Mixing up more than a few tapes

After 20 years, Martin Sexton still loves doing it his way on stage

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Jo Chattman

Any list of hardest-working musicians should include the name Martin Sexton. He’s released 10 full-length studio albums over a 20-year career, and has maintained a relentless touring schedule that commonly finds him on the road for a year or more with the touring cycle for each release.

The first run of shows in support of his new album, Mixtape of the Open Road, fits the pattern. It finds Sexton hitting 50 cities from coast to coast until mid-May. And when he steps on stage for his show March 21 at Boulder Theater, he won’t be complaining.

“You can do anything for 20 years. You could be a taste tester at Ben & Jerry’s and that can get old after 20 years,” Sexton remarked during a late- January phone interview. “But by the grace of God, I love the work. I love finishing an album and getting on the horse and starting the [touring] cycle like we are right now, doing the interviews, meeting people, throwing the shows, signing the records. I love all that. And I love the performance the most of all.”

Sexton even likes the traveling that comes with being a touring musician — an aspect of the job that countless artists find tedious and downright wearing.

“What a wonderful thing to see Europe and North America and Australia, to see it and experience it, and to take in the people and the food,” he said. “To me, every day is like its own little gem that I get to unwrap every day and share with people.”

Audiences have obviously responded to what Sexton brings to the table. In a career that started with his 1992 debut release, In the Journey, (he sold some 20,000 copies of that album while busking and at shows), went on to include a pair of major label releases for Atlantic Records (The American in 1998 and Wonder Bar in 2000), and since then, has featured six more albums on his own Kitchen Table Records label, Sexton has never had a radio hit. Nevertheless, he now headlines theaters and large clubs nationwide largely because of word-of-mouth raves for his music and for his engaging live performances that draw fans year after year.

And his current tour has Sexton playing in perhaps his favorite format.

“This is primarily a solo tour, which I so love,” Sexton said. “I tour with bands from time to time or duo or other configurations, but something about the solo show, there’s a certain immediacy to the performance.”

As its title suggests, the new album was inspired musically in part by mixtapes — those collections of songs friends put together for each other on cassettes (back in the old days) and more recently on CDs or digitally. Sexton followed the lead of the diversity of mixtapes he has received.

“My records have always been very rangy,” he said. “I’ve always taken a tip from [the Beatles’] Abbey Road and The White Album,’ to range from ‘Blackbird’ to ‘Helter Skelter’ on the same album. I’ve always dug that. I’ve loved the whole journey of an album, where it ranges from this quiet thing to a big thing. So on this record, I just stepped on the gas and headed in that direction and made it even more so of a mixtape.”

The excellent album indeed covers lots of stylistic ground. There is the shuffling retrocountry of “Do it Daily,” acoustic folk in “Set in Stone,” a bit of rootsy jazz on “Doin’ Something Right,” bluesy soul on “Give it Up,” Grateful Deadish rock on “Shut Up And Sing” and rowdy, fuzzed-up rock on “Remember That Ride.”

Lyrically, Mixtape of the Open Road is more light-hearted than Sexton’s previous two releases. The 2010 album Sugarcoating and his 2012 EP, Fall Like Rain, both leaned toward topical subject matter, as Sexton shared his frustrations with issues like divisions within politics and the American population, the growing gulf between the rich and working class and the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

Mixtape, though, has more of a sweet, and at times nostalgic or humorous, tone. Sexton stressed that there’s still social awareness built into some of the new songs.

“There’s a track called ‘Shut Up and Sing.’ To listen to it, you wouldn’t know really that it’s got any sort of unlight subject matter,” Sexton said. “But that’s all about, I remember the Dixie Chicks, they spoke out against the government and they caught all kinds of heat for it. Someone said ‘Shut up and sing’ to them, you know, like just close your mouth and sing the tunes and entertain us like you’re supposed to. So that track is sort of about that… This is all about don’t spin your wheels talking about it. Put it in a song so that millions of people will hear it and maybe it will inspire them to take action.”

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