Jimmy Martin – In the Hall of the Mountain King
I’m proud to say I’m a bluegrass singing man
For it’s a lonesome sound, and the music of our land
I’ve worked that hard road, played a lot of shows
I sung many a song with Mr. Bill Monroe
I’m proud to say I’m a bluegrass singing man
— Jimmy Martin, “Bluegrass Singing Man”
Jimmy Martin is the King Of Bluegrass. It says so right there on the title of a CD that contains “Bluegrass Singing Man”. Quite a few fans — and musicians, too — will agree, and a lot more just won’t care to argue the point.
Nevertheless, despite his inarguably central role in an astonishing amount of bluegrass history — “I recorded ‘Uncle Pen’ with Bill Monroe,” a later line in the song accurately reports — the mention of Martin’s name is as likely to elicit guffaws, headshaking, rueful grimaces or outright resentment in bluegrass circles as it is admiration. “Make him look good,” alt-country stalwart and former member of Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys Greg Garing commanded me over the phone, and the fact that such advice wasn’t obviously unnecessary is a good sign of Martin’s troubled legacy.
Another sign, and the proximate cause of this story, was a lengthy article that appeared in the Oxford American two years ago by New Orleans jazz writer and Martin fan Tom Piazza, detailing Piazza’s “true adventures” meeting Martin and accompanying him backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. No one disputes that the piece was a funny one, nor that it captured the way Martin has often behaved (and probably will until the day he dies). But at the same time, friends and many fans felt that what was missing was at least as important as what was there — namely, the profound influence Martin has had as a musician, not only by virtue of the records on which he has appeared, but also as a bandleader who shaped the talents and styles of dozens of players who worked in his band and carried what they learned to other ones.
“If the music wasn’t right, he would have been just this jerk,” one banjo player told me, but his point was that the music was right — right enough for Martin to have been inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall Of Honor in 1995, despite considerable fears about exactly what he would say or do during the ceremony.
Still, even his friends advised me to be sure to talk to Martin early in the day, lest a drink or two (or more) render him a less than ideal subject for an interview. Furthermore, I was advised by bluegrass DJ Traci Todd, who had volunteered to help arrange the interview, that there was not much point in my coming down to Nashville if the weather was good; “He’ll be out coon hunting,” she explained.
The way things turned out, meeting and greeting his many fans at an annual shindig put on in Nashville by another bluegrass organization was even more important to Martin than coon hunting, and so, though the weather was suitable for hunting, I was able to visit Martin’s home outside Nashville on a Saturday morning in early February. The experience could hardly have been more different than Piazza’s — Martin was sober, mostly serious, and intent on making a good impression — but that was pretty much what I wanted: to hear the King Of Bluegrass on the music itself and his life in the business.
That’s not to say it was an easy interview. Martin was an engaging subject, but often difficult to follow; he speaks in phrases more than sentences, reproduces dialogue without making clear who said what, and has a habit of conflating the past and present in a way that makes it difficult at times to tell whether he’s talking about something that happened last week or 40 years ago. He also has themes he likes to stress — how popular his music has been, how important it is to put on a good show, how categorizing bluegrass as such has unnaturally separated it from the country music field — and will often plunge into making a particular point regardless of the question at hand. All of which makes for a writer’s nightmare.
Jimmy Martin was born in Sneedville, in the eastern hills of Tennessee, in 1927, the same year as Ralph Stanley and Jim McReynolds. “The only thing I ever wanted to do, back home, I wanted to play and sing on the radio and be an entertainer,” he says. “We had a battery radio, a little old Philco, before we ever had electric. Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe and Uncle Dave Macon, they were my favorites — and DeFord Bailey, I used to listen to him. I wanted to sing like Roy Acuff or Bill Monroe. I went around burning brush piles or hoeing corn, singing ‘Wabash Cannonball’, ‘Great Speckled Bird’, ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’, or ‘Wicked Path Of Sin’. I told my mother — my dad died when I was 4 years old — I told my mother…they’d tell me, ‘Go on to bed, we have to get up and work tomorrow,’ or go to church, and I’d tell my mother, ‘Y’all just run me to bed, one of these times you’re going to turn that radio on, and I hope before I die I get to sing with Bill Monroe.'”
Martin got his chance to do just that in late 1949. By then, the version of Monroe’s band that had created bluegrass was no more, singer-guitarist Lester Flatt and banjo picker Earl Scruggs having departed the previous year to create their own band, replaced by Mac Wiseman and Rudy Lyle. Working in a paint factory in Morristown, Jimmy had talked his way onto an early-morning radio show at WCRK there when complaints from co-workers about his singing got him fired. “I aggravated the boys there,” he recalls. “They said if I could sing it would be all right, but just hollering around there…”
Undaunted, he boarded a bus for Nashville and made his way to Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry. Martin caught Monroe’s set from a seat in the auditorium — he had never seen him before, and recalls being surprised at how big a man Monroe was — then hustled out to the stage door and introduced himself to the man he consistently describes as his idol.
“I told him I’d like to sing one with him, and he asked me what part I sang. I said, ‘Well, I can’t sing as good as Lester Flatt, but I can play a guitar kind of like that and sing lead.’ And I said, ‘In your quartet, I can sing bass, I can sing baritone,’ and I said, ‘I can sing tenor, but I can’t sing tenor as good as you.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you just come in here and let’s sing one together right now.’ So he took me in there, and Mac Wiseman was picking Bill’s guitar, and it was one that Lester Flatt played, and that’s what Bill told me: ‘That’s what Lester played.’ And my knees got to shaking, just thinking I got to pick Lester Flatt’s guitar.