Wal-Mart Marty Hits the Road

updated 11/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

OVER IN THE PROCESSED FOOD DEPARTMENT, sale-priced Squeeze Cheese is going for $1.97 a can, and the super-jumbo Twix bars have been marked down to $1.63. The discounts, though, aren't attracting much attention at this Somerset, Ky., Wal-Mart store. About 300 patrons are crowding around a makeshift stage near ladies undergarments where Marty Brown, 25, has been singing songs of lost love and tough times, his twangy voice echoing all the way back to sporting goods. And beyond.

To many listeners, Brown's unvarnished, Appalachian-bred music harkens back to Hank Williams himself. High and Dry, Brown's much-applauded first album, was released in August, and now he is making his first-ever tour, traveling in a '69 Caddy convertible (supplied by MCA Records) to 40 Wal-Marts in 11 southern states.

If the venues seem small-time, they suit Marty Brown just fine. He hails from tiny Maceo, Ky. (pop. 500), a gloomy collection of tract homes and trailers on the Ohio River. He doesn't drink or do drugs, but he does go to Catholic mass every Sunday and kneels in prayer every night before bed. He still lives with his parents, says jug fishing is what he likes to do best, and when he's really boiling mad—which is not often—he says "Shoot!"

A few short months ago, Brown was unplugging toilets as a plumber's helper in Maceo for $5 an hour. "It was the best-paying job I ever had," says Brown. Now Marty's royalties have allowed him to buy boots that fit (his old ones were two sizes too small), and he's hoping soon to get a trailer of his own for himself and his two children, Crystal, 4, and Marty, 3. (He's had custody since his divorce from wife Kristie last spring.)

The story of how Brown made the leap from plumbing to performing is one for the books. "When I first heard about him, I thought, 'He's either the most incredible thing I ever heard or the strangest,' " says Tony Brown, executive vice president of MCA Records in Nashville. "I decided he's incredible and will be for a long time."

Tony Brown, who produces records for Reba McEntire, Patty Loveless and Lyle Lovett, first met Marty last January. For five years, armed with his guitar and sample tapes, Marty had been driving his battered white Chevette the 127 miles from Maceo to Nashville every few weeks, hoping to be discovered. He figures he made about 100 trips, often sleeping on an air conditioner in a South 18th Street alley at night after hitting Nashville's Music Row by day in search of record company bigwigs. On one early trip he stole a phone book from a Holiday Inn lobby. "It was the only way I could think to find the addresses," he says. "I still feel bad about it."

Finally, one of Marty's tapes worked its way to Tony Brown. "The word was this crazy guy is going around singing on the street," recalls the producer. "Then I remembered him because I almost hit him with my car in an alley." Brown the producer took Brown the singer to meet Bruce Hinton, president of MCA Nashville, and in June Marty cut his first album. Two months later it was released, and he took his first airplane ride ("I was scared to death"), to Houston to perform at an amusement park. Suddenly he's touring the Wal-Marts, performing a smattering of the 300 tunes he has written since he was 14. "I hear songs in my head," he says. "I can't help it."

This happy affliction started when he was just a baby listening to his parents, factory worker Vincent and homemaker Barbara, sing the songs of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams. At 9, Marty started playing his daddy's guitar ("Daddy worked the 4 to 12 shift, so I had plenty of lime"). By 14, he was writing his own songs and tape-recording them in the family bathroom, holding the door shut to keep out his two brothers and three sisters. "We didn't have no lock on the door," he explains.

At 20, Marty married Kristie Harper, a 20-year-old part-time office worker he had met on a blind date. A couple of measures later, Crystal and little Marty came along, and soon they were all scraping by on the meager earnings Marty made from fixing cars, sacking groceries and, of course, his best job ever, unplugging toilets. But the marriage was as bumpy as a Kentucky back road, and after four years together, Marty and Kristie split.

Now things are looking up. MCA has signed him to a multiyear contract, and in August, he even opened a show in Central City, Ky., for the Everly Brothers. Marty got a standing ovation from the crowd of 20,000; that night, Don and Phil didn't.

One day after the Somerset gig, the red Caddy pulls up to the Wal-Mart in Hazard, Ky., a depressed coal town where a crowd of 400 bursts into applause. "Marty Brown, Marty Brown, I seen you on TNN," shrieks one woman. "Why, thank you, darlin'," he says, stepping out of the Cadillac and making his way to a stage next to the lingerie department. "Marty, I ain't got no money to buy a tape, but I'm saving up," says a woman, spinning around to show her backside. "But will you sign this?" Marty blushes, but signs her jeans.

Even a pro like Tony Brown admits he's seen few success stories like Marty's. "He did everything the wrong way," says the producer. "But he writes like he lives, very simple. He writes about life, the true art of country music. He's simple, but real smart."

Success isn't likely to change that. "I been lookin' to buy a bean field for Dad so he can put a garage on it," says Marty, whose other ambitions are to "put my kids through college, get me a nice trailer and not live no highfalutin lifestyle." And maybe one more thing. When his Wal-Mart tour ended, Marty had to say goodbye to his red Cadillac, which was given away in a record promotion lottery. "Shoot," says Marty, who was ineligible. "I sure wouldn't mind havin' that car."

BILL SHAW in Hazard

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