Grady Martin: 1929 to 2001
Instrumental prowess alone is not enough for studio musicians. Working in virtual anonymity, the best are chameleonlike, peripatetic geniuses who hop from session to session, plumbing their virtuosity to enhance a singer or instrumentalist. Nashville’s legendary A-Team, who dominated country records from the 1950s to the ’70s, had an additional requirement: a flair for inventing creative arrangements on the spot, regardless of song, singer or genre. Grady Martin, the guitarist-fiddler-arranger who died December 3, exemplified that credo.
Born 30 miles south of Nashville in Chapel Hill, Tennessee, in 1929, Martin left the family farm in 1944 to join Big Jeff Bess at Nashville’s WLAC. No local recording scene existed yet. In 1946 he traveled to Chicago to play on his first session, backing Curly Fox and Texas Ruby with twin lead guitars played by Martin and his Nashville picking buddy Jabbo Arrington. The pair worked with Paul Howard’s band on the Grand Ole Opry, then joined Little Jimmy Dickens in 1949 and made twin leads his signature sound. Martin also fiddled behind Hank Williams on his famous 1952 TV performance of “Hey, Good Lookin'”.
Martin became indispensable as Nashville’s studio scene blossomed. Versatile beyond belief, he created a distinctive, bluesy, string-strangling style that stood out on Red Foley’s 1950 hit “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy” and countless others. No style fazed him. He could record vanilla pop instrumentals with a studio band dubbed the Slew Foot Five, or rock out with Ronnie Self and Brenda Lee. He throbbed away behind Johnny Horton on “Honky Tonk Man”, and played the exquisite gut-string Tejano filigrees on Marty Robbins’ “El Paso”.
As Martin was soloing on six-string bass during Robbins’ recording of “Don’t Worry”, a pre-amp blew in the studio console, distorting Martin’s solo into the first fuzztone statement. The famous riffs on Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” and Jeanne Pruett’s 1973 “Satin Sheets” flowed from Martin’s hands. His gut-string accompaniment on Willie Nelson’s RCA recordings inspired Willie to adopt the amplified classical guitar he uses today.
While his friends Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley were hands-on producers, other labels used Martin as de facto — uncredited — producer (or credited him as co-producer). Don Law at Columbia often trusted him to run the entire show with Ray Price, Robbins and other artists. Even Atkins occasionally used him in this capacity.
When Bradley and Law retired in the mid-’70s and Atkins stepped back from producing, younger players took over in the studios. Martin’s session work declined. After a couple years touring with Jerry Reed, he joined Willie’s touring band in 1980 and continued until health problems forced his retirement in 1994. Along the way, he taught Merle Haggard to play lead guitar.
Martin never discussed his career with interviewers or researchers. Nonetheless, he left a monumental legacy on thousands of recordings. We’ll never know every detail, but it’s safe to say that all were better for his presence.