Exclusive Excerpt: Grunge Icon Barrett Martin’s New Book on the Screaming Trees ‘The Greatest Band That Ever Wasn’t’

The 56-year-old Olympia, Washington-born artist Barrett Martin is a legend of grunge music. But he’s also so much more. The drummer for bands like Mad Season and the Screaming Trees, Martin has worked with icons in the genre like Mark Lanegan, Layne Staley, Jack Endino, and Mike McCready. In addition, Martin has worked with R.E.M., Queens Of The Stone Age, and Nando Reis, who is today one of the biggest songwriters in Brazil and with whom Martin won a Latin Grammy.

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And from these times, Martin, yes, has many stories. To wit, the artist and philosophical thinker has written a brand new book, out globally on Friday (November 3), called, The Greatest Band That Ever Wasn’t, which is all about his time in the Screaming Trees, a band he joined around 1992. Below, American Songwriter exclusively shares an excerpt of that book’s final chapter, entitled, “The Classroom at the Back of the Bus.” (Those who want signed paperback copies can find them HERE.)

[RELATED: Barrett Martin Pays Respect to the History of Sound on ‘Scattered Diamonds’]

The Classroom at the Back of the Bus

When I think back on my time in the Screaming Trees, I now see that it was our Promethean courage that would never allow us to give up. But we also carried the curse of Sisyphus, who cheated death and then was sentenced to roll a boulder up a mountainside, for eternity.

In the decade I spent on the road with the Trees in the 1990s, and the additional two decades since, what I remember most about our time together are those years on the tour bus, rolling down the endless highways of the world, through the night and into the sunrise. We had some time off here and there, but when I pieced together the timeline for this book from 1991 to 2016, it felt like I had lived an entire lifetime in the Screaming Trees.

All of that talking and laughing and listening to music in one bus, with a small crew of guys who, aside from a couple replacements here and there, generally remained the same. We drove and flew across hundreds of thousands of miles in North America, Europe, and Australia and miraculously, all of us made it home alive.

The back of the bus became a kind of musical sanctuary for everyone, because we often didn’t get hotel rooms unless we had a night off. Most nights after a show, we just rolled out of town and kept going, driving through the night to the next city, and then we’d set up the whole circus, all over again. It was during those all-night drives, when I would chose one of two spots on the bus—either up front in the jump seat next to the driver, where I’d put on my headphones and unwind listening to the music of Miles Davis or John Coltrane. Or I’d sit in the back of the bus with Mark, John Hicks, Danny Baird, and sometimes even the Conner brothers would join as well.

Generally, the Conner brothers held court in the front of the bus, where we’d watched classic movies on VHS tapes taken from their family video store. John Hicks would venture forward to add his impersonations and comedic commentary to the films, which was his appointed duty. This is where I learned a great deal about cinema, just from watching films and riding that all-night bus into oblivion.

We all agreed that Francis Ford Coppola’s film, Apocalypse Now (1979) was the greatest movie ever made, mainly because every aspect of a man’s character is depicted in that film. We also ranked John Carpenter’s, The Thing (1982) as a close second for the very same reasons. Almost every member of the band and crew could recite those movies, line by line.

Sometimes a member from an opening band would join us for a short leg of the tour, and then we would all be sitting there watching movies in the front, and listening to music in the back, to every great film and every great album ever made up to the late 1990s. That’s when the back of the bus became a classroom for me, and for us all.

You see, despite everything I’ve told you about the Screaming Trees in all of these stories, including the hilarious and the horrible, the successes gained and lost, the fact remains that we were all great musicians and songwriters whose diverse talents became something much more powerful. It became like a science laboratory for music.

I had gone to college to study jazz and classical music—none of the other Trees had done that, yet together they could write songs that our fans will remember for the rest of their lives. One time, Mark asked me to recommend some jazz albums to send to his father for Christmas, which I was able to do easily. But I was also unaware of much of the American and European songbook that had laid the foundation for everything the Trees would build upon. Looking back on it, I was indeed the naïve kid who had the good luck to join a band like the Trees, and that’s when my real schooling began.

Mark thought of me as this big, goofy kid with a huge head of hair and equally huge ideas about music, but for example, I had no real knowledge of the Velvet Underground, or The Ramones, or Joy Division. To be honest, I had listened to those bands, but they didn’t really appeal to me the way jazz did. Admittedly, my own musical scope was limited and it was the Trees who expanded my horizon. “This is the cool stuff man, this is the real songwriting” they would say, and that’s all that really matters when it comes to making great albums— the songwriting. It was Mark, Van, and Lee who started playing those albums for me, teaching me about the music I wasn’t taught in music school, and it all took place in that classroom in the back of the bus.

I wasn’t a music hipster when I joined the Trees, and I’ll never be one in the future. That was never my goal. But damn, can I spot a great song when I hear it, and I learned all of that from being in the Screaming Trees.

When we started doing those big tours in 1992, every album ever made was being reissued on CD. We bought those CDs constantly, filling shopping bags, every time we stopped the bus near a record store or a truck stop, because truck stops had huge CD selections back then. We bought CDs from new bands, all the classic bands, and all the reissues, of every musical genre imaginable. We listened to the British Invasion bands of the 1960s; African recordings from Fela Kuti in the 1970s; every European new wave band from the 1980s, and all the hardcore and punk bands that had started the American alternative movement that was still very new at the time.

We went through every single album from the classic rock era, and to be honest, I hadn’t even listened to most of the Led Zeppelin catalog until I climbed aboard that bus. For drummers, John Bonham of Led Zeppelin is the Holy Grail, but I hadn’t even studied The Great One until Mark pulled out a copy of Physical Graffiti (1975) and said, “You gotta listen to this one, son.” I was already 25 when I became obsessed with Led Zeppelin, which is about the same age that the members of Led Zeppelin were when they made that album.

And then there was the delta blues, something the Trees all connected with at a spiritual level. I mean, if you listen to any Trees song, you can hear the blues in every single note of it. We played those delta blues albums every time we drove through the American South because the landscape seemed to cry out for it.

After the Trees finally ended, I went on to work with some actual blues legends like Cedell Davis and Ironing Board Sam, and the very last thing I worked on with Mark was that blues soundtrack in 2021. I guess it was perfectly appropriate that the blues would be our starting point, and also the last thing we worked on together.

A lot of what the Trees played on the bus was generally what you might call folksinger music. We listened to Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Gordon Lightfoot, Townes Van Zandt, Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, Tim Hardin, Tim Buckley, Jeff Buckley, Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, and of course, all the outlaw country artists like Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and George Jones.

There were four songs that I distinctly remember Mark loving enough to sing along to in their entirety, and one of those songs was “Reason To Believe” (1966) by Tim Hardin, a rather obscure but brilliant songwriter from the 1960s. Tim was also a Pacific Northwest musician born in Oregon, and joining the Marines before eventually settling into being a folksinger. Mark really loved that song, and Tim Hardin in particular.

Another song was “Shanty Man’s Life” (1964) by Dave Van Rock. It’s another one of those classic American folk songs that is extremely haunting, especially in it’s original recording.

The third song, which always stood out to me as one of the greatest songs ever written was “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (1980) written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman, and recorded by the legendary country singer, George Jones. This really is a classic, and it’s sung by one of the greatest singers of all time, of any genre. Anyone who ever starts a band should be required to listen to this song, because it’s such a masterpiece that even a hardcore punk band could play it and it would still sound like a classic.

This last song is the song I most associate with the Screaming Trees, because the music and lyrics seem to capture everything about who we were. That song is “Gentle On My Mind” (1967) written by John Hartford, but most famously recorded by Glen Campbell. Glen had been a Wrecking Crew studio musician who played on Beach Boys albums, and later reinvented himself as a brilliant singer and guitarist. Now, a song title with the word “gentle” in it seems a bit incongruous for a band like the Screaming Trees, especially after all the stories I’ve told here. But the truth is, inside each of us was a soul looking for peace, and that song seemed to bring it every time.

I remember hearing Mark singing those songs, beginning to end, multiple times, and they never got old. In fact, every single member of the Screaming Trees and our crew could sing those songs. It was a magical time, because every real artist knows when he or she hears the gold, and the Trees were always mining for it.

In so many ways, I owe my real music education to the Screaming Trees for playing all that incredible music, which amounted to tens of thousands of individual songs spread out across thousands of albums. Being in the Trees made me truly love music, so much so that I would risk my life to do it, or at the very least, choose a life that meant there was no turning back after music.

What Mark Lanegan and the Conner brothers taught me was that the pantheon of great songs was as equally important as the pantheon of great literature, or great films, or great art. And when it came to songs, they taught me to look for the lesser-known and more obscure artists, because artists who go for the best songs over commercial success always write the best ones—that’s where the real gold is.

It’s also why a great song stays in your memory forever, and the flavor of the month pop stars fade into obscurity with each passing year. And there is one gospel truth that I’ve learned about music in all these decades, and it is this:

The best songwriters in almost every genre of music won’t be heard on the radio and they almost never have mainstream success. This is because most of what you hear on the radio now, and for the last 100 years or so, has mostly been paid for through various forms of payola. That is an indisputable, historical fact, which doesn’t mean that some of those songs aren’t great—many of them are. But they’ve also been paid for by the record labels, and most of them shouldn’t even be there.

What is also true, perhaps as a corollary to the previous truth, is that great artists will always find a way to make unique and original recordings, whether they have a record deal or not, and whether they get played on the radio or not. The best of these records are usually not in the average person’s record collection, but the musicians know who made those records, and we seek them out with a passion.

That was the atmosphere in the back of the Screaming Trees tour bus in the 1990s, with all that incredible music, saturated in every kind of booze and occasionally with drugs, as we chain-smoked our way across the landscapes of the world.

I barely slept back then, I was so excited to be young and alive, playing music for people who loved music just as much as we did. The Screaming Trees were definitely the roughest, toughest, most hell- raising rock band that I ever played with, and yet they were great artists with a deep sensitivity to know what was truly great in music. That kind of life can only be survived in measured doses, because even with our young, twenty-something bodies, it took an iron constitution to pull off what we did. And for most of the 1990s, the Trees did it like no other band could. Until we couldn’t.

I’d like to finish with the single most important thing I have earned from all those years, something I’m still learning to this day, and it is this: Always listen to the spirit of a song first. Listen for its soul and pay attention to the words that are being sung and what the artist is trying to say. Look for the interesting and unusual ideas that propel the music, because it’s always about the soul of the song, first and foremost. A song has its own life, its own spirit, and a great artist will always convey that. If you look for that spirit, you’ll find other like-minded artists who honor that timeless credo, just as Orpheus did when he defied the gods with songs that were deemed to be too beautiful for humans. That’s because a great song is life itself, and a great song gives people meaning to their lives by relating similar feelings and emotions that connect across time.

So if you’re courageous enough to take up the sacred path of a musician, or even braver to become a songwriter, make damn sure that when you put a song down on tape for the whole world to hear, make sure you do absolutely everything within your power to make that song as magical as it can be. Capture its spirit, harness its blazing beauty, and make it come alive.

Because the world has plenty of mediocre songwriters, that’s for sure, and you can find most of them on the radio tonight. But when your time is up and it’s time to leave this realm, nobody is going to care about your placement on the radio chart.

They’re going to care about the songs you wrote, the songs which gave people a reason to live.

Photo of Barrett Martin above by Tad Fettig / Courtesy Barrett Martin

Cover photo by Gie Knaeps / Getty Images

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