It’s clear from the opening notes of Nothing Holding Me that Josh Martin is not your typical “country boy”. The album opens with a confident and laid-back tune-‘em-up interlude, where Martin immediately establishes himself as a guitar-picking force to be reckoned with as he joins a band of some of the best players in Nashville. As the band swings melodically into the first full track, “Country Boy Ph.D.”, Martin dances the fine line between radio country and his deep-holler Kentucky roots. It’s clear he’s no stranger to longnecks and pick-up trucks – but he’s even closer to the bluegrass of his youth: the song is a fine, taut balancing act of accessibility and credibility. By the end of the 11-track album, you realize Martin has both, in spades.
Nothing Holding Me is a literal and metaphorical look at the songwriter/guitarist’s past few years in Nashville. He signed with Sony/ATV Music as a writer and artist in 2016, spending two years in writing rooms with some of the best in the game, releasing two singles (“How’d You Know” and “Just My Luck”). When he was let go from the deal, his head was spinning. The suits wanted him to be a radio star, forcing his stellar guitar chops into three chords, and his versatile baritone into a slick auto-tuned whine. He found himself free falling for a few months, questioning who he was and what he wanted to be musically. As the fog cleared, he knew he had to go back to what he loved.
“It took me a good six months and almost hitting rock bottom from a career standpoint to figure it out,” Martin explains. “I realized I’m not a guy who is going to show up every day and try to write for radio. I’m a musician first and that is what led me to these songs. I had at least 200 to choose from, but it was pretty clear after about two days of listening what direction to go to – and that was my buried roots, the roots that had been there for twenty-some years.”
Martin points to the title track as the song that immediately resonated. It is a story of escape, without the actual ability to escape. He calls it a true song of Kentucky, where his Floyd County Scot-Irish kin was grandfathered into the idea that you cannot really leave. It’s the cultural tradition, the family, the job you hope will show up, it’s the way of life. Though Martin (with his high-school sweetheart and, eventually, immediate family) took the road south to Music City, he still lives with the guilt of escaping Appalachia. Each day his emotions remain in conflict: relief that he escaped the downward spiral drug culture there and a pining for the Mayberry-esque utopia of his childhood. That sentiment echoes in his intimate vocal on the track, which falls somewhere between Tyler Childers and Eric Church. It’s rough, joyful and just a little bit sexy.
“I started hearing what I wanted in my head sonically pretty quickly,” he says. “I wanted a raw, rootsy sound played by exceptional musicians. I wanted it to feel like the subject matter. There’s so much emotion for me in this. I wanted the music to feel like it could fall apart at any moment.”
The record nails that tension effortlessly. It’s hammered in around a bluegrass core, with inflections of country music and hints of the rock and roll he picked up as a teenager. The players are some of the best, from Chris Stapleton’s bass player J.T. Cure to Blake Shelton’s secret weapon, fiddle player Jenee Fleenor. Though many of the songs are co-written, two tracks are Martin’s alone. As a songwriter, his goal has always been to tell the truth, even if the truth is hurtful.
He points to one of his solo compositions, “Two Sides”, as the heart of that philosophy. It’s a tough-love song about lying to yourself and how much that affects everyone around you. The album never shies from that kind of pain: from his grandparents’ story in “These Walls Talk” to the brooding, tumbleweed-gun echo of “Longview”, Martin is laying his story out for the world to hear. But he cautions the listener:
“This record isn’t for everybody,” he admits. “First, it’s for people who aren’t afraid of roots music. Second, it’s for people who appreciate musicianship and somewhat traditional country songwriting and storytelling. It’s ballad-heavy. It’s my personal story. It’s a sociology of rural America, especially coal country. It’s real life, and I just want this album to reach the people that it is supposed to reach.”
Nothing Holding Me is a testament to life in Kentucky, where he used to run up and down the holler roads – going anywhere he wanted, because he could. That freedom, he says, rings out in every note of this collection. You can hear traces of Guy Clark and Darrell Scott in his lyric, and the echo of John Mayer and Tony Rice in his guitar licks – and a hint of old-time spirituality in his voice. The songs are both smart and accessible, running wild and smiling back at Nashville from the open road. Martin has finally found his musical freedom.