Jimmy Martin was the greatest bluegrass singer who ever walked this planet, and the most driving guitarist this side of Johnny Ramone. While his life was one controversy after another, his work at its best was bluegrass music at its best. He passed Saturday, May 14.
In the last few years, Jimmy's work had seen a resurgence of interest, via a documentary called The King Of Bluegrass, as well as a small book by Thom Piazza, True Adventures With The King Of Bluegrass. Unfortunately, these props were offset by cancer and chemotherapy.
This interview and the resultant article are from 1998. John Hartford gave me Jimmy's number with the admonition "Tell him I said to call, or else he might get mad." Upon the mention of John, Jimmy was warm when I spoke with him. I played him some of his lesser-known guitar licks over the phone, and he knew I took him deadly serious. He was plain-spoken, opinionated, and a hell of a lot of fun.
Jimmy Martin was not the first great bluegrass lead singer. But he is the epitome of bluegrass singing, and has no peer. Martin was first heard with Bill Monroe on classics such as "Uncle Pen," "Walking to Jerusalem," and the incredible "On And On," available on Monroe's 'Country Music Hall of Fame Series' disc (MCA).
According to legend, in 1949, a young factory worker from Sneedsville, Tenn. went down to the Grand Ol' Opry to meet Bill Monroe in the hopes of replacing guitarist/singer Mac Wiseman, whose departure from Monroe's Blue Grass Boys was imminent. Martin recalls:
"I was paintin' machinery in a factory in Morristown, TN, and I was playin' on WCPK from 4:30 to 5 every evening. I got fired on my job for singin' too much, and I cussed out the foreman for firin' me. When I went back after my clothes, I seen him on the street, and told him, 'Listen in on Saturday night, 'cause I'm singin' with Bill Monroe on the Grand Ol' Opry.
"I'd been playin' on the radio a couple years, but all my life I'd been listenin' to the Opry, and I had always wanted to see Bill Monroe.
"I had sang with my stepfather at churches and funerals and learnt all the parts in the quartet -- lead, baritone, tenor and bass. When I went down to try out for Bill, I told him that I knew all the parts, but that I didn't sing tenor as well as he could.
"He took me in there and asked Mac Wiseman to let me have the guitar, which was the one that Lester Flatt had played with Bill. It was Bill's Martin D-28 herringbone [guitar]. So I sang one with Bill, then I played a solo -- 'Poor Ellen Smith,' then I played 'Orange Blossom Special' with [fiddler] Chubby Wise. Bill asked Chubby what he thought, and Chubby said, 'Lordy, I thought Lester Flatt had it, but this boy's flat got it."
Martin got the job that, to a young man in the Tennessee hills in 1949, would now be like someone replacing Michael Stipe in R.E.M. Martin, who will never be accused of false modesty, gives it up to that first edition of the Blue Grass Boys (Monroe, Wise, Flatt, Earl Scruggs and bassist Cedric Rainwater).
"Lester Flatt was one of my favorite lead singers. I thought he compared in bluegrass as much as Hank Williams or George Jones compared in country music. Lester was on a lot of jukeboxes. He didn't have a tinny voice -- he had a real good tone. I'd listen to [the Blue Grass Boys] on the Opry, and I thought, 'That's how to do it. That's that timing that none of 'em's got. They make it!'"
Martin would spend 1950-53 in and out of Monroe's band, as well as performing and recording with the Osborne Brothers (up until '55) between stints with Monroe. The Osborne/Martin alliance resulted in some great singles for King and RCA. But a feud developed between Martin and the Osbornes that reportedly persists to this day. This led Martin to form his Sunny Mountain Boys, one of the great bluegrass outfits.
From 1956-74, Jimmy Martin and his Sunny Mountain Boys recorded for Decca. Many -- but not enough -- of the best of these sides were reissued in 1990 on Rounder as the 'You Don't Know My Mind' disc. And many of these cuts were actually country hits -- "Sunny Side of The Mountain," "Hit Parade of Love," "Oceans of Diamonds" and the title cut showed Martin taking bluegrass vocals and instrumentation and marrying them to a honky-tonk sensibility (read: drums, great country songwriting and Owen Bradley's streamlined production). During this "golden era," Martin enjoyed stints of two years each on KWKH's Louisiana Hayride and the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree, both of which were high-powered radio outlets, exposing Martin and his Sunny Mountain Boys to a large weekly listenership.
"When I went to the Louisiana Hayride, they told me I'd better get rid of the banjo and get me an electric guitar 'cause Elvis was tearin' that music to pieces when he was at the Louisiana Hayride. They told me I'd starve. I told 'em 'Don't tell me that. When I was up in Detroit with the Osborne Brothers, they said the same thing, and we was the hottest thing in the city as far as record sales.' We was one of the hottest things ever to hit the Hayride. Then, we left there, went to Wheeling, West Virginia and heard the same thing. Other bluegrass acts had been there. But every time I moved, I was gettin' more popular. I proved to 'em it ain't gone, that the people still loved it."
After Wheeling, Martin "came down [to Nashville] and started encorin' on the Grand Ol' Opry, and it got to where I couldn't even get on there anymore. I musta hurt somebody's feelin's, didn't I? I'm not sayin' it braggin'. I just thank the Good Lord that I could walk on Grand Ol' Opry and tear it up. They did promise me that I would be a member. Then it got down to I couldn't even guest on there -- and me encorin' and goin' over big. Now I don't know if I sounded all that good or if the audience felt sorry for me."
Perhaps he stepped on the wrong toes -- stories of that are legion. However, Opry or not, Martin's popularity gained momentum through the '60s, due to a string of great Decca singles unlike anything else in bluegrass.
"I tried to be different in bluegrass, and I tried to pick out good songs. Me and (mandolinist) Paul Williams done a lot of the writin'. Then I picked a lot of songs I'd sung in churches, gospel songs which can't be beat. Then, when I moved to Nashville, [Decca staff producers] Harry Silverstein and Owen Bradley would make me appointments at publishing companies, and they'd play me tapes of their songs and let me pick out songs like that for the session. They'd play me a tape and I'd say, 'Right here is a real good bluegrass song. You just give that to Bill Monroe or Jim & Jesse, and see if they'll record it, because I don't think it's a good-worded song.' Gimme one of them songs ol' Marty Robbins is gonna record, and they'll say it's bluegrass, time I get done with it. There ain't a George Jones song I couldn't sing, but they'd call it bluegrass. Take 'Picture of Me Without You' -- that's plain bluegrass if I ever heard it. That's a Jimmy Martin song. Hank Williams' songs is perfect bluegrass songs."
Martin's records sold well throughout the '60s, and the then-blooming folk and bluegrass festival circuit afforded him a new and different visibility than he had previously enjoyed.
Jimmy Martin's Sunny Mountain Boys were famed for their extremely high level of musicianship. Pickers like Paul Williams, J.D. Crowe, Tater Tate and many others made their way through Martin's ranks. By the late '60s, Martin became active on the bluegrass festival circuit, and started reaching a new audience. This was made official by his inclusion on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1971 classic 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken' (United Artists) tour de force -- a three-record set of traditional country and bluegrass that had the NGDB joining forces with Martin, Doc Watson, Mother Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs and others. This set remains a milestone in country music, warranting a follow-up in 1989. Martin was included in both albums.
"Yeah! I got a gold album on that. We did six of my songs on the first one, and it sold four million. Then, when they called me up to do 'Circle 2,' they wanted me to do 'Sittin' On Top of the World,' and I said, jokin'-like to 'em, 'Why you only want me to do one on the second one when you wanted me to do six on the first one and it sold four million?' Bill McEuen [from the Dirt Band] said, 'Hell, you stole the first one -- you ain't stealin' this one!' It's just a joke, but I thought I should tell it."
Martin left Decca/MCA in '74, and released six albums on the Gusto label. Finally, he started his own label, Sunny Mountain Music.
More recently, Martin could be seen to great advantage in the award-winning bluegrass documentary 'High Lonesome.'
"Man, I don't like anything I done when I see myself. People say, 'We like what you did,' and I say 'Do you really?!' I never did anything where I thought I couldn't do it better. Owen Bradley told me, 'You just keep that attitude and you'll always be good.'"
There's Jimmy Martin, by himself, singing the Gene Autry song "20/20 Vision (And Walking 'Round Blind)" -- one man with a guitar, and it is killing.
While Jimmy Martin is not quite a household word today, that clip shows a man in the deepest throes of his art. Time has passed, different musicians have traveled through his band, and most of his work has not been reissued.
His pride has taken something of a beating, especially with regards to his not being a member of the Grand Ol' Opry. His reputation as a hothead seems to have overtaken his standing as a master of bluegrass. And Martin, semi-retired, continues to play music, go coon hunting, and whatever else it is that becomes a legend most; although 1998 finds him taking it easy, after a triple-bypass surgery. And, along with Earl Scruggs, he is the legendary presence of bluegrass music's first period of glory. And he still sounds like that.
© 2005 - Skip Heller