Ellis County guitarist enjoys touring with country star, nurturing solo career

By Patty Hullett
For the Daily Light

Guitarist John Marlin may have been born in St. Louis, Missouri, but his Texas roots are

actually traced back to Ellis County. His K-12 school days were spent in Ennis, and today he proudly enjoys his new hometown of Waxahachie.

John Marlin holds his guitar on stage while performing with Granger Smith's Band as a huge crowd watches during one of their concerts.

Marlin’s life changes because of the guitar

Marlin, now 26, admits he “lightly” picked up the guitar around the age of 11 or 12. He says he had a few neighborhood friends with cheap guitars, and they enjoyed messing around by playing music together.

Marlin says, “This was also right about the time I started getting heavy into music, so I convinced my father to get me a guitar if I did well on an end-of-school-year test in 4th or 5th grade – and the rest is history. I took some guitar lessons for a year or so, but unfortunately, I was not very receptive to any sort of professional musical training that did not relate to the hard rock songs I was hooked on at the time. I feel most of my musical growth during those early days were all just learning my favorite songs, while by myself and locked in my own room. However, over the passage of time, I picked up lessons again and am now much more digestive of the instruction!”

In the last couple of years, Marlin has become fairly fluent on piano as well: "I’m raising my 7-year old son Zane as a full-time single father, and both my boy and I currently take piano lessons."

John Marlin poses with his son, Zane.
John Marlin has some Ellis County roots.

Growing up as an Ennis Lion

Marlin says, “I landed in Ennis at age 5. My folks and I had moved from St Louis, Missouri, for my father’s career. He was an audio engineer, and he came to work and help run the commercial audio company Atlas Sound, whose factory is in Ennis." Marlin's father has since retired from that company, about three years ago, he said.

When Marlin wasn't playing guitar, he'd fill his other free time with tennis. "I played and pursued tennis very heavily in all of junior high to high school years. The home I grew up in was only a few blocks from the EHS Tennis Center, and I can remember as a young kid going to swim at the pool there (when there was one), and attending several tennis camps very early on.”

“I’m not sure exactly when I met head tennis Coach Howard," Marlin says, “But I feel I’ve

known him most of my life! Coach Howard and Assistant Coach Wyatt Johnson are some of the most driven and passionate coaches ever, and they really instilled their drive into me, even when I began playing on the junior high team. From there, I ended-up pursuing tennis as hard as I could – wanting to go to college to play on a possible tennis scholarship." While his priorities later shifted to music, Marlin credits Howard and Johnson for the skills of hard work and discipline skills they taught, which have translated over into his music and other areas of life. "Today, I feel that I’m still reaping the benefits of that great sports life experience gained on the courts in Ennis. I am a proud EHS graduate from the Class of 2013, and really appreciated having grown up in a small town with a tight knit community where most everybody knows everybody else.”

Finding his own way into the world of music

The up-and-coming guitarist played in a handful of smaller local bands throughout his high school days and just after graduation. But mostly the acts he was part of were generally in the Texas country scene. On down the road, this led to him playing guitar for a more notable Texas country artist named Bart Crow, who is actually from Maypearl. Marlin played in his band from age 19 to 21 before beginning with another rising country star at the time – Granger Smith (a/k/a Earl Dibbles, Jr.).

With Bart Crow, Marlin got his first taste of touring and living on a bus, which was very much his teenage dream, or so he says. He explains, “To be honest, I kind of ended up playing country music by default. It’s a bit of a long story, but fairly early on from the advising of some more experienced musician friends/mentors of mine, I realized to make money in music around here, you just about have to play country. That’s not to say there isn’t a demand for other genres, but country is the dominant one by far.”

He continues, “Growing up, I really only listened to rock music because of my mother’s musical influence. We would often go together to see all kinds of rock acts in concert – from The Who to AC/DC, to the Police, and to Rush, etc. I can honestly say I didn’t even know who George Strait or Garth Brooks was until I was probably 16 or 17. However, when I started playing in more country bands, I have since grown to enjoy and appreciate the genre." He admits in discovering his own sound, though, he's drawing more from his rock and alternative roots, along with contemporary singer songwriter influences. Some of his favorite solo artists include John Mayer, Jamie Cullum, Butch Walker, Theo Katzman, and Ryan Adams. "I also love to pull from bands from decades ago – like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Fleetwood Mac,” he added.

Singer-songwriter Granger Smith performs in concert with guitarist John Marlin, right.

Now on the road with Granger Smith, Marlin says, “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get worn-out from being on the road sometimes, and at times I just want to go and be at home – but I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t get stir crazy from being home too much of the time! You know…..the grass is always greener, right? The road can be tough, mundane, uncomfortable, and downright exhausting at times, but being able to connect to an audience is such a rewarding experience that makes it all worth it.

Being away from family is tough, but luckily with modern conveniences, that isn’t as much of an issue as it must have been like in the past. There’s a lot I love though. I enjoy not having much of an agenda on the road, other than playing the show and soundcheck, that is, so I love getting to walk around mindlessly in a new city (for instance) and be a total stranger, maybe read a book in a random coffee shop, and strike up conversations with new people at will. All in all, there are things I really like and dislike, but that goes for just about any job!”

From left, Granger Smith's Band, with John Marlin on lead guitar, singer Granger Smith, and other rhythm guitarists during a concert.

Marlin has been touring with Granger Smith for just over 5 years and started playing in his band when he was 21. "I remember starting early March of 2016 with him right as he was beginning to have his first hit of mainstream success with his first No. 1 country single (‘Backroad Song’) in the nation. Within the first two weeks of joining the band, we had gotten to play on the Today Show, Fox & Friends, and even Jimmy Kimmel Live … It was a thrilling ride in the beginning and we’ve made plenty of amazing memories since. I’m still beyond grateful they had all taken a chance on me at my young age to join alongside them." As one of two guitarists in Granger Smith’s band currently Marlin says they trade lead parts, so he takes plenty of solos and also holds down the rhythm sometimes. For more Granger Smith upcoming concert dates, go to: grangersmithmusic.com

John Marlin, second from left, is shown with Granger Smith's Band, with Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood in the center.

A songwriter through the heart

Marlin says he's actually more of a songwriter than a guitarist. “My favorite part of music is in the creation, and seeing it from the initial strike of inspiration, all the way through recording all the instruments of it. I have penned maybe a couple of hundred songs over the past 4-5 years – about half by myself and about half in collaboration with other songwriters here in Texas or in Nashville, Tennessee. I have slowly begun to release some of my own music under my name, but most of my writing experience has been writing with and for other artists. I have only written a small handful with Granger, but we have a couple of songs written together on his latest record, and we plan to get to writing more soon.”

After putting out a few songs under his name, Marlin says he have a lot of music in the works he hopes to release soon. “It’s interesting, because I feel like I’m almost starting all over again, as it’s a vastly different skill set going from accompanying an artist, to being the artist yourself. It’s been an exciting challenge and I’m enjoying the growth that’s coming from it.”

In thinking about the songwriter process, he reflects, "I just know how much music has moved and inspired me and given me meaning in my life, and I feel very much a calling to try and reciprocate that and do that for others. In finding the inspiration for much of my music, I try and stay genuine and just write whatever is on my mind or heart at the time." 

Marlin confesses, overall, he secretly just loves making music, whether it be his own or with others. "I truly want to make music that connects with people (whether that be dozens or millions), and impact people like my favorite artists have impacted me. That’s how I feel I can be the best of service to others.”

A Waxahachie kind of life

Marlin moved to Waxahachie about two years ago, specifically for his son to attend the special Wilemon STEAM Academy Elementary School. They live just a few blocks from the courthouse, and he claims he is amazed every day by how much culture and diversity is within this Ellis County community. He loves that he has met so many interesting and creative people from backgrounds of all kinds, and feels very much at home in this eclectic area in which he and his son live.