With the death of Jimmy Martin last Saturday, bluegrass and country music have lost not only one of their most colorful personalities, but one of their greatest voices. A legendary veteran and member of the International Bluegrass Music Association's Hall of Honor who apprenticed with Bill Monroe and appeared on some of his most brilliant records, Martin enjoyed a career that spanned more than a half-century. Influential enough as a Blue Grass Boy during the early 1950s, he exerted a far greater influence on his own, planting dozens of songs, a hard-driving rhythm and a signature blend of raw, passionate lead vocals and tight, soaring harmonies at the center of the bluegrass repertoire and sound.
Martin's classic "good 'n' country" sound first began to take shape during the brief but productive partnership with the Osborne Brothers that followed his departure from Monroe's band. By 1958, that sound was largely in place, thanks to his recruitment of banjo player and baritone singer J.D. Crowe and mandolinist and tenor singer Paul Williams into his Sunny Mountain Boysmusicians supremely talented on their own and yet willing to take direction from Martin, who had a sharply focused vision of what he wanted, even if he was often unable to articulate it clearly.
The result was a new kind of bluegrass, one that owed a debt to Bill Monroe and to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, yet stood out sharply from the music of both actsand, for that matter, from that of everyone else. Where Flatt & Scruggs' classics loped along gracefully, Martin's sparkled and bounced, driven by a banjo that exchanged Scruggs' subtle rhythmic variations for a more even, staccato approach that could veer off at times to electric guitar-influenced rides. Where Monroe's vocal trios, no matter how sublime, sounded like three voices, Martin's blended into one with a consistent precision and uniformity. Where the Stanley Brothers gave their music a mournful, old-time cast, Martin showed no hesitation in bringing the modern snap of a snare drum into his. Where his cohorts and former colleagues the Osborne Brothers brought a new degree of harmonic sophistication to the genre, Martin retained a hard-bitten twang and an earthiness that reflected both his impoverished rural upbringing and his irascible personality.
With those elements in place, the son of Sneedville, Tenn., issued a series of recordings over the next two decades that are unrivaled in their consistency. Others would make notable contributionsCrowe and Williams, first and foremost, but players like Bill Emerson, songwriter Paul Craft (who got his start playing banjo with Jimmy), Doyle Lawson, Vernon Derrick, Audie Blaylock and still more among thembut it was Martin who was in charge, not only as the star, but as a take-no-prisoners guitarist who supplied the essential rhythmic drive that underpinned all the rest.
It is undeniable that no one had a better musical batting average than Jimmy Martin. No matter where you dip into Bear Family's 150-plus track collection of the recordings he made between 1954 and 1974, you'll find one gem after anotherall killer, no filler. Even the novelty songs he cut (and there were more than a few), like "Goin' Ape Over You" and "Skip, Hop and Wobble," were rendered with such conviction and delight that, in his hands, they transcended their dubious origins to become, if not masterpieces, solid fare.
This ability to lose himself in the songs he sang was the ultimate key to Jimmy's artistic success. Onstage, as off, his feelings lay on the surface, and while that could be tough on those who worked with him, it was this same emotional transparency that made his music so memorable. "If I'm singing a funny song, I want everyone to whoop and holler and dance," he explained in a 1999 interview. "And when I sing 'Shake Hands With Mother Again' or a good gospel song, I'm thinking of good things, thinking of heaven, someday we're all going to be there. And if I sing a sad song, I feel sadness in my mind, in my heart, and just like I could cry. But I can't cry and put onit has to come out just right, you see."
This last comment, which reveals Martin's underlying grasp of artistic craft, is especially valuable, for it rebuts a one-dimensional view of the man. In recent years, Martin had achieved a new measure of fame, thanks to efforts like Tom Piazza's extended 1996 Oxford American essay and Chicago filmmaker George Goehl's gripping documentary, The King of Bluegrass. Yet while such attention conferred some real benefits, these worksespecially Piazza's account of a disastrous yet hilarious adventure with Martin backstage at the Grand Ole Opryalso sent those who weren't familiar with Jimmy's music off on a tangent, turning him (at least in their eyes) into a kind of outlaw figure who had been denied membership in the Opry's cast by stuffy, small-minded management that valued only conformity and transient popularity.
But Martin wasn't an outlawat least, not in any deep sensemuch less the "rebel and punk" that an alternative rock label president once termed him. Sincerely (if intermittently) religious, his last interview with journalist Nancy Cardwell just days before his death echoed the themes of the dozens of great gospel songs he'd sung. And though he was mercurial, self-centered and, for long stretches of his career, unreliable, he was also, and most importantly, a supremely focused musician whose work reflected the dual commitment to emotion and craft that typifies much of the most enduring bluegrass and country music.
Even when he was a guest on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's epochal Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Jimmy was incapable of refraining from offering direction with an incorrigible insistence. "Pick the banjo solid," he instructed the band's John McEuen as he prepared to kick off a Martin classic. "You been pickin' one for 15 years, ain't you?" Not surprisingly, though that album is filled with rich performances by a host of legends, it is Martin's that are the most crisp and energetic. He simply refused to settle for anything less, and it was that refusal that guaranteed his place in musical history.
"I've said what bluegrass music has done for me," Jimmy told me at the end of that 1999 interview. "I had a wife that told me one time, 'You better turn that around and say, "What you've done for bluegrass music." ' I guess you could call that a combination. I've done my best, and they liked it." Theywedid indeed. The music he did so much for is sure to produce many more great musicians, but there was only one King of Bluegrass, and that's all there will ever be.
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So long Don. Your creative energy and encouragement were inspirational to me.
It was so great being one of those kids in Dayton.
I miss Iodine.
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