Writing About Bluegrass Royalty, Warts and All
Last weekend, Barbara Martin Stephens, at age 83 an energetic, warm, articulate woman, came to the Sertoma Bluegrass Festival in Florida to tell the story of her life with “The King of Bluegrass,” Jimmy Martin. Her book, Don’t Give Your Heart to a Rambler: My Life with Jimmy Martin, the King of Bluegrass, tells the story of how a young widow who had been born into relative privilege in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1935 became entangled in the complex life of Jimmy Martin, bore him three children, and endured his violence, profanity, and out-of-control womanizing for 14 years before finally being able to break free, move to Fort Lauderdale, and create a new and productive life for herself as a court reporter, and now an author. Along the way, Barbara Martin Stephens became the first woman booking agent in bluegrass and country music and brought whatever order she could to the musician’s chaotic life.
Jimmy Martin was born in 1927 in Sneedville, Tennessee, where he grew up in an extremely rural farming community. He was introduced quite early to music. He first auditioned for Bill Monroe in 1949 and was immediately hired. He remained with Monroe, who was already well-known as a member of the Grand Old Opry, for two years before there came a parting of ways. Here he sings one of Monroe’s signature songs, “Uncle Pen,” with the Father of Bluegrass Music.
Jimmy Martin formed his first band in 1954 with the Osborne Brothers, but the band soon broke up. Next, he put together Jimmy Martin & the Sunny Mountain Boys, with Doyle Lawson on banjo and Paul Williams on mandolin. Here are Martin, J.D. Crowe, and Williams, along with Bill Yates on bass, singing “What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul” in what appears to me to be reunion setting.
And here’s a clip of Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys singing at the very first bluegrass festival in Fincastle, Virginia, held over Labor Day weekend in 1965.
… and on the Dell Reeves television show in that same year with one of his signature songs, “Tennessee.”
Life for rural kids raised in the Depression era and during World War II was tough, and success often meant finding a way to leave the farm for a still-hardscrabble existence. For many people who became bluegrass musicians, the road became the route to success, but was fraught with temptation and difficulty. Martin was almost completely illiterate but radiated an exciting personality that films of his performances captured for us to see today. They also reflect his crude sense of humor and harsh treatment of women. This can be seen in this 1969 clip featuring Gloria Belle singing “Traveling the Highway Home.”
Perhaps Martin’s greatest disappointment in life was that he never was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry as a member, although he frequently appeared there. The often-told story is that he was denied membership by Bill Monroe, who opposed him at every step. According to Barbara Martin Stephens, this opposition had to do with Martin’s suspected affair with Monroe’s daughter, Melissa.
Bringing up the less savory side of bluegrass heroes in their biographies isn’t always an easy choice. A commenter on a Mandolin Cafe post about Richard D. Smith’s biography of Bill Monroe on Mandolin Cafe discussed a criticism of the book from Tom Ewing, a former Blue Grass Boy: Ewing wrote that the portrait Smith painted could make people no longer care how talented and influential Monroe was musically, that readers including young musicians could think less of Monroe, and worse, turn their backs on bluegrass music. I respect Ewing’s loyalty and his personal and professional experience with Monroe. But I disagree with him on this point, because Monroe himself had already damaged his public reputation. Hiding the issues only worsened the wound.”
This all raises the question, how do we place the lives of artists and celebrities into a context of their time and contribution to their art? As our attitudes and beliefs about behavior, human worth, and art change over time, can we find a place to continue to value the art while not accepting the behavior, which we understand with greater depth and compassion to have been destructive to so many? Does the particular sensibility that raises an artist into celebrity ever excuse the behavior he or she engaged in? St. Augustine urged us to “Love the sinner and hate the sin.” Is this possible?
Sitting around picnic tables at bluegrass festivals, I’ve heard hair-raising stories about Jimmy Martin, Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, and others — icons all, but much protected by their standing within the bluegrass community. I’ve often said I wanted to know more about the performers lives, with all their warts showing. Barbara Martin Stephens has achieved that for Jimmy Martin. Human beings are complex. Our stories are never simple, and she has written her story, revealing a life and keeping it true.
Stephens’ appearance at Sertoma was sponsored by the Sunshine State Bluegrass Association with the support of Evans Media Source and Handsome Ladies, a nonprofit group to support and promote women in bluegrass music.