The music game is one that puts a firm accent on youthfulness, especially these days. But some artists happen to be late bloomers. And 41-year-old Texas singer-songwriter Houston Marchman is one of those who, in his own estimation, has just now arrived. With the songs he's writing these days, Marchman thinks his next release will be the one where he really comes into his own as a writer and artist.
A listen to Marchman's most recent studio album, Tryin' For Home, indicates that he might well be underrating himself. With a voice that recalls Willis Alan Ramsey and a songwriting gift that falls in with the work of Robert Earl Keen, Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff Walker in his prime, Marchman is an exemplar of classic Texas progressive country. He has a knack for telling stories in song that ring with the resonance of real life and display the literary ambitions that have been a standard for Texas country-folk songwriting since Clark and Townes Van Zandt first defined the art form. His material can fly solo in the folk clubs yet also, with his backing group the Contraband, fill the floors of the dance halls.
By all measures, including his own, Marchman is doing just fine with his musical pursuits.
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After all, he makes his living on the Lone Star circuit and has three CDs on the market through Blind Nello Records, a co-operative venture by Marchman and fellow singer-songwriters Max Stalling, Mark David Manders and Kevin Deal. But Marchman's artistic aim is focused on that high spot where songs transcend mere entertainment.
The bar of quality was set at the top of the gauge from the beginning for the Dallas-born Marchman. "Jimmie Rodgers is the first thing I remember hearing at my grandfather's house when I was young," he recalls. In addition to teething on the founding father of country music, Marchman was weaned on Texas blues giant Lightnin' Hopkins and Peruvian singing sensation Yma Sumac. He got his first guitar at the age of five and wrote his first song at 13. After graduating from high school in Meridian, Marchman toured Japan with a Wild West show before heading to Nashville in 1983 to try his luck on Music Row.
"I was very naive," he says now of that foray. "I figured since Jerry Jeff Walker was on MCA Records, Nashville was the place to go. I learned my lesson there."
The lesson he learned wasn't part of the curriculum at Middle Tennessee State University, where Marchman studied the music business. He worked for Charlie Pride's music publishing company and pitched his songs to the country industry, but Marchman found that "there's no room there" for the quality Texas-style songwriting he favored. "There still isn't," he says.
Marchman is also rankled that Nashville has taken the art of Texas country music and watered it down into pabulum. "The thing I get most passionate about is that they've ripped us off of our culture, and that's worth fighting for," he says. "Country in its purest sense is cool."
Marchman says his experience in Nashville broke his heart. "I just knew that it wasn't gonna work," he says. "I couldn't do their music. I'd rather sell insurance."
So just like Keen after Music City failed to respond to his songs, Marchman returned to Texas. At the time, even the home market for the Texas singer-songwriter sound was in a lull. "In '89, when I came back, the genre was flat for all intents and purposes," says Marchman. "And Robert, through sheer will and great songwriting, revived it, and gave a way for all of us to keep playing. I think Robert is key to the revitalization of the genre."
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Landing in San Antonio, Marchman sold snuff to the U.S. Army by day while earning his MBA at night. He also started playing small clubs and songwriter nights -- "just me and a guitar." Through consistent work, he gained an audience and a backing band. Finally, he gave up the day job to pursue music full time.
The rise of the Texas music movement over the last decade has convinced Marchman that the business has changed and Nashville is no longer necessary. "I do believe that there is a paradigm shift," he says. "The ability of Nashville to totally dominate radio and the public front end of country music is over. Robert has proved that. Pat Green proved it after him. You don't need them."
With an approach that combines the singer-songwriter ethos with a career spent playing dance halls and honky-tonks, Marchman feels like he's been living in no-man's-land. "I would like to be considered with Slaid Cleaves or Ray Wylie Hubbard or Damon Bramblett -- those kind of writers," he says. But he also points to Bruce Robison's unusual achievement: making the music in his heart on his own releases and having his songs covered by Nashville stars. "I love his career," he says. "That is what I want."
And even though Marchman feels that the songs percolating for his next album will truly make his mark on the music scene, he's happy with what he's already accomplished here in the Lone Star State. "If nothing else ever happens, I've been successful," he concludes. "The success doesn't have anything to do with money My real measure is just respect as a songwriter."