Jenna Rae and Martin Farrell both grew up in cities. But when the two got serious about playing music together as the folk duo Jenna & Martin, they ended up living the life they were singing about.
Rae is from Merriam, Kansas, and Farrell is from Minnetonka, Minnesota. The two met four years ago on the sprawling campgrounds of the Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival in Winfield, Kansas. They soon started performing together, and onstage, they’re young and carefree with a chemistry that’s easy to see and hear.
But offstage, their life got complicated pretty quickly. Rae’s grandmother wound up with health problems, and the couple moved to Peculiar, Missouri, to help out.
“We lived in a 24-foot school bus we converted into our living quarters,” Farrell explains. “We helped take care of Jenna’s grandma and all of her animals, because she had about 10 animals: horses, cats, dogs….”
“…and a turtle at one point,” Rae adds, laughing.
Everything they did went into their songs, which eventually became their debut record, “Cosmic Western Duets.”
Life wasn’t always easy but they made the best of it. As they sing in “The Peculiar Song,” they “don’t have much of anything, but it’s everything they need.”
“We were taking care of (my grandma) and she was in and out of the hospital,” Rae remembers. “I'd be like ‘OK, grandma, how are you?’ And she'd say, ‘I'm still OK.’ And she has all these health problems and you know she's not OK.”
Those experiences became the song “Still Okay Still Alright,” and even through the toughest times, there were plenty of funny moments. In the song, she reports getting bucked from a horse that stomps on her hat, and losing the check from a gig that, in retrospect, wasn’t all that big in the first place.
“Every line in it is true except for the line that says ‘a dog got shocked by the electric fence, his hair was smoking, ain't done it since,’” she says. “Because our dog, Roy, has been shocked by the fence a few times. But other than that, the whole song is, you know, true lines that happened to us.”
With both of them doing all the vocals and playing every instrument, their new record is a duet album in every sense of the word.
“We collect instruments, and we play what we can,” says Farrell. “So far the only one I’ve given away is a fiddle — that one was too hard to play.”
The record also includes two songs each one wrote for the other. Farrell’s song for Rae, “My Baby's in Nashville,” is about a trip that Rae took while he stayed home and watched the dog. Farrell sings about the turmoil of figuring out how to wash the dishes and clean up the bus.
“I realized that I like having her around,” he adds with a smile. “Plus I was a little jealous I didn’t get to go on the trip.”
Rae’s song came from a different emotional place.
“I'm Not Ready” lays bare her reservations about commitment. “There’s something about that aisle and about that dress that scares me,” she sings. “Lord, it scares me half to death.”
“‘Are you married?’ is a question we get asked a lot, performing together, having a business together and being a couple,” she says.
For right now, the status quo is just fine.
“I was glad that we both ended up with a little bit of a love song,” she continues, “but I would say they're not your typical love songs.”
Their road as songwriters hasn’t been typical, either. But the fact they’re willing to walk that road is what makes those songs so real.
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.