The greater Philadelphia area has produced countless musicians that have gone on to become huge success stories. The list goes on forever, but includes Hall & Oates, Jim Croce and Chubby Checker. It isn’t necessarily thought of as a hot bed for country music, but don’t be fooled. There are people in that part of the country that not only love the genre, but there are artists creating music in it as well.
Image courtesy of World Maps
I met one of those people this week. He now lives in Nashville, but he’s been writing country songs long before he made the move south. His name is Lenny Martelli and if you’re willing to hang out with me for a few, I think you’re not only going to become a fan of his, but you’ll probably even feel better about your day in general. His story is all about tenacity.
Martelli was born and raised in Norristown, Pennsylvania. He had a very stable upbringing. His parents are still together and he has two younger sisters. As a young boy, he was very into sports, mostly football. He said he was kind of on the aggressive side, so “rather than push my sisters around, I could go push other kids around instead”, even though he said he never really pushed his sisters around anyway.
He started playing drums when he was four-years old, piano at five, guitar at seven, and moved on to bass guitar, woodwinds and whatever else was lying around at school afterward. So, between playing football, basketball, baseball, lacrosse and all of these different musical instruments, there wasn’t much time for anything else. Martelli was a very busy kid.
Photo courtesy of Lenny Martelli
How does one learn to play all of those instruments? “My Dad’s a professional drummer. I just kind of learned from watching him. I had formal piano lessons for maybe a year or two until I got bored. I couldn’t read music so I was just memorizing everything and learning by ear, and pretending I was reading the music.”
Photo courtesy of Lenny Martelli
Photo of Lenny Martelli, Jr. and Lenny Martelli, Sr. courtesy of Lenny Martelli
In the small slices of time when he wasn’t playing music or sports, Martelli and his father enjoyed watching horror movies together. He admits he was probably too young to watch some of those movies, but he said he was never really phased by the gore, because he always understood that it was just Hollywood magic and none of it was real. He said he enjoyed all of the “Friday the 13th” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” type films and has seen them all many times.
I knew there had to be a lot more than just horror movies playing in the Martelli house with a professional musician living there and a kid that was playing multiple instruments before he was even a teenager, so I asked about music. What kinds of music did Lenny Martelli hear around the house growing up? “Everything from Van Halen, Journey and Metallica to Steely Dan and Bob Marley. I didn’t get introduced to country music, as far as classic country music, until I was old enough to find it myself. My Dad listened to a lot of the classic rock. I would be listening to the radio and I was listening to Steely Dan and Bob Marley, but at the same time, I was also listening to Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw.”
Martelli explained that his “Mount Rushmore of country music isn’t what everybody else thinks the Mount Rushmore of country music would be. Many would include legends such as Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. I love all those guys, but for me, I got introduced to country music by Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney and even Alan Jackson.” I couldn’t help myself at that point. I had to ask. If Lenny Martelli could create his own Mount Rushmore of country music, who would be on it? “For me, Chesney and McGraw for sure. Willie Nelson, because I’ve grown to love and understand how much he has done for country music, and as a songwriter I just love everything about that. I’ll put Johnny Cash up there because he deserves to be there, and because I’ve jokingly been called ‘The Man in Black’ as well.” It took me a second, but yes, Martelli was dressed ALL in black from head to toe, except for a slight pop of bluish-green color on his ball cap. A Philadelphia Eagles ball cap.
Alright, so the youthful Lenny Martelli discovered the country music genre, but what happened next? Did he immediately run out and start a country band? Not exactly. He and his friends started some rock garage bands, but they were more fortunate than most kids. Their garage bands had some “high end” accommodations. That’s because Martelli’s father, Lenny Martelli, Sr., was a professional musician and had already outfitted his garage into a pretty sweet space for playing music. It included PA speakers, lights and a drum riser. Were these garage rockers focused and ready to take on the arenas of the world? Not really. “I guess I didn’t really start to take it serious until I got hurt.” Stop the presses. Hold the phone. Pay attention. This is where I’m going to allow Lenny Martelli to tell you what happened next in his own words.
Think Country: Alright. Tell me about getting hurt.
Lenny Martelli: So, like I said, I was an athlete, I played basketball, football and baseball most of my life until high school when I switched to lacrosse. My thing was, I didn’t want to hit a ball and run to a person, I wanted to hit a person and run to a ball. So, anything I could do to hit somebody, or hit another person, was what I wanted to do. Football was always the main sport I trained for, so I figured if I was going to do anything in the off-season, it would be something like football, which was lacrosse with pads and hitting and stuff, so I started doing that. Sophomore year after football season, I decided to take off from playing basketball and just train for next football season and work out and stuff.
Photo courtesy of Lenny Martelli (last year of playing football)
LM: I also was a recreational snowboarder. One day I went snowboarding with friends and there was a jump that was not constructed all the way, but it was open to the public. There were a lot of things missing, like, you know, the blue lines that are painted on the snow for different reasons. The first line tells you that you’re starting the jump. The second blue line tells you that you’re leaving the jump, so when you look at it, it’s all white. This one didn’t have any blue lines, didn’t have a lot of stuff. So, without harping too much on that, it just wasn’t designed too well. On this day, it was a little warmer, a little more compact. I went off this jump. We checked it out a couple of times and everyone was going off of it. I happened to go off of it and I must have hit a spot, when looking at it afterward, it peeled back a little bit, so it almost came into a crescent moon rather than a jump. So, when I hit that part of the jump, my board went up over my head and shot me almost into a back flip, and I wasn’t trying to do a back flip. I’ve always been a bigger guy, at the time I was about 220 and a football player, and I didn’t have the weight distribution to flip myself back over, so I just hung in the air upside down, for what felt like forever because all I saw was white, and I came down after 50 feet in the air, and 50 feet in distance, right on the back of my shoulders. I hit there, bounced forward, slid across the ice on my stomach, and my friend came down and he said, “Hey, are you alright?” I was kind of like, “Yeah. I’m fine.” I didn’t lose consciousness and I was just thinking it was weird. So, my friend was like, “Alright, hop up.” I went to stand up and I couldn’t move anything.
TC: Oh, my goodness. How horrible was that?
LM: I can remember everything. I didn’t lose consciousness, which makes it ten times worse. I wish I had been knocked out.
TC: Wow, and how old were you?
LM: I was 15. So, long story short, they took me by helicopter to the hospital, I had surgery for six to eight hours and they told me I was paralyzed from the chest down, and they gave me something like a 1 percent chance in the next ten years, to gain any sort of feeling. Definitely not movement, I mean, you might be able to wiggle a foot or a toe, but you’ll never walk again.
TC: At 15, what does this do to you mentally?
LM: I didn’t even get it. I didn’t even understand. To me, it didn’t even make sense. I just thought, you go to rehab and you get better in a couple months. I was an athlete, so you break your arm, you put it in a cast and you do your stretching and you get better. So, that what I was thinking, same thing here, and they were like, “No, you’re not going to ever walk again.” I was just like, “I don’t even understand that.” I don’t think I was naïve, I think I was just uneducated. I didn’t know the severity. Just young. I was also way too stubborn to accept it anyway. I didn’t even want to hear it. I was in ICU for about a week and a half, and then I was transferred to an in-patient facility for three months, and that’s where I did the majority of my rehab, and that’s where I started to walk within that first three months.
TC: Wow. That’s fantastic. So, you were actually a stubborn SOB and since then you’ve been working your butt off to get that all back?
LM: Pretty much. I got hurt in February of 2010. I was walking with a walker by June and down to my cane by December of that same year.
TC: I am so happy and proud of you. A lot of people would have just given up.
LM: Thank you.
There you have it Think Country readers, that was Lenny Martelli telling you the central portion of his injury story. He did not, and never does want, his injury to define who he is. First and foremost, he is an artist. He’s a musician and a songwriter. If anything, he would much prefer to be an inspiration to people rather than draw sympathy from anyone. He did go on to mention that in his snowboarding accident he also suffered a punctured lung. Both of his shoulders are still impinged, meaning he can’t lift his arms up over his head, and when the doctors opened him up, the entire top of his back was shattered to dust. In addition, his diaphragm was paralyzed, so he couldn’t really talk, much less sing. The first thing to get better was the punctured lung. Martelli did a lot of breathing rehab and his diaphragm started coming back, giving him his voice more volume and allowing him to speak for longer periods of time without losing his breath. Once he conquered talking, he began to teach himself to sing again.
I think I should also tell anyone reading this that prior to my meeting with Martelli, I had no knowledge of this accident. I didn’t know that the artist I would be sitting down with was going to enter walking with a cane. This was all news to me and I have to tell you, that even with that cane hanging off the table, there was never one minute that I thought about Martelli being anything other than a songwriter who wanted to talk about music, except for this one slice of time, which, in the larger scheme of things, really wasn’t very long at all. His music is so important to him that he continues to work hard at getting stronger. Right now, he walks with a cane mostly as a precautionary tool, “so people don’t bump into me.” He said he doesn’t like the idea of sitting on a stage and playing guitar, with the exception of songwriter rounds, where it’s the norm. He wants to be able to stand up without assistance and play his guitar. While he is very open to speaking to others who may be in a similar situation and need inspiration, he has never wanted to make that a full-time endeavor. He always knew he wanted to pursue sports or music as a career. His injury took sports out of the equation, so it had to be music, and he’s been working tirelessly at it ever since fate made the choice for him.
Moving on, since we had talked about a pretty heavy topic for a while, I went for a question that lightened things up. It took us into Martelli’s teenage years and gave us a look at what made the musical part of his brain tick. When he was a teenager, what band would he have loved to join? He answered, “There was a band I listened to religiously called Mayday Parade. I loved them. They were high energy, doing this swinging guitars around their necks thing. I loved all that stuff. That’s where I get a lot of my music influence from. That kind of emo music scene. So, yeah, that band.”
I think in so many of our lives, as we grow older, we can look back and realize there were adults that made a positive impact on us in some way. Some more than others, and often they never find out how much they contributed to all that we’ve become. We just never have the opportunity to tell them. For Lenny Martelli, it was a music teacher named Mrs. Griffin. Mrs. Griffin was his music teacher from grade school all the way through high school. She encouraged him to play drums. After his injury, when he couldn’t move his feet quickly enough, she encouraged him to sing. He was too shy to sing in public at first, but it was Mrs. Griffin who convinced him to give it a shot. By Martelli’s senior year, he joined everything. He was in musicals, the band and every club he could think of. He figured he had nothing to lose at that point. It was then that he realized he could actually sing. He was going to rehab at least three times a week as well, so the specter of the accident still hung over him. He always felt uncomfortable when people would feel sorry for him for being “the kid who had the accident”, but what began to offset that was the positive feedback he was getting from singing on stage. He really enjoyed that. He wasn’t just a musician who played instruments anymore, he could sing too. He was even voted “Most Musical” in the high school yearbook. Martelli was truly becoming a well-rounded musician. He went on to college and he and his friends formed a band that he described as “in that Warped Tour kind of genre, punk/emo”. They developed a big fan base and did really well, but even though the opportunities kept rolling in, Martelli started to burn out from that environment. He got the itch to just write songs that told stories and that led to the genre that does story songs best, country. This entire chain of events, and everything else that came afterward with Martelli’s music career, can be credited back to Mrs. Griffin from Norristown, Pennsylvania.
Photo of Mrs. Griffin courtesy of St. John Paul II High School
When you live in a rock and roll world and don’t know anyone who listens to, or plays country, you’re on your own. Martelli began writing country songs by himself because he just didn’t have any friends or contacts that were involved with country music back then, until one day in 2014, a rock friend of his had a piece of information that would essentially change his life.
Photo courtesy of Lenny Martelli
The local country music radio station, WXTU 92.5 FM, was holding a contest. It was a singing contest. If you won, you would get to open up for their anniversary show which had Dierks Bentley headlining. Others on the bill were Chris Young, Jon Pardi, Chase Rice, Neal McCoy, Swon Brothers and Lindsay Ell. Martelli was very hesitant to enter this contest. He had just started to become a solo country artist. He had always been in bands. He had no idea what he was doing yet as a solo artist. His friend encouraged him to give it a try, so he did.
Competing against 50 other seasoned country artists, Martelli went in and sang one of his original songs with the lowest of expectations, and won. He got his big break, played for three whole minutes, which was the allotted set time, and after coming off stage, was approached by people asking where they could find his music. Confused, Martelli had to tell them they couldn’t find it anywhere. He hadn’t recorded any. Well, now that he had a demanding public wanting music, it was time to make a demo. He went in and recorded a song, “Little Do You Know”, that ended up getting a million streams. Just as he was amazed that he won the radio station contest, he was completely amazed that the song did so well. “There was no strategy. It was just me making music and putting it out.”
Photo courtesy of Lenny Martelli
People were obviously noticing this song and that eventually brought Martelli and his current producer Noah Henson, together. Henson also plays guitar for country artist Brantley Gilbert. As soon as Henson’s name came up in our conversation, I had to mention one of Martelli’s songs that I had been listening to over and over, “Boys and Their Toys”. I looked at the writing credits for that song and noticed it was written by both Martelli and Noah Henson. It’s just one of those songs that grabbed me. It’s a country song that talks about trucks, but not the way country songs usually do. It’s much different. We chatted about that for a bit. It was a song that Martelli had started on his own and when he got together with Henson, they finished it up together within about an hour and recorded it that day.
The first single that was released off of Martelli’s upcoming EP was “The Night is Young”, followed by “Boys and Their Toys”. The next single, which is yet to be determined, is set to release in April sometime. Once all the singles have been released digitally, there will be a physical version of the EP and an EP release party will be planned.
Noah Henson was the first person in Nashville that Martelli co-wrote songs with, but he has also become very fond of writing with Billy Dawson. In fact, the single that’s set to be the final release on Martelli’s EP, “Just a Thought”, was co-written by Martelli, Dawson and Henson. It’s also Martelli’s favorite.
Video courtesy of Intensity Media and YouTube
Martelli added that up until recently, he was writing almost exclusively with females, most often with Piper Bateman and Julienne Irwin. He said he actually has an easy time working with female co-writers because his best songs tend to focus on more sensitive subjects, things that women writers often excel at. He joked that “underneath this beard, there’s a lot of vulnerability”, and he said he loves writing with Bateman and Irwin not only because of how good they are, but because “they appreciate my male perspective, but I’m not forced to bring it to the table” and they’re able to focus on whatever makes the best song possible. Not every song idea is geared strictly toward a male or female artist.
Martelli will be hitting the road to promote his new EP, with shows starting in March. Look for him in places that include Maryland, Delaware, the greater Philadelphia area, New Jersey and other portions of the northeast. He’ll also be traveling to Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio.
What about touring in the UK? Would Martelli be up for that if the opportunity presented itself? He would be all for it. He told me that all the things he’s heard from other artists who have played over there have been so positive, there’s no way he would ever pass it up. “From what I’ve heard, they listen to all the deep cuts and they know all the words.” I would say from everything I’ve heard, that’s accurate. Hopefully, at some point, our friends in the UK will get to hear Martelli’s music live and in person.
In his perfect fantasy world, if Lenny Martelli could open for any country artist it would be Kenny Chesney. He didn’t hesitate for a second when I asked who it would be. This, my friends, is a DEVOUT member of the No Shoes Nation. When Chesney plays a show, Martelli goes all out. “One year when I had a truck, I put a tarp in the back of the truck and got 300 pounds of sand and put it in the bed of the truck. I got beach chairs and stuck ‘em in there. It was a whole day thing.” He admitted that his love of all things Kenny Chesney is probably a little weird because it doesn’t really go with his daily wardrobe (all black from head to toe) and the deep songs he writes, but this proves there are more sides to Martelli than one could ever cover in one interview. He made sure I knew he will always be all about the beach lifestyle and a card-carrying member of the No Shoes Nation. I did point out that Chesney does have a good catalog of songs about life too. He isn’t all about digging your feet into the sand and drinking beer out on a boat. Martelli agreed. “My favorite song is ‘The Good Stuff’, and he’s had Eric Church on tour with him, and he’s another one that I’d love to open up for, Eric Church.” Without question, Church writes some of the heaviest stuff in country music. Songs that make you think.
Video courtesy of Kenny Chesney, Vevo and YouTube
As far as Martelli’s dream venue to play, that rolled right off his tongue in a hurry too. “The Linc (Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia) because I always said after I got hurt, if I can’t play football on this field, I’m gonna play music on this field. So, I’ve gotta get under those lights at some point.”
Now that Martelli has been living in Nashville for some time, and has had a while to get around and do some work in the music industry, I knew there were places he had probably been that were legendary. I wondered if any of them were particularly impressive to him and why. “I would say the Opry. When we first came down and we went there, I was just thinking that this is where everything happens and I would love to play there. The Opry or The Ryman would be my southern dream venues.”
If you’re planning a trip to Nashville anytime soon, listen up. If you’re a local, you should listen up too. Lenny Martelli is going to tell you about a place that you probably won’t find in any tourist brochure, that he highly recommends you go to. “Uncle Bud’s. They have catfish and fried chicken. It’s over in Donelson. It’s a shack of a building with flour everywhere in there, and it’s fried everything. It’s so good. Uncle Bud’s. They do an all-you-can-eat catfish and all-you-can-eat fried chicken deal every day. I think on Sunday it’s like, seven bucks. It’s amazing. Anybody I’ve told to go there has gone there, come back and gone there again.”
Musical time travel. As difficult as it might be to decide, if you could spend one week in another era just for the music, which one would it be? Lenny Martelli would go back to the 1980’s to experience the music of that decade, along with the hairstyles, the parachute pants and everything else that defined that time period. Martelli’s father, in addition to being a musician, is also a hair stylist. His grandfather was a barber, so hair styles have always been important in their family. You can’t even mention the 1980’s without someone bringing up “big hair” or “hair bands”. Martelli said even though he didn’t live through that decade, he knows all the music from it, so he’d love to go back and experience it firsthand. As a “survivor” of the ‘80’s, I think he made a good choice. They were wild, but worth it.
Last, but never least, when Lenny Martelli “Thinks Country”, what does he think? “Family. That’s the reason I got into country music. I come from a family of Italian immigrants and they were so proud to be American, and they were so proud to be in this country. We had faith, family and everything all kind of tied in. When I listen to country music, I think that’s what it’s about. It’s about good family morals, faith in God, faith in your neighbor and your friend. To me that was just our way of growing up, and to me, we were southern in that sense. We had all those same morals. Family and country music just go together.
Photo courtesy of Patti McClintic and Think Country
Lenny Martelli can be found:
Photo courtesy of Lenny Martelli