put in all of your choices or ideas, you left room for theirs, or at least I tell myself that.”

“When you are in this business, it feels like a slot machine”

If earning a No. 1 song with your very first cut, as Martin did, seems improbable, then earning a No. 1 hit with a song six years after an artist first recorded might seem impossible.

But that’s what happened with Keith Urban’s “You Look Good In My Shirt.” Penned with Mark Nesler and Tom Shapiro, the song was first included on Urban’s 2002 Golden Road album. The song was slated to be the album’s fifth single, but those plans were abandoned. Then, in 2008, a newly-recorded rendition of the song was incorporated into Urban’s Greatest Hits: 19 Kids. That same year, “You Look Good In My Shirt” reached the pinnacle of the country chart.

“You would never even think to pray for that,” says Martin, who notes he and his co-writers wrote the song after hearing Tim McGraw was looking for a Tom Petty-inspired tune to record.

“We were like, ‘Tom Petty sings about sex and drugs. What are we going to talk about?’ and we came up with the line, ‘You look good in my shirt.’” One verse change later, and Urban took the song into the studio.

“I’ve had times where Keith was going to cut a song, and we were feeling confident, but I would still feel nervous. If someone asked why, I would say, ‘Well, Keith hasn’t asked me to change anything yet,’” Martin says. “In fact, I think every time I’ve had to change something, because Keith knows what works for him.”

Nearly 30 years after celebrating his first No. 1 hit, Martin still exudes a humbleness and thankfulness for his success.

“When you are in this business, it feels like a slot machine, except there have to be about 20 things you have to hit all the way across to pull these things off. After writing a song, I don’t have much control over it. They are like children you send out the door. Most just come back and lay around the basement.”

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About the Author

Jessica Nicholson serves as the Managing Editor for MusicRow magazine. Her previous music journalism experience includes work with Country Weekly magazine and Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) magazine. She holds a BBA degree in Music Business and Marketing from Belmont University. She welcomes your feedback at [email protected]

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