Once a fixture in Minnesota, the former Gear Daddies frontman moved with his family to Mexico four years ago. A cute little miracle helped bring him back to the local concert circuit.
His exit seemed so abrupt because his presence was so ubiquitous. In the early '00s, Martin Zellar could be caught performing just about every weekend somewhere in Minnesota.
If he wasn't playing original tunes with his group the Hardways, he'd be playing "Sweet Caroline," "Cherry Cherry" and the rest of the Diamond canon with the all-about-money cover band Neil. And if he really wanted to earn some bucks while having a good time, he'd get the Gear Daddies together for one of their insatiably popular reunion gigs.
Turns out, one of Minnesota's most beloved singer/songwriters was gigging that much so he would not have to gig anymore. At least until a nearly miraculous pregnancy changed everything. "It did start to suck playing every weekend," Zellar recalled, "but I needed to build up that cushion so we could make the jump."
What a leap it was. In 2005, Zellar and his wife, Carolyn, up and moved with their two sons to San Miguel de Allende, a historic town in the mountains a couple hours north of Mexico City. Since then, they have immersed themselves in Mexican culture and lived the expatriate life, which Zellar says is "actually more Norman Rockwell-like than our life was here."
"I'm not totally fluent yet, but I did start dreaming in Spanish," Zellar said with a laugh. "That has to be some kind of steppingstone."
With his stockpile of hard-earned gig money -- along with a semi-steady stream of royalty checks from the NHL-approved Gear Daddies hit "I Wanna Drive the Zamboni" -- Zellar was able to pay cash for his family's Mexican home. He has led a comfortable though far from plush existence in San Miguel the past four years, and he's the first to admit that learning to speak Spanish has been his hardest line of work.
Last year, he played only six shows, counting the Gear Daddies' usual post-Christmas gig. Zellar continued to write songs in Mexico, but he said, "everything I write comes from personal experience ... and I highly doubt anyone wants to hear songs about me hanging around the central [plaza] or walking my dogs through the streets of San Miguel, which is mostly what I've been doing all this time."
That's all he did, anyway, until Clementine came along.
"She was a surprise, to say the least," Zellar, 45, said of his new daughter, born in June.
Never mind the age differences between the youngest Zellar and her brothers, Wilson and Owen, ages 17 and 13. For medical reasons not having to do with age (Carolyn is six years Martin's junior), the family simply never thought it possible to have another child. When they found out Carolyn was pregnant, "we were literally in shock at first," he said, "and then we were really tiptoeing around it, just crossing our fingers, because it was a really, really complicated pregnancy."
Now the proud papa of a healthy baby girl, who finally got the paperwork to visit her Minnesota grandmothers four months after she was born, Zellar dryly noted, "And now, Daddy has to get back to work."
Livin' la vida dolce
He still loves playing music, and he still loves America.
Zellar wanted to make both points crystal-clear when he somewhat hesitantly sat down for an interview a few weeks before Christmas at a location we thought might remind him of his new home, El Mercado Central on Lake Street in south Minneapolis. He was back in the Twin Cities playing a gig at someone's house and his first public solo show of 2009 at the Varsity Theater.
Being an expatriate apparently can be a touchy thing -- especially for a blue-collar, heartland-tied country-rock singer who's still catching grief for chairing the Mower County DFL Party in 2004, when he and Carolyn briefly moved back to their native Austin, Minn.
"I still get e-mails of people saying, '[Expletive] you, I'll never buy a CD or come see you again,' but I never get an e-mail saying, 'Now that I know you're a liberal, I'll buy your CD,'" he quipped.
"From a business standpoint, I paid a huge price doing that. In hindsight, I wish had gotten involved in a less political-party way, with some organization that still forwarded the things I believe in."
But it wasn't that wearisome bout with Bush-era politics that sent the Zellars running to Mexico. It was something way more obvious.
"We simply can't stand winters," he said. "We kept moving farther south. That's how much we can't stand them."
The Zellars previously relocated to the other Austin in the late '90s, the one in Texas. During their almost six-year stay in the Lone Star capital, Martin kept up his rigorous gig schedule around the Upper Midwest, often flying home on Sunday or Monday and returning the following weekend.
His family had traveled to San Miguel several times and grew to love it more each time. The city is famous for its historic architecture and has been designated a United Nations World Heritage Site. So far, it has been largely untouched by the drug-cartel violence blamed for more than 15,000 deaths in Mexico over the past five years.
Since "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" author/acidhead Ken Kesey put it on the map, San Miguel has built up a large population of American and Canadian expatriates.
"None of the Americans know me, but the Canadians all say, 'Hey, the "Zamboni Song" guy,'" Zellar said.
The Zellars live outside the city in a colonial neighborhood, where most of their neighbors are native Mexicans. His teenage sons were "ambivalent" about moving there but have grown to love it, he said. Wilson had to give up skateboarding ("It's mostly all cobblestone, and la policia don't like it"), but otherwise their lives didn't change much. They go to a private school with kids from around the world, including many locals.
Their mom, Carolyn Beaudot, said Zellar "had to do a bit of a song and dance to get me onboard initially," but in the end "the people, art and beauty of this place became so comfortable to us so quickly that our decision is one I am thankful for. Life is now an adventure, and our kids are doing very well with it all."
Said Zellar, "We think they're getting a kind of international upbringing Carolyn and I would've killed for in Austin, where -- let's face it -- the horizons aren't exactly broad."
While most Americans might view a move to Mexico as a bold and perhaps even irresponsible move -- visions of nightly margarita binges come to mind -- Zellar said it was the opposite for him.
"In the line of work I'm in, there's no safety net," he said. "There's no guarantee I'm going to make any money next year. The way the economy works down there is perfect for me. There's no mortgage. Everyone buys their houses with cash. The property taxes are really low. There's no homeowner's insurance because it's all concrete, so nothing burns. Financially, it makes perfect sense for a musician."
'Such a happy coincidence'
The move to Mexico proved to be a financial godsend when it came time for Carolyn to go to the hospital -- which she had to do over and over before Clementine was born.
If there is any political subtext to Zellar's expatriatism, it's in the current health care debate.
"I am self-employed, so that means we're self-insured," said Zellar, who still pays U.S. and Minnesota taxes on his local earnings, by the way. "We would have been bankrupt 100 times over if we had been doing all this in the U.S."
Under Mexico's socialized health care services, Carolyn was able to get the weekly sonograms and numerous other tests required by her high-risk pregnancy for about $75 per visit, Zellar said. The delivery, a C-section with several doctors involved, cost only about $5,000. And Zellar swears the facilities, in the nearby city of Querétaro, were "nicer than what we had when the boys were born in St. Paul," and the doctors "unbelievably great."
"I'm not so naive to suggest that Mexico is any Shangri La or doesn't have its own set of major problems," he added emphatically, "but in this case, the U.S. would've ruined us. We felt very, very lucky to be living there at the time. It was such a happy coincidence."
Zellar said he probably would have eased back into performing with or without the costs of being a new dad.
"It was time to come back, anyway," he said. "I still love it. I never wanted to give it up, and I knew I'd never be wealthy enough to give it up. But I did want to be able to do it more on my terms."
Those terms are: no long tours, no more Neil gigs and mostly no nightclubs. Thus, Zellar is kicking off 2010 with a series of solo acoustic gigs in small theaters such as Anoka's Lyric Arts Main Stage on Wednesday and the newly reignited Maplewood Performing Arts Center on Friday. He has a few fly-in, fly-out dates around the country lined up, too, including one at Nashville's fabled Bluebird Cafe. He is also hoping to play more house concerts.
It's on purpose that most of his gigs now start at 7:30 p.m. and are outside the cities.
"My audience is older now," he admitted. "They were in college during the Gear Daddies' day, and now they're living out in the 'burbs and have to get baby sitters to come out and see me. So I want to make it a little easier for them."
No matter what, he's going to make things easier on himself, too.
"The joy of it comes out a lot more when you're doing it less," he said.
As for a new album, Zellar said he has written about two or three records' worth of songs. The problem now is figuring out where and when to record them.
With a grin as sprawling as the Rio Grande, he explained:
"Martin's old work space is now Clementine's bedroom. Go figure."
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658