written by Amy Mason Doan
“Buzz was the spar tree on the hill. There’s no one to touch him, and there never will be again.”
— Hank Nelson, Buzz Martin’s friend and fellow logger
With a gravelly voice telling tales of whistle-punks and hooktenders, cork boots and mollies, Buzz Martin sang of felling Oregon timber and a way of life that’s all but disappeared. He left behind a treasure of songs about the danger, discomfort and homesickness of high-lead logging. But they’re not crying-into-your-beer tunes. There’s usually humor and always pride, as in these lines from one of Buzz’s biggest hits:
They come home at night so doggone tired, bruised and cut and sore
Get up the next morning with a big old grin
And go right back out for more
To the same steep, muddy hillsides they were cussing the day before.
– “(Where There Walks a Logger) There Walks a Man”
– 1968, Ripcord Records
Buzz’s talent would carry him all the way from those muddy Oregon hillsides to the Grand Ole Opry’s Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. In the end, bruised but not embittered by a record business that didn’t always treat him well, he returned to the peace of his beloved woods.
Property of Steve Martin
Lloyd Earl Martin was born in 1928 in a hop shack in Coon Holler, Oregon, a tiny settlement outside Stayton. His childhood nickname, Buster, got shortened to Buzz.
His father worked for the railroad, and money was tight. The Depression only increased the strain. “My father didn’t like to talk about his childhood,” said Buzz’s son Steve Martin, 63, of Lebanon, Oregon. “Bits came out in his songs, but he never dwelt on the negative.”
In one song Buzz remembers living under a shake roof “with holes you could fling a cat through.” In “Always Plenty of Water (1974, Ranwood),” he recalled hunting for bottles in a ditch “just to buy an ice cream bar.” But in the chorus, which could be a motto for any web-footed Oregonian, he said that growing up poor made him a better man: “Some kids learn to feel the rain, And others just get wet.”
Property of Steve Martin
When Buzz was 13, he went completely blind from cataracts. Suddenly, sound was his primary link to the world.
“He would sit quietly for hours by the window, listening,” said his younger sister, Lora Callahan, 84, of Florence, Oregon. She now realizes that during those long, dark days he was telling himself stories in his head.
A friend helped send Buzz to the Oregon School for the Blind in Salem. He was living there when both of his parents died. It was also in this school where, during a volunteer class, he first picked up a guitar.
When Buzz was 15 he had a corneal transplant that gave him 20/20 vision for the rest of his life. Always a fan of a lumberjack’s tall tale, he joked that the corneas had been those of a death-row inmate’s. The story could be at least partially true; many transplants at the time came from prisoners.
He moved in with his older sister, Nellie, and her logger husband, Bill Woosley, in Five Rivers, Oregon, near the Siuslaw National Forest. Timber was in high demand after the war, and young Buzz “followed Bill into the woods,” said Lora.
First he worked as a whistle punk, blowing the steam whistle that told everyone where to go. The job typically went to the youngest, smallest crewmember. He didn’t stay small long as he grew into a burly man with biceps seventeen inches around. By his late teens, he’d become a skilled cutter and climber who could run every piece of equipment from the Cat (Caterpillar bulldozer) to the Giant LeTourneau (logstacker).
Property of Steve Martin
It was grueling, dangerous work. One errant step, one bad kick of the chainsaw could mean death. But logging had its joys, too— camaraderie, fresh air, and views all the way to the ocean from a perch where a man could feel like he was just about at the top of the world.
There was no electricity in Five Rivers then, but the family made sure their battery-operated radio was ready for Saturday— Grand Ole Opry night. Buzz became enthralled by Roy Acuff, Bill Munroe, Gene Autry and Tex Ritter. Later, and most importantly, he’d hear Johnny Cash.
“Johnny Cash was always the number one, the idol,” said his son Steve.
Bill Woosley was a musician who made his own banjos and guitars, so with his and Nellie’s encouragement, Buzz honed his guitar-playing and singing. He was a solid picker but his voice was his best instrument—an appealing fusion of Johnny Cash and John Wayne.
He began to join the after-hours sing-ing in camp, carrying on an oral tradition dating back hundreds of years, to when loggers first swapped poems and tales of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.
The crowds were rowdy and heavy-drinking. Buzz proved a natural at hooking his audience, getting to punch lines quickly, punctuating clever lyrics with a chuckle that never felt forced.
Property of Steve Martin
On rare days off Buzz began courting Lela Erickson, a neighbor who shared his love of the outdoors. They rode their horses deep into the woods together, and Buzz nicknamed her “Biscuit.” In 1948, when Lela was 17 and Buzz was 20, they married. The next year they had a daughter, the first of five children.
With a large family to support, Buzz began talking seriously about making a living as an entertainer. He had a natural writing talent that brought a Steinbeckian cast of characters to life–Big Jack, Big Jim and Swampy.
“He was that rarest of things–a completely honest man,” said his friend Dale Haslet, 79, of Waldport. “There really was this crotchety old guy named Swampy who lived up at camp. He really did use bacon rind to start his green Model A, like in ‘Little Ole Model A.’”
Buzz played local dancehalls and clubs but drove log trucks to make money.
Then in 1963, at 35, he got his big break. He performed on Portland’s “Channel 2 Hoedown” and host Buddy Simmons helped Buzz record his first seven-inch.
The A single was “Sick of Settin’ Chokers”—a heartfelt song about a weary logger. Like many of his recordings, it opened with Buzz talking, friend to friend. The B side was “Whistle Punk Pete”—an irresistibly catchy tune about a whistle-punk who realizes his ambition of becoming hooktender, or boss, when he hooks up his wife’s girdle. Both quickly broke into regional Top 20s.
“You just had to tap your toe to those songs,” said Dick Bond, former program director for KGAY in Salem. “And he looked like a logger—rolled-up flannel shirtsleeves, giant mutton-chop sideburns, the whole deal.”
Property of Steve Martin
Buzz recorded his debut album, There Walks a Man with Ripcord Records in 1968 in Vancouver, Washington. It sold 250,000 copies, according to his son Steve.
In 1969, Johnny Cash was playing Portland’s Memorial Coliseum and Buzz met him backstage, shakily playing “Butterin’ Up Biscuit,” a cheeky tune about his wife. Cash was so impressed he invited him to appear on ABC’s “The Johnny Cash Show” in 1971. It was filmed at the Ryman Auditorium during the Grand Ole Opry and Cash said, The only difference between me and Buzz is that he’s singing about lumberjacks and I’m singing about cotton pickers.”
“That was the high point,” said Steve. “That meant everything to him.” It seemed a major record deal was within reach.
But the segment never aired. And while there were flirtations with major labels after that, a few meetings with big-time agents, nothing came of them. Buzz’s early 1970s albums sold decently, but money was always tight, and nobody seems quite sure where the royalties went.
“My father came out of the woods green as a gourd,” said Steve. “He was an honest man, and he assumed that everybody else was like him. But he never complained.”
Trying to “compete with the big boys,” as Steve put it, Buzz recorded an album called Solid Gold in 1976. From the opening of the album, when a nerdy male voice announces, “Ladies and gentleman, the only singing logger in captivity!” to the finale of “America the Beautiful,” the songs seem unnatural, contrived. It’s the only time Buzz’s chuckle seems forced. Solid Gold was recorded as a faux live album, with an applause track and Buzz bantering with phantom audience members.
Buzz’s son Steve Martin
Photo by Talia Galvin
By the late 1970s, the failure of Solid Gold was compounded by the demise of traditional logging. Not only was logging a dirty word in most of the country, but many local loggers were out of work. Buzz’s music no longer fit the times.
As Buzz’s career waned, he played mostly spaghetti feeds and trade shows. He made some money sponsoring chainsaw companies and toured with his family as his backing band, calling them “The Chips Off the Old Block.”
In 1979, he sold his music rights and left the recording business for good.
He went to Alaska with Biscuit to log full time again, trucking, running heavy machinery, and sometimes singing for the crew. By most accounts, he was happy again. In “Goin’ Home” (1969, Ripcord), he’d foreshadowed his return to the woods:
I miss the sight of the sun coming up at the start of each new day
And the morning mist as it rolls and twists and moves out down the bay
While the coffee brews I’ll lace my cork shoes and get ready for a day in the woods
Where the work is hard and I can sweat off some lard
And get back to feeling good
In 1983, Buzz was scouting locations for a hunting expedition on Chichagof Island, Alaska when he drowned in a tidepool. Friends believe he tripped and hit his head. He was 55.
Steve recently bought the rights to his father’s catalog and is hoping to record the songs he was writing in Alaska. Choking back tears, he played one—a sweet, catchy tune about a tree planter called “Joanie.”
What Steve hopes is that people will rediscover his father’s original forty-four songs. There are four in the Smithsonian, and you can hear “Sick of Settin’ Chokers” in the bar scene of Sometimes a Great Notion, but until recently it’s been hard to find Buzz Martin music outside of eBay.
Steve has made twenty tracks available on cdbaby.com. Zach Bryson, a distant relative, covers the music with his Portland band and said a new generation is discovering Buzz.
“After the set, people always come up and ask me about him or tell me how their parents or grandparents used to play his records,” said Bryson. “I want to shine a light on this music—it’s just so good.”