Benny Martin: 1928 to 2001
Even my daddy said that Benny drank too much. Well, not that he drank too much — according to Honey Wilds’ way of thinking, that was really hard to do. My old man and most of the others on the Grand Ole Opry felt that way. “He just don’t know when to leave it alone,” was a lot closer to daddy’s description of Benny Martin’s appetite.
Close behind or sometimes ahead of that phrase would come the words, “but the damn man can play anything you put in his hands. Hell, he can play.” What’s that Kevin Welch line? “They keep talking about my drinking. They don’t care nothing about my thirst.” Theories about pickers and their excesses are old hat. It’s the other places in life that their excesses — their thirsts — are revealed that make for something to think about.
Meeting Benny Martin at age four means there isn’t anything left in my head about it. Nor are there any remembrances from the other times he was around our house. He’d be rehearsing, getting ready to hit the road playing behind Jamup & Honey. Photographs from that era show him as part of the stage band that toured with the tent show. The snapshots show a lean, ruggedly handsome man — teenager, really — dressed ready to leave town and hit the stage whenever the car stopped.
Before the tent show touring, he’d already put in time with Bill Monroe. He’d be part of Flatt & Scruggs after working for my father. There are those who will argue that Benny’s contributions put peaks on the mountains of music made by those masters. His time with a touring tent show holds no special spot in the development of country music. It did, however, mean something to Benny, and it meant a lot to me and my family. He would preserve warm, loving, well-tended memories of the times, both on and off the stage.
It would be another 30 years before I’d cross Benny’s path again. Summer of 1977 or maybe ’78. It was at this time in his life that Benny Martin stopped drinking. Saw him at a show. Made my way to him. Through my own well-crafted alcohol fog I introduced myself and all hell broke loose.
Hollerin’. Stories. Laughter. Not polite little chuckles, but those dignity-bruising laughs that set off farts or pee dribbles or coughing fits in smokers. Real belly laughs. As good an imitation of my father’s stage routines as any man ever did. Benny did it all before I could say much more than my name. Then lots and lots of questions. He wanted to know everything about my family since he’d seen us. I answered and answered, shook his hand, and sought out more refreshment.
Twenty-some years later I’m facing Benny again. This time with a camera. A picture has been requested by a magazine and I’m to do it. An instrument is handed to Benny, a ukulele. Instantly, he’s checked it for tune and begins to play. He, Bob Moore, and John Hartford are singing an old gospel number. It is what these men do, after all. The photos are shot in minutes.
The beauty of such moments would begin to grip me.
The conversation drifts around to old times. Benny’s vocal impairment makes understanding him tough for us all. We all want to know what he’s saying, but it’s tough. It’s a damned shame. In a lull I ask if he remembers seeing me in the late ’70s. His eyes locked onto me and he began to speak. His voice had a clarity that hadn’t been available. More importantly, he remembered every detail of that chance meeting. Every detail.
He asked about my kids. He remembered the people who had interrupted us that night so long ago. He remembered details about the bill and venue. He remembered my description of the fractured relationship between my father and me. It was as if he had opened a transcript of that night backstage some 20-plus years before. Things that I hadn’t thought of in so long were given back to me. Brought back to me from a night that was not that big a night to me. Well, it wasn’t that big a night at the time. Years did indeed melt away whenever he spoke to me. All this time travel done by a man not noted for taking great care of himself.
Those moments with Benny Martin let me believe he had an inordinate thirst for people and their friendship. He just must have had a rare gift for caring. Now he may not have loved you and cared for you on the day that you wanted him to, but he did love and care. Thinking about that man keeping rather mundane memories so fresh through all those years is an amazement to me. Through all his setbacks and illnesses, he cared enough to guard moments going back 50 years. Knowing that a man has remembered what’s said when one doesn’t give a damn can be humbling. Very humbling.
Others can and will speak about his skill and impact as a musician. Lord knows I love to listen to his work, but explaining his technique is beyond me. Looking him in the face and laughing and talking, that could be understood by anybody. To see that concern well up in him as he asked about someone could make a person’s day.
Benny Martin came from very humble beginnings and finished with about the same. He did, however, leave a lot of himself for us along the way. I’ll always wonder if we returned the favor properly.