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Chance, This Is Your Cue

A day in Nashville with country radio host, Johnny Cash pal, cue-card man extraordinaire, and secret musical genius Chance Martin

In the outlaw country anthem “Pancho and Lefty,” Townes Van Zandt sings that Pancho traveled by a horse that “was fast as polished steel.” But Chance Martin knows better. “Outlaw country is a figment of your imagination,” he says not long after picking me up from the Nashville airport. I assume this is Chance’s way of explaining why his steed is a 2001 Mercury Grand Marquis with brakes as quiet as grinding metal.

Later, during a rare moment between Pall Malls, Chance tells me that “they don’t make the Grand Marquis anymore. They just quit.” They don’t make guys like Chance anymore, either. He’s wearing a black Western shirt, black pants, black shoes, and reflector shades. He looks like the husk of Waylon Jennings and his voice resembles a rumbling echo of Johnny Cash. He is precisely the right guy to chauffeur you around Nashville for the first time.

Like Chance himself, Chance’s Grand Marquis goes by many names. It is his “Maroon Unit,” his “Space Odyssey,” his “state trooper car.” While it is relatively easy to keep track of all the monikers he’s ascribed to his automobile, staying on top of Chance’s roll call of alternate identities requires some homework. As the cohost of “The Cowboy Jack Clement Show” on Sirius XM’s Outlaw Country station, Chance calls himself Alamo Jones, the loyal sidekick to a carved-in-granite Nashville institution. A couple of lifetimes ago Chance was briefly known as Johnny Chainsaw, after an incident involving Willie Nelson’s tour bus, several joints, and (duh) a chain saw. As a kid, people called him Ace, but he doesn’t go by that anymore. His superhero alter ego is the Stoned Ranger — so named after a song Chance cowrote with the ex-wife of the late Jim Varney, a.k.a. Ernest P. Worrell. If the right occasion arises, Chance even dons the requisite mask and cape. As for Chance, that’s his birth name. Reality tends to be more outrageous than fiction in Chance Martin’s world.

Another long-lost identity: Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Chance was known as the best cue-card man in show business. Qualifying a person as the best cue-card man in show business is like that part in Road House where Patrick Swayze is described as America’s top bouncer. Fact-checking the art of cue cards — cue-carding? — is nearly impossible. But how many other cue-card men have you ever heard of?1 Besides, I’m not the one doing the qualifying here, Ringo Starr is. Or he did, back at the 1973 Grammys, arguably the peak of Chance’s cue-card career arc. Chance was prepping for the night — there were 2,000 pounds’ worth of cards by his estimation, which will also have to do without verification — in the men’s-room lounge when Ringo and his frequent companion in binge-drinking Harry Nilsson approached him. “He came up to me and he said, ‘You’re Chance Martin. You’re the world’s biggest cue-card holder. This is my friend Nilsson Schmilsson.’ And I thought, man, since I was hitchhiking in high school before I had my first car we were singing Beatles songs and I had a Beatles haircut and shit. It was a pretty good moment in my life, something you don’t forget.”

Ringo probably wouldn’t have known who Chance Martin was — and I likely wouldn’t be sitting inside the Maroon Unit listening to this story — had a 23-year-old Chance not applied for a job on ABC’s The Johnny Cash Show in 1969. Johnny hired Chance to do his cards and they became fast friends. Meeting the Man in Black was a transformative moment. “That was the first person I ever saw that had any charisma,” Chance says. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Johnny Cash.” After Cash’s TV show was canceled in 1971,2 Chance remained a member of his inner circle, working for his song publishing company, House of Cash, and later becoming a tour manager and lighting director for a couple of his mid-’70s tours.

Through his association with Cash, Chance met all of the living legends in the singer’s orbit. Bob Dylan wouldn’t speak to Chance directly, but he communicated via a whisper in Johnny’s ear that he was happy to make Chance’s acquaintance. Elvis Presley scared Chance half to death one night in Vegas when a gun spilled out of his pants onstage; like a true king, Elvis hid the pistol from the audience by kicking it toward the drum riser. There was that time when Jerry Lee Lewis dropped acid and Chance watched him zone out on the light trails. Townes Van Zandt was less crazy — he and Chance even wrote a song together, but “somebody’s secretary poured a cocktail on the napkin we had the song written on.”

Chance knew everybody in Nashville and everybody in Nashville knew Chance — or so they thought. What they didn’t know was something Chance deliberately kept secret from his famous friends: For five years, Chance commanded a small group of like-minded musicians in a clandestine clubhouse called the Dead End, meticulously composing, rehearsing, and perfecting some of the most experimental, nonlinear, and flat-out bizarre music to ever come out of Nashville. Whenever he was ready to record his latest batch of songs, Chance would sneak into a Music Row recording studio after midnight, when he was sure nobody else was around. The late-night sessions suited the music, which was loud, blurry, surprisingly funky, and deliriously psychedelic.

When Chance finished his album, which he dubbed In Search, in 1981, it was nothing like the strictly regimented pop-country that the city was known for at the time. It was unlike anything, really. Say Kris Kristofferson, Sly Stone, the ghost of Captain Beefheart, and a small mountain of peyote formed a supergroup in order to create the druggiest disco-rock record in history. This (theoretical) album would be the only workable reference point for In Search.

It took In Search another 32 years to reach an audience. But even now, in a new century, few have caught up to Chance Martin.

Chance Martin Christopher Smith first heard about In Search from a friend 10 years ago. A musician and vinyl collector, Smith had a special interest in little-known left-field Americana records. But In Search was different — not only was it obscure, it was genuinely original. “We drank a bunch of beer, listened to it twice, and played a bunch of air guitar,” Smith recalls. “I got my own copy shortly thereafter. It was perfect for me; blatantly vision quest, unhinged and unapologetic, just a stew of vibed-out immediacy.”

What happened next will sound familiar to fans of Searching for Sugar Man–like stories: In 2010, Smith and Brendan Greaves formed their own North Carolina–based record label, Paradise of Bachelors,3 and eventually decided they wanted to reissue In Search. Actually, what they had in mind wasn’t so much a reissue as just a straight-up release — back in ’81, Chance put out In Search himself in an extremely limited run of 500 copies. Promotion consisted of a single ad that Chance placed in the Sunday paper. In the end, he simply gave the record away to whomever would take it.

The first order of business for Smith and Greaves was finding Chance. Initial Internet searches proved unfruitful. Smith scoured the liner notes for names, hoping that one of the players might hook him up with Chance. Finally, Smith located saxophonist Mark Shenkel, who himself had only recently reconnected with Chance on Facebook. To hear Chance tell it, Smith was so intimidated by talking with his hero that he could barely articulate a complete sentence the first time he phoned. But Smith says he was more nervous about finding Chance too late. “The reissue world is really hectic. Projects are sourced and gobbled up in a flash. I figured somebody had already gotten started with Chance. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case.”

Greaves says that Chance was “a little suspicious and dubious when we first reached out to him, which is natural and something I’ve gotten a lot doing this kind of project. They want to know how you found them, why you’re interested in poking around in their past.” But Chance soon opened up and shared an extensive background mythology about how the record was made and what guided him during the process.

In Search began in late ’76, after Chance quit working for Johnny Cash. He turned 30 that year, and had just moved into his parents’ house in South Nashville. Chance took over the room above the garage and converted it into the Dead End — the house was situated on a cul-de-sac — installing a small stage, drum booth, and water bed. He painted the walls black. He was already writing songs on a D-35 Martin guitar that Johnny had given him.4 Future In Search tracks like “Loser Till You Win,” “Dusty Roads of Yesterday,” and “Mr. Freedom Man” were among his early efforts. Chance then spent an entire year just getting the band together; because of the top-secret nature of the project, he recruited outside of Nashville’s community of established musicians. Drummer Jimmie Ray Rogers and rhythm guitarist Steve Hutchinson were ex–police officers, and background singers Jeanne Duncan and Patricia Johnson (also known as the duo Mystique) worked as receptionists at the Grand Old Opry. Outsiders were strictly forbidden. A little red light under the bar flickered whenever the doorbell rang, and there were bars on the windows. Since Rogers knew karate, Chance appointed him head of security.

The chaotic nature of the music — tempos speed up and slow down unexpectedly, disparate genres collide violently and collapse in piles of busted-up wreckage, and Chance’s vocals veer wildly between a Baptist preacher’s bark and a lounge-lizard purr — suggests that drugs were a ubiquitous presence during the sessions. But Chance insists this wasn’t the case. Sure, the fellas liked to drink beer. And Chance’s unpredictable lead guitarist, Don Mooney, laid down his Hendrixian solos for the album’s hallucinatory final cut, “Drema,” after downing a little LSD. (Mooney also planted a 15-foot marijuana plant in the garden behind the Dead End, until Chance’s dad found out and cut it down.) But other than that, Chance was all business when it came to the music. The songs sounded loose, extemporaneous, and piss-drunk on purpose, and only after endless fine-tuning. At the Dead End, he was General Chance, the top maniac in charge.

Paradise of Bachelors released In Search in July, and the response has been positive, both outside of Nashville (Pitchfork gave it a 7.7) and from the locals. Peter Cooper, who writes about music for the Tennessean, says In Search “took me completely by surprise.”

“It stands with Porter Wagoner’s ‘The Rubber Room’ and Jack Blanchard and Misty Morgan’s ‘Tennessee Birdwalk’ as one of the strangest pieces of music to emerge from Nashville, a city that is home to many wild-eyed howlers but that has often produced polished, careful recordings,” he says. “The album is a testament to the joy of music-making, though it makes me have bizarre, psychedelic dreams if I listen to it too close to bedtime.”

For Smith, In Search is “a complete outsider record made by a legit insider. He made a visionary, hermetic record while actively engaging every known pro and unknown weirdo [in Nashville]. Chance knew what he wanted his music to sound like and he knew what his real-time evolving legacy and story was. He still does; it hasn’t stopped.”

The unofficial Chance Martin tour of Nashville begins with a true area landmark, the Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa. Located on Belmont Boulevard, it has long been a gathering spot for visiting luminaries, local musicians, and a wide-ranging cast of assorted eccentrics. Cash, John Prine, Eddy Arnold, and Charley Pride recorded there. Waylon Jennings once had a place just down the road. The members of U2 hung out at the house during their late-’80s Rattle and Hum period. Chance is a regular — his boss, Cowboy Jack, was the proprietor, and they recorded their Sirius radio show in the studio upstairs. Chance did other odd jobs for Jack as well; he likens his role to that of Joe Esposito in Elvis’s famed “Memphis Mafia,” a consigliere who keeps things running and shoos away the riffraff.

“I’ve done a lot of different things for Jack over the last nine years,” he says. “Jack loved Johnny and Johnny loved me, and Jack really loved me because when Johnny wasn’t around, he’d get me in there to be Johnny. So I’ve been Johnny Cash for Cowboy for years.”

Chance and Cash I visited Nashville in late July, about two weeks before Cowboy Jack Clement died of liver cancer at the age of 82. I didn’t get to meet Jack, but he was at the house, living out his final days confined to a bed. In case you don’t know, Cowboy Jack lived a life. He wrote “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” and “Guess Things Happen That Way” for Cash and recorded Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Then he talked George Jones into doing “She Thinks I Still Care” and produced Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Then he made Dreaming My Dreams with Jennings, which is on the short list of greatest ’70s outlaw albums. I could go on, but during my time at Cowboy Arms Hotel, Chance seemed reluctant to dwell on what loomed on the horizon for his friend and mentor. “We’re in the fun business,” Jack famously said. “If we’re not having fun, we’re not doing our job.” So, in the interest of business, Chance, Greaves, and I head down to the pool with a six-pack to unwind in the sun for a few hours.

After In Search, Chance continued to make music, though nothing like the idiosyncratic blend of psych, soul, country, hard rock, funk, and gospel he cooked up at the Dead End. Last year, he put out a country record as Alamo Jones called The Voice in Black that’s clearly indebted to Johnny Cash. As he often did at Cowboy Jack’s request, Chance can capably ape the distinctive barrel-chested bellow that will forever be synonymous with songs about mortality and trains. The Voice in Black is essentially a musical séance — the songs are original but it’s a reiteration of another man’s aesthetic, which Chance seems all too aware of.

“I like the freedom to not be pinned down to a genre. I like to create my own, and that’s what I’m going to have to get back to because I didn’t have much fun doing the country record,” he says. “I had a good team, but it was a simplicity thing. It’s like I was just kind of holding back. I could’ve took those lyrics and rocked out.”

An example of Chance not holding back is the first song on In Search, “High Test.” With its metallic guitar riff, insistently danceable bass line, bluesy swagger, and Chance’s mania-inducing rants racing along the top of it all, “High Test” sets an uncomfortably sinister tone for the rest of the record. In the album’s voluminous liner notes, Chance says “High Test” was inspired by one of his countless airplane trips while on tour with Johnny Cash — religious cultists accosted him with pamphlets on the way to the gate, he inhaled a few cocktails to cool down in his seat, and then he “started seeing the Twilight Zone out the window.” “High Test” sounds like how that waking nightmare must’ve felt. For me, the darkness that pervades In Search makes it an amazing though not necessarily pleasurable listen.

“You know, Johnny Cash’s American records5 were dark,” Chance says. “If you’re asking me about dark music, I don’t see it as dark music, because if you’ll notice in ‘High Test,’ what does it say at the end of it?” He’s referring to Romans 10:9, which Chance shouts repeatedly in the song’s hellish closing moments. The Bible verse states — I’m paraphrasing — that believing in Jesus will save you. “That’s a salvation scripture. So I planted a seed in this dark album you’re talking about. So is that still dark, or does that make it light?”

It’s not clear what, exactly, Chance’s hopes were for In Search three decades ago. Back in the Maroon Unit, he mentioned a grandiose plan about getting on a major label and becoming an arena act. In the album’s liner notes, he claims he took the record to Hollywood, where it was subsequently rejected by A&M and Capitol. But when Paradise of Bachelors threw a record release party in Nashville the week of In Search‘s release, Chance declined to perform any of the songs live. He’s never played a note of In Search in front of an audience, and sees no point in starting now. “The question is, where would I have played and why? I’m in Nashville and Nashville is a country town,” he says. “I know now they’re leaning toward that rock-country thing, but I don’t want to sound anything like that and I want to make sure I don’t.”

Chance is gratified and emboldened by In Search being rediscovered all these years later, even if the conversation around the record occasionally goes beyond what he originally had in mind. (At one point, Greaves compares Chance to the 20th-century modernist composer Charles Ives.) Chance wants to get back to making records like In Search someday, though like the first time around, waiting for the muse can be a lengthy process.

“I’m thinking, ‘Am I ready?’ and I’m not ready. I know I’m not. So inspiration is what I’m looking for. What it’s going to take is the same thing it took on that album, which is the lead guitar player. I don’t know why, [but] that opens me up. Whatever it takes to open a person up is an important part of the formula. It’s like getting a jump-start. And when I hear those magic fingers on that guitar, lyrics is going to start running through my head, and I can’t stop it.”

Chance decides he wants to show me the Dead End, so we drive for 15 minutes past abandoned Chevy dealerships and Gun City store outlets to the old cul-de-sac on Winthorne Drive. Chance’s parents sold the ranch-style home 18 years ago, and now it’s partially concealed from the road by towering pine trees. “Damn, those sons of bitches are high,” he says as we pull into the driveway. When he lived here, Chance used a secret code to summon his band to the Dead End when he wanted to work on music. “Ruby” meant Tuesday, after the Rolling Stones song. Wednesday was “Yellow” (for “no reason at all,” he says). Thursday was “Thurple,” Friday was “green” (as in payday), Saturday was “black,” and Sunday was “white.”

“We had rehearsals every week most of the time,” he says. “And they’d come alone — that was part of it. Don’t bring your girlfriends and friends.”

In order to make ends meet during his In Search days, Chance returned to working local concerts and occasional film shoots. And, as always, he rubbed shoulders with only the best. In the mid-’70s, he did remote sound for Robert Altman’s Nashville, and one night he scared the hell out of a drunk Keenan Wynn by doing his deep-throated Johnny Cash/howl of God voice. When Ozzy Osbourne was in town, he asked Chance to destroy his dressing room, and Chance obliged. For David Lee Roth, Chance set up the vertical bars in the dressing room so Diamond Dave could limber up before hitting the stage with Van Halen. A young Michael Jackson asked Chance to play Frisbee, so he did that, too.

Chance might’ve doubled down on the security measures to keep the outside world away from his sanctuary at the Dead End, but word trickled out anyway about the post-rehearsal parties he held there. One time Carl Perkins visited and he and Chance went to the Smuggler’s Inn, a disco bar down the road, to pick up girls. (The song “Sunn of Gunn” — an inspired display of deathly disco-driven paranoia with a coked-out groove that slinks in and out of the Peter Gunn theme — is supposedly about that night.) Another time, Tanya Tucker stopped by at 2 a.m., and after too much revelry one of the biggest stars of ’70s country ended the night by peeing behind the bar in a red Solo cup and driving her Jeep through the fence in the front yard.

Chance Martin Despite the secretive recording of In Search, Chance Martin fancied himself a local superstar. When it was time to record, he hired out limousines to drive the band and their gear to the studio. Then they would come back to the Dead End with the latest mixes and party until dawn. Chance bought a boat — he called it The Freedom Boat — expressly for the band to use, as a place to “shake it off” after making music. They’d go down to the cove, drop an anchor, drink some beers, fall asleep for a few hours, and then go get breakfast. “I’ve seen more sunrises than most old mules,” he says.

Back in the car, Chance plays In Search on a loop. “I see a slide show when I play it. Man, I’m right back into the studio, the Dead End — I just see a lot of that, and I miss it,” he says. Chance still visits with his old friend Steve Hutchinson every week. But Mooney, the lead guitarist with the magic fingers, died in a car wreck a few years ago.

“I can’t do it again, but it was the best five years of my life. I mean, we were almost like a family. We spent a lot of time together, and my girlfriend did come and go because of that. And I’d say, ‘Now the band comes first.’ I used to tell her, ‘You want to go to a movie tonight, but I got a rehearsal.’ ‘Well, you care about the band more than you do me.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I do. There’s five of them. Five of us. You just got here a week ago.’”

As a kid, Chance wanted to be a lot of things when he grew up. Like so many other Southern white boys in the mid-’50s, he heard “That’s All Right” on the radio and instantly aspired to be Elvis. By the time he was a teenager, Chance dabbled in drag racing. After high school, he went to broadcasting school and called stock car races for a season under the name Orson Green. Chance still puts those skills to use — on the Sirius show, but also in the parking lot of a Chick-fil-A. One of those pop-up car shows you often see on summer nights in Middle America — where old-timers take the blankets off their Mustangs and GTOs in the garage and show them off for families dressed in matching jean shorts — has momentarily diverted Chance’s attention away from finding tonight’s dinner spot. He has to take a minute to check out the hot rods and maybe a pretty lady or two.

Chance is a solitary man these days. He’s been married twice, “once for eight days,” and another time for 17 years in a relationship that produced a son, Brandon, who is now 29. Chance gets on well with his ex, but he says their marriage was strained by his creativity. “Every time I picked up a pencil, she’d be like, ‘What are you doing?’ The line is gone by then, you know? After she tells me that every time, I finally quit. I managed to write eight or nine songs and demo them, but I had to get up at four in the morning.”

Chance finally pulls up to a restaurant near his place that he eats at regularly — an Applebee’s-like regional chain that appears to be staffed exclusively by young women between the ages of 19 and 23 who smile and say things like “Here comes trouble” when Chance walks in. When we get to our booth and start perusing the menus, Chance removes his shades and puts on reading glasses and it’s like a veil of bravado has been lifted. For the first time, I notice how frail he is. He’s made passing references to dealing with diabetes and emphysema, though neither seems to curb his smoking. (“I don’t smoke at home,” he explains back in the Maroon Unit. “I smoke at work and in the car.”) “When we first met him, he mentioned several times that he had lost a lot of weight recently and that he hadn’t been doing well. I think he was in the hospital for a while,” Greaves tells me later. “He seems content with his life, but I think it was a hard transition when he separated from his wife and he went back to a strange rock-and-roll lifestyle.”

After dinner, Chance drives us over to his home outside of Nashville. For 11 years, he has rented out the bottom half of an old white country house owned by an elderly woman who lives upstairs. Before pulling into the driveway, Chance fetches the mail for his landlady, and once we step inside he dutifully walks up the steps to deliver it. While Chance is away, I look at the plaques that line the wood-paneled walls. He’s a member of something called the International Country Music Hall of Fame. He’s also the recipient of several ICMAG — short for Independent Country Music Association of Germany — awards for a song he wrote in 2000 called “We’re All Here” for the singer T. Jae Christian. Apparently there really is such a thing as a German country fan, and this person really liked “We’re All Here” 13 years ago.

The liner notes for In Search end with a weird story involving a country artist from Miami named Billy Luke Burton whom Chance managed and wrote songs for in the early ’80s. Somehow Chance and Billy ended up locked into a record contract with two mobsters; under threat of bodily harm, Chance and Billy made an album called The Search Is Over that included five songs from In Search. After the album flopped, Chance was introduced to a hit man called The Magician. I’ll just quote from the liner notes here:

I said, “What, do you make things disappear?” He said, “Yeah.” I saw an Uzi on the table. Exactly what do you make disappear? He said, “People.” He had one arm cut off. “Am I on the list?” I asked. He said, “Not yet.”

Awesome stories about one-armed, Uzi-toting killers seem about as far removed from the basement I’m currently standing in as Miami is from South Nashville. An armchair psychologist might suggest that Chance’s modest digs represent the “real” Chance. Behind the stories and the one-liners, he seems a little lonely. But after listening to In Search many times in the past month, I also understand that the “real” Chance Martin is whomever Chance Martin decides to dream up. He learned this by example, after feeding one of the most magnetic men who ever lived the scripted words that he then transformed into majestic utterances for millions of television viewers. Chance had intimate knowledge of the mechanics that turned Johnny Cash into the Johnny Cash. Those gears still churn for Chance Martin — or whomever else he may decide to be.

Filed Under: Art, Celebrities, General topics, Nashville, TV

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Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland. He is currently writing a book on pop-music rivalries.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden