About Appalachian Fall

Before returning to my first love, music, I thought I wanted to be a writer like my father. I worked for a while as a newspaper and wire service reporter in North Carolina, and even got a master’s degree from the Creative Writing Program at the University of Texas in Austin. I wrote poems, short stories, and a couple of novels I never published, before coming home to my guitar as my vehicle of storytelling. But in the course of my writing career I also learned a lot about editing, and it remains my other line of work. These skills proved invaluable in creating these songs from my father’s poems, most of which are quite long and navigate the borderlands between verse, prose, and transcription of oral history. Unsurprisingly, I first chose the shortest ones I could find, including the little gems that are “Second Letter to Marlea” and “Twang.” Although I created a reprise for the latter, for the most part these first poems required almost no edits to become songs. The music wrote itself.

After that, things got a lot more difficult. I wanted to represent what perhaps appeals to me most in Dad’s work: his portraits of his closest friends in the community, two mountain elders whom he calls Philo and Beulah. They transmitted to him a treasure trove of Appalachian culture, stories of the community’s inhabitants going back more than a century, as well as spiritual and cosmological worldviews of extraordinary depth. My father’s writing about them records with great empathy and detail a way of life that has largely vanished but that left a profound mark on America. I knew I had to make Philo and Beulah central characters on this album, but it required a lot of hard choices, as anyone who has read his work will realize immediately. My father’s greatest gift to me in his final two years was his most precious possession: his writing, which he allowed me to work with to the ends of music. In one of his final poems, dictated to my sister in the hospital, he called this his son’s “rigor of revision.” 

Alex Martin: guitars (1–10); Jess Eliot Myhre: vocals (1–4, 6–10), clarinet (3); Steve Arnold: bass (1–10); Keith Butler Jr.: drums (1–10); Will McKindley-Ward: vocals (4–6); Vernon Sears: vocals (6); Sarah Foard: fiddle (7, 8); Jodi Beder: cello (2, 6); Gabby Cameron: banjo (3, 10); Tom Espinola: mandolin (5, 9)

About the Songs

1. Into the Desert

The order of the songs on Appalachian Fall is quite intentional, moving from the poet’s internal world out to the community. “Into the Desert” is the only track on the album that is entirely spoken, and it reads as a kind of statement of purpose, and a reflection on the costs of his writing life. Trains run through the valley beneath my father’s mountain, as they run through much of his poetry, symbols of the connections and the labor taken up across generations of human history. I tried to reflect that in my guitar accompaniment. At the time I was working on pieces by the great Brazilian composer Guinga, whose music also explores the rhythms of trains that link Rio de Janeiro to its working-class suburbs.

2. Second Letter to Marlea

Many of my father’s poems began as letters. In this one he is accompanied by his collie Hannah (whom he named for the philosopher Hannah Arendt) on a walk during which they discover a source that becomes the Source. I wrote a cello solo that is beautifully performed by Jodi Beder (of Dovetail, Zen for Primates, and other groups). A dear friend and neighbor, she has made a specialty of accompanying spoken word artists. Dad is among the poets she has performed with.

3. Twang

As a guitar player, I obviously had to include this one. I love what I hear as this poem’s mischievous playfulness, and my jazzy setting tries to respond to that, as do, for me, Jess’s clarinet solos. Gabby Cameron’s banjo adds to the twang. My father’s mountain cabin was far from any electrical or other utility lines, but he nevertheless filled it with music: Schubert, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms on a stereo powered by car batteries. Long before this album, music infused his poetry.

4. Philo Meets the Machine

Enter Philo Lightfoot, the central figure of tracks 4-7. Although he lived “in town” (Chilhowie, VA) when my father knew him, he grew up in the hollers of the Jamison Gap, which runs between my father’s mountain and the one facing it, and he often visited my father’s cabin on his walks through the mountains, which he knew like the palm of his hand. Many of the hollers’ inhabitants worked in the quarries of Saltville, a few miles’ walk away, and there Philo got his first job. He worked at the commissary, where he encountered a strange machine. Will McKindley-Ward’s vocal tells the story.

5. Mr Plummer, Preacher Dan, and the Moonshiners (Philo Speaks)

This trilogy of character sketches by Philo is, with the title track, for me the most joyful song on the album. Philo tells us first about an extraordinarily skilled African American mechanic and inventor, who “musta been a wizard,” then about a preacher who didn’t suffer fools or hypocrites (though he might cause them to suffer, with a solid left hook). The final story is about Philo himself, running moonshine in the 1930s with his friend Rob Heneger. Philo wishes that these “unusual types” had come to the attention of Sherwood Anderson, perhaps the most famous American short story writer of the early 20th century, who late in life moved to nearby Marion, VA, and started a newspaper. Will again provides the vocal, and Tom Espinola joins the fun on mandolin.

6. A Lightfoot Death

This song consists of excerpts from Dad’s chronicle of the last weeks of the man he called his “mountain father.” The parallels between his experience visiting Philo in the hospital in Marion and my own, more than three decades later, caring for Dad during his decline, were inescapable. Jodi weaves gentle cello commentary around Jess’s vocal before another exquisitely rendered solo. My friend the folk musician and artist Vernon Sears, whose roots are in Harlan County, Kentucky, incarnates Philo during the spoken passages, and Will harmonizes with Jess and Vernon on the final chorus.

7. Echoes in the Jamison Gap

In this song, my father recalls more stories Philo told him, this time about the men and women who lived in the cabins along the Jamison Gap, in years going back to the Civil War. Cutting wood on his mountain, Dad hears the sound of his ax bounce off the opposite ridge, and in it the echo of these lives and deaths in woods that have since gone largely silent. He “says their names,” so that their spirits live on, as presences that envelop him. Jess’s vocal and Sarah Foard’s haunting fiddle people this landscape with ghosts.

8. Planing the Ragged Twilights

The most “rockin’” song on the album, “Planing” is about the hard work of creating and nurturing community, and the acceptance or shaving away of the rough edges and differences—in personality, ideology, and otherwise—that allows us live together and appreciate each other. Dad wrote the poem on which this song is based in the 1980s, but it feels like it could have been written for our present moment. Sarah returns on fiddle, in conversation with my electric guitar.

9. Sparklers

Enter Beulah, a potter who grew up as a neighbor and playmate of Philo’s in the Jamison Gap and who was my father’s other closest friend. This song is composed of passages from a longer poem Dad wrote about a nighttime talk with Beulah on her front porch, under the mountains and the stars. The melody and my accompaniment are inspired in part by the Chandrakauns raga, which I’ve studied as a member of the Indian fusion band Kundalika, led by my friend Deepak Shenoy. Chandrakauns is associated with night and has elements that sound bluesy to Western ears. Tom’s mandolin returns to provide sparkle.

10. Appalachian Fall

The lyric of this concluding track is another short gem of a poem that required very little work on my part to become a song, beyond deciding which part to bring back as a refrain. In it, my father is perched high an apple tree in the Henegers’ yard, overlooking the valley. The panorama of his neighbors’ fields gives him a feeling of plenitude and belonging in this world that he adopted, and that adopted him. Gabby’s banjo contributes to the celebration.


(All lyrics from poems by Michael Martin, as edited and set to music by Alex Martin, New World Jazz/BMI, 2024)


1. Into the Desert 

What passes for speech is mostly inertia: coasting downhill 


after having mounted on others’ steam.


But what moves, and persists, from the heart, drives the rest of us also, 

and those others, whose supply lines may be stretched too far


because They labor in remotest fields: in the most improbable reaches 

   of outlying Life

where once They were transported from what They were; and cannot 



But maybe They’ll slake their thirst, for a moment, when They need it 


and be restored; together with the powers which conveyed Them there.


Maybe once only, and far from here—or very near. 


But we must find the reservoirs, the collecting points,

to pool those powers, and preserve them


for when the long Trains pass through 

on their way into the desert.




I dream of being severed, 

cut loose, & floating 


down into the dark like a maple wing 

spiraling out of the sun.


But the core, the seed inside,

wants out of its husk.


It’s like working on a stone bridge 

made of stalactites


condensing, drop by drop, 

out of dreams, out of the work done,


out of the tears of those 

I’ve caused to suffer.


There is no stopping place, no turning point, no return. 

I’m way out over it now, and the fall is endless.


But maybe, the Trains will pass over, with all their transports

through link on link, word on word,


that bear the vibrations, the massive connections, the recollections, in 


the long supply lines trickling out of dreams into the desert—


that will not stop for me.



2. Second Letter to Marlea

There’s been a lot of rain here.


I was gathering firewood yesterday

with Hannah, my new-old collie

who’s about 15, and snores


& we poked first my walkingstick

and then our heads down

through the brown dead leaf floor


into a tiny cave, and heard

far beneath, the flow of water

rushing on


down to the Tennessee

the Mississippi 

& the Gulf


& on.


3. Twang

My words, 


they’d practice your heart,

pluck every string.


Then they’d wait

for the far off twang


in the dark space, upstairs—

after the keyboard’s closed, 


the music put away,

stowed under the seat—


through bedroom and den,

the whole house & garden.


Not to forget…




the small klang

trembling, shut 


in the quiet cabinets,

in the pegs & quills.


Whatever’s held over

will be mine, also,


my lover.


4. Philo Meets the Machine

“An awful lot of peddlers roamed around back then. 

Mammy’d put ’em up for days at a time. 

Them and them hellfire and brimstone preachers. 

They set up a commissary over at the Quarry, 

I had my first paying job, over thar, 

running the steam horse. 

I hung around the store 

during lunch hour…


“Seemed like everybody in the world’d come in ’nar, 

and they’d all be a-talking. 

I don’t know how I got along before that. 

Yessir. That was my roundup of the daily news. 


“Hunting, fishing, crops, jokes, gossip, tall tales. 

I’d set on the steps and listen. 


“But oh, the sharpest, sweetest smells come out that door... 

Soap, leather, liquorice, cheese, ham, apples, varnish… 


“I was just a boy and I didn’t know much, 

but they was more things in that one place 

than ever I suspected.


“And all of it new… 


“Mmmmmm… And I’d take it all in—

with my slice of cheese, my nickel’s worth of crackers—

(break) and a bottle of pop!   


“They even had a machine, back again’ the back wall, 

that would take your measure

And I don’t mean height or weight. 

It wasn’t your strength even ’xactly. 

Ye’d drop in your penny and squeeze

And it’d test ye. 


“It’d tell you how much juice ye could take…”


He drops in his imaginary penny, he lifts his arms, and grips the handles. 

They’re spaced wide apart, for a boy, 

and trembling with the juice, the current… 


The shock of childhood, with no insulation: 

on a raw mountain: with a demented father: 

in poverty past imagining.


“Yessir. That machine was like lie-f… 


“The harder you worked it, the more it’d get ye!


“Well. I could stand right much—more’n most I reckon—

but I had to let go, at lay-st…” 


He smiles, and the great hands float between us, like falling leaves.

Like wide wings, drifting down—flattening, to rest, on his knees: 

like a pair of ancient raptors, gliding home to roost, 

on familiar limbs, across a holler.


5. Mr Plummer, Preacher Dan, and the Moonshiners (Philo Speaks)

Sherwood Anderson should ‘a come down here. This mountain was full of unusual types. 



They’s a feller Plummer, lived in Plum Creek, years ago. 

A colored man, an inventor. Thought he could fly a bicycle off a hill up at Greever’s. 

Said it was too dangerous and he quit.


Then he took a motorcycle, made the prettiest little car that you ever saw.

A three-wheel car for his two boys: they drove it down town, everywhere.


Ira Barker had a A-model Ford, wadn’t airy soul could fix it. 

Ira towed it from here to Bristol. Plummer took one long look and said, 


“Well, Mr Barker, I don’t know…”

They was an old rotten wire fence ‘air; he just broke a piece off it, 

crawled under that A-model, in two, three minutes crawled back out and said, 

“Well... That might do, Mr Barker. See if it’ll run.”

It never give Ira a bit of trouble after that…


A feller Spicer, lived up on Greever’s place: 

he was cutting hay, bundling it with a wheat binder, binder broke down. 

He was a pretty good mechanic hisself; worked on it off and on, for about a week. 

Finally he give up and called in Mr Plummer; Plummer come up and set down on the fence. 


Said, “Mr Spicer, pull it up a bit.” And he studied it a while… 

Then he got down under it and worked at it a few minutes.


Well, he got up and put his cap back on. He didn’t say nothing: just tipped his cap 

and nodded behind him, to the fields, and walked away...

He musta been a wizard. 



Sherwood Anderson should a went down to hear old Dan Graham. 

Dan preached at revivals, but he got his start picking dandelions, 

Just picking dandelions… You know how their roots grow deep. 

He’d dig ’em out and dust the holes with salt; and that killed ’em.

He done that ‘til he got through seminary.


He bought him a team of mules, and hauled lumber to Bristol, 

all the way from Konnarock, all the way into Tennessee.


He was a great big man, and boy he’d step on your toes: big shots and little shots. 

A feller started a fight with him once and ol’ Dan knocked ’im down. 

Said, “Well, even if I was a preacher… the Bible says 

if somebody hits you on the cheek turn the othern.

It didn’t say turn the other cheek, so I turned him!” 


He’d preach about pride and stuck-up people. He’d talk about a wheat field, ripening, 

when the heads of wheat get heavy... 


Said, “If it’s good and ripe, the head’ll droop over…”


Said, “If it’s really loaded, it’ll even bow down… 


But if it ain’t got no grain in it a tall… it’ll shoot straight up, of course!


“Think about it, folks, next time 

you all see a good Christian going along 

with his head straight up, and looking down at ye…


“You’ll know there ain’t nothing up there!”



Rob Henegar and I was hauling liquor, one night,

just over the state line, when the lights went out.


Rob had a little Ford roadster. We picked up fifty gallons for B.B. down in North Carolina. 

Trap Hill.

It was late in the evening when we started back. We got as far as Independence. 

Independence, Virginia.

It was dark as dungeons. Vehicle’s packed full, bumper’s dragging the road. 

No lights.


“Oh God,” I said, “let’s unload this stuff”: the Law’d be a coming. One look, and they’d know. 

We covered it with brush, found us some old stumps and set ’em afire. 


And you know, Jack, it turned out alright. The troopers never suspected. 

They’d cruise by and we’d wave. 

They’d wave right back and cruise on. 

Rob and I’d swap a few stories and sleep awhile,

wake up, and swap a few more.


Rob got to feeling so good, he said, “Let’s invite them troopers in here. 

They been working all night, out protecting the people: they deserve a little reward.”


I guess they’s been 25 or 30 Quarry men caught hauling liquor outta North Carolina. 

We had to keep on. We didn’t have airy choice, back then. 

A man had to take his chain-ces


That, or go thirsty.


Ol' Sherwood should 'a come down here…



6. A Lightfoot Death

So many times I remember him

going back into the mountains,


for a cure, for himself,

for Flora, Wanda, Bear, Luke.


For the herbs, the mountain air,

just being there, breathing it in.


He knew where the healing plants were,

what each could do. And now…


Ye come from Gert’s, didn’t ye?

No, I’ve been to see my sister, in Washington: she was singing in the cathedral.

You on your way to Gert’s?

No, I was in Washington, since I saw you last.

You goin’ to Washington?



Thoughts, words scatter blurred and dim

wheeling about his head in twilight.


He raises his great hand;

it floats in dark’ning air.


He cannot find them.

Yet he’s searching still.



Once he could take a hundred stitches, 

in his scalp, without sedation. 


But this pain, this cancer—

in stomach, liver, bones… 


A stranger, on the edge of his country, 

he crosses 


into this nomansland 

of dark floating figures and shades.


The good ones. They’re out there too, Jack. 

Out there with the demons...

There’ll be a war, Jack. 

I won’t live to see it; but maybe you will.


There are Powers in the air: 

invisible Forces, light and dark, 


inaccessible to me, 

a campsite of ancestors 


Cherokee or Celtic. It’s Milton’s world, 

raised to another power. 


In the sigh of white pines

heavy with snow


I hear the tread of Lightfoots

in the light world.


All the labor unacknowledged,

the secret toil, the secret craft—


his pappy’s fiddling, his mammy’s dancing, 

his brother’s visions, his sister’s songs—


chamb’ring the great wind 

in the base of the voice.



[Wanda]: Do you remember daddy, when you took me on your knee?

[Philo]: We don’t care, do we?



Thoughts, words scatter blurred and dim

wheeling about his head in twilight.


He raises his great hand;

it floats in dark’ning air.


He cannot find them.

Yet he’s searching still.


We don’t care now do we?

We don’t care now do we?

We don’t care now do we?

We don’t care now do we?



7. Echoes in the Jamison Gap

I used to go deeper into the mountain

to cut wood above the Price graves. 


I remember the sharp thud on the opposite ridge

from the Luster Field, where the Lightfoot cabin was,


as if someone were there, working beside me, 

driving an axe into a dead log,


as if no one were there, no one else.


I’d clap my hands, and listen 


to the stillness, and emptiness, of the mountain, 

and to the echo


which scored the stillness.


for it was the sound of stillness, 

as the stillness was of absence. 



absence of the hootowl and the screechowl,

woodpecker and woodthrush,

wildcat and bobcat,

panther and whippoorwill. 

And Philo said:


memory of Lou Brown— 

nobody knowed where she come from, or why she come there—


of Rube Woods, her murderer, 


of Ellen Walden who built up fires, 

and slept by the road (with her 36 Colt)


of eight black brothers, poisoned, and buried in a common grave, 

where a poplar’d blowed o’er,


of one brother, who was sick and hadn’t eaten, 

who went and hanged himself out by the Tin Bridge 


of Romy, bee man from Naples, 

calligrapher, grafter of fruit trees,


of Private Riffey, who shot Stonewall (or so he believed), 

he hoed corn, reflected


of Laurie Welborne, the mayor’s daughter 

(who hoed corn also, and took in washing),


of Laurie’s daughter, Clio Lightfoot, flower of the mountain,


and of the Lightfoots, of the Lightfoot holler. 



I used to go deeper into the mountain

to cut wood above the Price graves. 


8. Planing the Ragged Twilights

Jackie, coal miner’s son

all elbows, rough crude profane,


a John Birch man, you can hear whisper

three fields away.


Jackie helped Rob & Daisy

make it through their last years. 


& other folks on the Creek: getting up at five 

stumbling around the hill to feed Rick’s steers, 


then again, after dark - year after year

between ten-hour shifts in West Virginia,


eighty miles over the mountains.

“Done it for nothing,” he said. 



Thus we keep rounding the days

planing the ragged twilights


fleecing and feeding

finishing the fences


currying the current droves

and driving them on


driven with them

& letting them go 


as we go with them 

with the flow. 



As I climb a low mountain 

into the open, into the evening 


high upon its pebbly spine, I hear

the yapping of chained guard dogs


around a hundred kitchens

quoting their property rights:


encircling domestic circles

snarling with fortress fear


innocent of the fearful

wonder of Creation


wide sown, flung far 

in everyone.


Planing the ragged twilights…

Planing the ragged twilights…



9. Sparklers

Evening, on Beulah’s porch

out with the first stars,

talking, star-gazing.


I mention the radio-astronomers,

how they listen, to the faintest signals

from the earliest moment: Creation itself


a tremor, still rippling through us,

echoing, from behind the vault,

tolling, from our tallest belfry:


slow waves, from the beginning of time,

red shifts; discs in the desert; Cosmos on TV...

pulsars; red giants; black holes...


how the sky may be all riddled...

time punctured, like a mountainside

with these dark tunnels, and caves through...


wells down: to other skies, times, universes...

universes within universes...

If—say—you could only go far enough...


Mesons, mosquitoes, red giants…

lightning bugs, supernovas…

poets talking to potters on a doorstep…

Beulah’s hunkered down 

on the porch, above me: her face clouded over

brooding, thoughtful...


Time passes. The clouds disperse.

Thoughts animate her face.


Then, with one continuous motion

she’s on her feet: up-lifted by an image:


“Yes, when I think of God, just standing there, at the first,

in the dark: scattering stars out from him, for his own delight:

spraying them... sprinkling them… pitching ’em   

out, from Himself, like…  sparklers...”


“Not catching ’em back, see: letting ’em go,

releasing ’em, tossing ’em out… and out—

watching ’em go—far and wide...

before ever anything was...”


Raising one callused hand, she describes a circle

with a spraying, scattered motion,

and rubs it on the air, repeating it

reaching farther, with the words: and wide... 


ineffably—like a timid wave, a child’s eraser over slate—

effacing, as she makes, her mark:

in deference to this awesome Motion

which hers must shadow.


“It’s this black hole ...may be how the spirits leave

this life: maybe that’s their way back, to the world they knew,

once before, and forgot; and yet, they’re aimed back there...

though the memory’s burned out of them, before they’re born...


“When my mother died: I seemed to see this cloud of vapor,

just overhead: I tried to paint it once; and this… sweat on her forehead, 

like the start of the vapor trail.... This death-sweat: this death-dew 

on her face: I touched with my lips...


“Her fingers’d press mine, and let go, press, and let go…

but each time, weaker... She was going slowly...


“Then they felt like there was nothing in them.

“But it wasn’t painful: it was a... release, see,

the clay opening out

and the spirit going up through that path of vapor,

through that black hole, maybe.


“I wouldn’t mind leaving: I wouldn’t mind at all,

if it wasn’t for my family.


“It wouldn’t be hard: 

it’d be like a little bird…”


Beulah cups her hands, her fingertips pointed up

toward the thickening stars.

She makes a crack in them, widens it slowly:

“It’d be like a bird: a little chick

cracking out of her shell.”


10. Appalachian Fall

Way up in the Henegars’ tree just now picking the last apples 

and the wind over the hill coming on. 


Swaying I reached and it blew them past me 

swaying again reached and it blew them down.


Again reached and it blew us together 

me and the branch, the branch and the breeze 


whispering together: bending almost breaking. 


And on the near ridge crest on the slate gray sky

I saw Flo’s steers feeding on Beulah’s new roof 


and Gerald and Clyde hamm’ring at their feet 

and thought: bowed to the hammers for their bread 


as they to the grass: hammering on: ruminating on... 

the wind blowing on and on: 


I to the apples, apples to the branch: branch to the roots 

to the field to the beef and the workmen: 


Where my brothers is the altar? 

and whose is the sacrifice? 


and for whom bow the apples blows the wind... 

as I reached for the apples was I reaching for the wind?



I to the apples, apples to the branch: branch to the roots 

to the field to the beef and the workmen: 


Where my brothers is the altar? 

and whose is the sacrifice? 


and for whom bow the apples blows the wind... 

as I reached for the apples was I reaching for the wind?


In the top of the tree the branches swayed 

and I too swayed and sang— 


Where is the altar?

Whose is the sacrifice? (3x)




Martin and Martin, 2013. Photo by Leslie Brice Bustamante.