The song tells the story of Martin Tanner, a local launderer from Dayton, Ohio, who has a gift for singing. His friends try to talk him into becoming a singer because of his beautiful voice, until he finally agrees and uses most of his savings to travel to New York City and sing in a show. He holds a concert only to get panned by critics. He returns home and never sings again, except for only to himself when he sorts through the clothes at night.
The song is based on a review Chapin read in The New York Times. The singer, Martin Tubridy, performed twice, once in 1971 and once in 1972 and his performances were panned. It is unclear which article was the basis for the song of Mr. Tanner, as it seems both reviews are used in the vocal part in Mr. Tanner.