Jimmy Martin: 1927 to 2005
There was no use trying to steer a conversation with Jimmy Martin. This went double for keeping him on track during an interview, as I learned when I drove out to his place in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, last year.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know what I was in for. I’d read Tom Piazza’s sensationalistic though beautifully written profile of Martin — who died May 14 of cancer at age 77 — in the Oxford American. I’d seen George Goehl’s like-minded yet more empathetic documentary about him. I’d even spoken with Martin at a gala to celebrate the third installment of the Will The Circle Be Unbroken series and at a surprise party for his 75th birthday. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to finish asking a single question, much less get through a third of them in the hour we’d blocked for the interview. I knew that Martin’s mercurial temperament meant that he could go from being irascible to maudlin to waxing rhapsodic in a matter of seconds.
When I sat down at his kitchen table that snowy morning in January, though, I had no idea that he would chase rabbits at such a breathless clip, that he would frequently turn the tables and grill me, that he would make me promise to include this or that in my story, or that, as I took my leave, he would hug me and tell me that he loved me, as he doubtless did with others (and meant it). Some musicians talk at you or pull the star trip, but not Jimmy Martin. Sneedville, Tennessee’s answer to Little Richard (or is it the other way around?) was a planet unto himself. The best you could do was hope to stay in orbit around him.
In the constellation of artists who populate the bluegrass pantheon — a trio of acts consisting of Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and Flatt & Scruggs — Jimmy Martin never gets his due, despite being a catalyst for three of the idiom’s most galvanizing formal innovations.
No sooner than Monroe hired him to be lead singer for the Blue Grass Boys in 1949, Martin urged his boss to “pitch” his harmonies up a notch, thus giving birth to the “high” portion of Monroe’s vaunted “high lonesome sound.” Then, after spending three weeks on the bus with Hank Williams while Monroe’s band was out touring with him, Martin put a bluesy, Hank-like break in his vocals, adding the “lo-onesome” finish to the high lonesome. Then there was his hard-charging guitar style, an addition to the Blue Grass Boy sound that inspired Monroe’s trademark “chop” rhythms on the mandolin, jacking up bluegrass with rockabilly propulsion.
This is to say nothing of the 136 sides that Martin — a brilliant, if inscrutable, bandleader — made with the Sunny Mountain Boys for Decca in the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s. Or, for that matter, of wonders such as “20/20 Vision” that he cut with Bobby & Sonny Osborne in the early 1950s.
Yet despite all of this, Martin, who was one of the greatest singers in country (not just bluegrass) music, still isn’t in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and never was invited to join the institution he loved most: the Grand Ole Opry. (At the least the International Bluegrass Music Association saw fit to induct him into its Hall of Honor before he died.)
Explanations for the Opry snub are manifold, but Martin, in typically grandiose fashion — imagination and empiricism were interchangeable in that mind — insisted it was due to a combination of jealous rivals and the fact that his playing and singing were just too damned good. “Bud Wendell did say that I would be a member of the Grand Ole Opry ’cause the Opry office loved the way that I played and entertained bluegrass music,” Martin told me, referring to the former CEO of Gaylord Entertainment, the company that owns the Opry. “Bud Wendell — I knew the reason — he was up agin a rock and a hard place, ’cause Roy Acuff told me personally that Bill Monroe told ’em that he would resign and quit the Opry if they let me be a member.
“So really, it’s jealousy,” Martin went on. “I’ve not done nothing to nobody. People says my mouth kept me off the Opry. No it didn’t. I’ve encored every time I been on there. Last guest spot I done, Stringbeans [sic] said to me, ‘Boy, you tore ’em up. Probably went over too big.'”
That last Opry performance was more than a quarter-century ago. Whatever barred Martin from the Opry for so long, his inability to censor himself certainly was a factor, and that constitutional impulsivity comes across vividly — and with a staggering abundance of humanity — in George Goehl’s verite-style documentary, King Of Bluegrass: The Life And Times Of Jimmy Martin. Here we see Jimmy leading a coon hunt, feeding his pet goat, eating squirrel meat, getting drunk, cavorting roguishly onstage, and “playing” a Prince Albert Tobacco can (his “first guitar”). Naturally, there are shots of his outsized headstone, chiseled years ago with a Rabelaisian epitaph apropos of the self-proclaimed “King of Bluegrass.” Most disarming, though, is when, in high spirits, Martin approaches the old family homestead in Sneedville and suddenly bursts into tears.
“That’s one thing I try to do is real,” he told me, using the word real as a verb, as if it wasn’t something that a person was but, something they did, a way of being in the world. “When I hunt, I try to hunt real. If my dogs need correcting, I’ll whoop ’em for it or take a shocking collar and shock ’em, but I feed ’em good and pet ’em. When I feed my dogs, if they do good, I go over to Centerpoint Barbecue and I get ’em a mess of Centerpoint Barbecue and they do good. That’s the only way I know how to do it — real.”
Real, real gone.