Second Act – Award-winning design pro Martin Flanagan finds a new calling in the music world

Martin Flanagan leans for a moment on the open door of the home he helped to design and build, shielding his flickering flame from the unseasonably cool breeze as he touches it to a new cigarette. His Stetson straw hat obscures the gray ponytail that neatly falls below the collar of his button-down shirt. As he pauses, the visitor can tell that what comes next will be a long story, a hard-to-believe story, a story worth hearing.

“I think I’m Hank Williams Sr.’s son,” he says simply, almost quietly. “It’s not something I’ve really pushed,” he quickly adds. “It’s just kind of an interesting thing.”

As implausible as such a revelation may seem at first, this potential connection to a country music legend actually helps in making sense of the many puzzles in Flanagan’s colorful life. His creativity, his natural musical aptitude, his buck-the-system nature, even his health concerns—could they all be traced back to a father he never knew? Now at the age of 61, as he leaves behind a successful graphic design and advertising career to pursue a new calling as a singer/songwriter, Flanagan is looking back at his mysterious past while still focusing firmly on what promises to be a fascinating future. As he always has, this laid-back character is content to let life take him where it will.

Growing up in the Mississippi Delta, Flanagan never dwelled on the fact that he had been adopted as an infant and had no information about his birth parents. He was too busy helping out on his father’s 2,000-acre cotton farm and having too much fun soaking up the region’s rich blues music.

He came of age at the height of the draft days for Vietnam, and he found himself failing out of his freshman year at Mississippi State University. “I just didn’t really think I had much to live for,” he recalls. But a transfer to Louisiana Tech proved fortuitous. First, the Shreveport draft board gave him a gift he wouldn’t forget. “At the last minute, because of a back injury I had when I was a teenager, they reclassified me as 4-F,” he says, which allowed him to stay stateside instead of heading into combat duty.

Without the dangers of war to worry about, Flanagan found a new enthusiasm for his studies and a new interest: commercial art. He graduated from Louisiana Tech with honors after embracing this new field that finally satisfied his creative energies. As a young professional graphic designer, he flourished, winning major awards and eventually teaming with a group of like-minded creatives to launch a new Baton Rouge advertising agency called Grapevine Communications. He loved the innovative campaigns he worked on, but he also realized that there could be a downside to business success.

“I ended up being president of that ad agency, and I hated it,” he says. “All I wanted was to be the art director, graphic designer, creative director. … I realized I was getting up and putting on a coat and tie every day and basically throwing up before going to work because it was just too damn stressful.”

So Flanagan stepped off the corporate ladder and back into the design world that he so enjoyed. In 1990, his eponymous design company became XDesign, a firm that straddles the line between advertising and graphic design with a flair that, as its website professes, has earned it an average of “one creative award every other week.” Such a filled trophy case is due in no small part to its founder’s bold and adventurous nature.

“We tell our clients all the time: ‘We’ll take you out on the limb so far that you hear it crack, but we won’t let you fall off,’ ” Flanagan says. “There’s a big leap of faith needed to go that far out, but the ones that do are the ones that are successful.”

After years of creating memorable ads and designs for early clients like Baton Rouge Bank and more recent ones like Fluker Farms, Flanagan took perhaps the biggest leap of faith in 2012 when he left his full-time work at Xdesign to concentrate on an entirely new product: himself. Only a few years earlier, his musical talents—once reserved only for his own entertainment and relaxation—were “discovered” by an unlikely source: his son Silas’ girlfriend. Sara Maxwell, whose father Chris happens to own the local Red Dragon Listening Room, overheard Flanagan’s gentle strumming and singing at home, and the next thing he knew, he was being asked to open a show for Grammy Award winners Terri Hendrix and Lloyd Maines.

“I had just gotten started writing songs as a way for me to unwind at the end of the day,” recalls Flanagan, whose wife, Gay, had recently been diagnosed with a brain disorder. Each evening, he would retreat to a quiet room with his 1967 Martin D-28 guitar. “That was just kind of my escape from what I was dealing with.”

After some coaxing, Flanagan reluctantly agreed to take the stage, and that August evening in 2008 became the start of an unexpected new career path.

“I have never been so nervous in all my life,” he says. “After that night was over, I was like, ‘OK, been there, done that.’ It wasn’t even on my bucket list.”

A year later, Hendrix and Maines actually requested that Flanagan open for them when they returned to the Red Dragon. He joined them on stage again at a fundraiser, and “from there it just kinda grew,” he says.

Since then, Flanagan has gone on to open for such notable performers as Rosanne Cash and Guy Clark. He finished his first album, Beneath These Strings, last summer, and before it was officially released, the single “Screen Door” reached No. 1 on Radio Free Texas; three others have been in that Internet station’s Top 10.

At the same time his musical adventure was beginning, so was a more personal one. Facing heart problems and invasive procedures, “the question kept coming up about whether there was a history of heart disease in my family,” he says. “Well, I didn’t have any family history.”

Upon contacting adoption officials in his birthplace of Montgomery, Ala., Flanagan received only an “open, empty file” in the mail. “I thought it was a dead end.”

But then he found his adoption papers in his now-deceased parents’ files. The documents state that at the time of the original adoption, his birth mother was the only parent “worthy of notification.” In papers dated a year later, the birth mother was denoted as the “only living parent.” Williams, as it turns out, died during that year, and, interestingly, the singer’s court-proven illegitimate child, Jett, had also originally received only an open, empty adoption file. “Jett proved that there was a conspiracy in Nashville for Hank to cover up his illegitimate children, and I suspect that there were probably several,” Flanagan says.

Thinking back to the wording on his adoption papers, Flanagan came to a conclusion: “Hank was considered ‘unworthy’ in the ’50s. He would show up drunk if he showed up at all for a gig. … The Grand Ole Opry dropped him; the Louisiana Hayride kicked him off. Even though he was extremely popular, he was just undependable, and I think that’s what translated to his unworthiness of notification in this adoption.”

Other circumstantial evidence continued to mount: A childhood picture of Hank looked remarkably like Flanagan and his son. The late singer had a similar body type and a possible heart condition. And like Flanagan, he had escaped the draft with a 4-F classification, thanks to a back disorder. “Even though I had maintained that mine was an injury, since then I’ve learned that it’s not—it’s hereditary,” Flanagan says.

Unlike Hank’s other love child, Flanagan says he has no interest in pursuing legal status as the superstar’s offspring. “I think people viewed her as latching onto Hank’s coattails to launch her musical career, and I don’t want to do the same thing,” he explains.

Nevertheless, as an advertising pro, he realized that a gem like this could create quite a buzz, which is why you’ll see the tagline “The Illegitimate Son of a Legend” on the cover of his album. “In my business, I’ve always said that any product needs a good, compelling, interesting story, and I just happen to have one,” he says. “You know, I don’t have to hang my musical career on it, but if it will get a little bit of attention, it’s an interesting story.”

Flanagan adds that he doesn’t even bring up the backstory when he plays live shows, as he has more and more frequently since the album’s launch. He typically sings in intimate venues, sometimes with a backup band and sometimes solo. His performances have been well received in Texas—thanks to his Internet radio following—as well as at home. “It’s taken me a few years just to get over this crippling stage fright,” he admits, “but I’m finally getting there. I found out that the best thing to do is be prepared. …It’s no different than if we were making a presentation to a client. If we have really done our homework, then it’s a piece of cake.”

In August, Flanagan will fulfill a longtime dream by taking his show on tour with a handful of other singer/songwriters, including Steve Judice, Jodi James, Barry Hebert and Clay Parker. The group will load onto a bus and blaze through five states, beginning at the Red Dragon and ending their run in Flanagan’s hometown of Leland, Miss. “It’s going to be like a working vacation,” he says.

In the meantime, he is content to play to the local fans who have supported him from the beginning. His latest venue of choice is literally in his own Old Goodwood yard, where a playhouse constructed of salvaged architectural materials by his daughter Jackson, a New Orleans renovation contractor, has been repurposed as a stage for occasional “house concerts” featuring visiting artists and, often, Flanagan himself.

As he pursues his passion for music, it’s fitting that Flanagan hosts these shows at his home—a place held up by timbers torn from his parents’ Mississippi house, a place where he still returns to write songs, sometimes late into the night, letting inspiration flow from his fingers like, as one of his songs says, “opening a vein.”

“I’m just gonna let this blindly lead me wherever it wants to go,” he says. “It’s not something I’ve got to do to make a living. It’s not something I have to have in my life. But it’s something I’ve enjoyed that’s just been handed to me, so it’s like, well, let’s just see where it goes.”