Ten Minutes Till Heartaches
Martí Brom, country by the numbers
Martí Brom's home in Southwest Austin is exactly what you'd envision. It's retro right down to the Roy Rogers blanket on her son's bed and the immaculate black-and-white 1960 Thunderbird in the driveway. Brimming with tchotchkes and collectibles from the past 50 years, it's classy, refined in a style considered modern in post-World War II America. Most of all it's comfortable.
That word aptly describes Brom's attitude toward her career, as well. The petite, dark-haired beauty is serious about music, but she does it on her own terms. Her family a preteen son, teenage daughter, and a husband who's made a career in the Air Force is equally important, and Brom has reached a place in her life that allows both to thrive. The triumph of her latest CD, Heartache Numbers (Goofin), reflects this.
Since the early 1990s, Brom has displayed her unique vocal ability on a variety of music styles, rockabilly, country, and Western swing, but never with this much confidence and zest. Obviously, she's become comfortable with her talent. It wasn't always this way.
"I had a lot of stage fright when I started," she recalls. "Now I never get it. I try to remember what that feeling was like, but it's completely gone." She claims to be less nervous in front of the huge festival crowds she performs to in Europe than the smaller club-sized crowds in America. "Now I get scared seeing myself on the big screens above the stage," she notes with a smile.
Martí, pronounced mar-TEE and short for Martini, was born and raised in St. Louis. Her early musical tastes ran toward New Wave bands like Blondie and the Pretenders. Pearl Harbor & the Explosions' cover of "Fujiyama Mama" made her seek out the music of Wanda Jackson, which led her to other rockabilly artists. Then there was Michael Stipe, later of R.E.M., who turned her on to Patsy Cline.
"Mike was an Air Force brat in high school across the river in Illinois," Brom recalls. "I met him at The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I didn't think that Patsy Cline was all that well known, except by hipsters like Mike."
Brom's start as a performer came with a small part in a musical titled The 1940's Radio Show. Then she began sitting in with David Lee & the Houserockers, who played old-time rock & roll to go along with their piano-playing leader's Jerry Lee Lewis style. "That helped me learn how to get up and sing in front of people," she explains. "I made a demo with them before I left St. Louis. I wanted to have something when I came to Austin."
With her husband receiving a transfer to Bergstrom Air Force Base in 1991, Brom packed up the family's belongings and a 1-year-old daughter and moved to Texas fully aware of Austin's reputation as a music city. Serendipity struck when the first person she met in town was Shaun Young.
"It was at the citywide garage sale," Brom relates. "He was with his wife and he looked like a rockabilly guy, so we went up to him, started talking, and found out he had a band. High Noon were the ambassadors of Austin music at the time. They're underappreciated for what they did for the music scene here. I don't know where I'd be today if they hadn't offered me to sit in with them at Headliners on Thursday nights. I got so much exposure from that. It's how I got on Goofin Records."
Young, who played drums for Brom, and High Noon bass player Kevin Smith and guitarist Todd Wulfmeyer were in bands together in Denver before they moved to Texas, and they became Brom's backing band, the Jet-Tone Boys. It was during this period that she developed her style and an onstage persona began to bloom. Her confidence grew to the point that she finally revealed her songwriting talent as well. "I never wanted to show anybody my songs," she says. "It took me a long time before I showed them to anyone. Shaun was surprised. He said, 'You're writing songs like this and not showing them to anyone?'"
Live, Brom developed a following with the rockabilly crowd throughout the Nineties. In contrast, her recorded output was limited to a few singles until 1998's Mean, a self-released reel-to-reel style box of four 45s and a compact disc of the eight songs on the vinyl. A trickling brook of releases from Finnish label Goofin followed, including 2000's Feudin' and Fightin', an EP of country swing with Austin's ubiquitous Cornell Hurd Band. Brom agrees that Heartache Numbers is her finest work to date (see the review in the Nov. 11 issue).
"I came up with the idea of using number songs and then people started giving me songs, with numbers in the title," explains Brom, who chose vocalist, bass player, and country-to-the-bone local Justin Trevino to produce the new album. "Then the problem was how to narrow it down to the ones I want to do. First I picked the ones that were obvious, like, "A-11" and "Apartment #9." Then I dug through some of the more obscure songs, like "13 Steps Away," which I had on a Jimmy Dean record. Finally I tried singing some to see if they suited my voice.
"It was a lot of fun, and now that I have all these number songs, some folks have suggested that I do a second one."
A notable aspect of Heartache Numbers is the liner notes written by Wanda Jackson. Brom opened for the "Fujiyama Mama" for the first time in San Antonio in 1995 and caught Jackson's ear. When introduced they discovered they had similar tastes and became fast friends. Brom had a hand in rekindling the rockabilly part of Jackson's career, introducing the elder to the current scene and the network that surrounds it. "I had no idea the revival the music was enjoying, and it was really thrilling," acknowledges Jackson. Now she's Brom's biggest supporter.
"The fact is she does a variety of things and does them all so well," asserts Jackson. "I heard her voice before I actually saw her, but once I was in a position to see her on stage and working an audience, she just knocked me out. She comes on with an attitude, makes her stand, and the audience is just glued on her. She's like a magnet."
Or was, anyway: Brom is leaving Austin soon. While showing off her house, including an impossibly jammed walk-in closet filled with clothes, handbags, and cowboy boots, she mentions that her husband's work is taking him to Virginia and she plans to join him by mid-2006. Her Austin appearances have always been rare, but now they'll be even more infrequent.
"I chose to do that here intentionally, so I wouldn't oversaturate myself," she explains. "I saw it happen to so many people where you have a weekly gig and folks get the attitude, 'Aw, they play every Wednesday. I'll see 'em next week.'"