Personalities | Jimmy Martin | Bluegrass | Country
Even when he was sober, Jimmy Martin (vocals, guitar, 1927–2005) was willing to tell anyone who would listen why he was the ‘king of bluegrass’. After all, didn’t Bill Monroe’s sound change dramatically when Martin joined The Blue Grass Boys in 1949?
Didn’t Martin create a brand new honky-tonk/bluegrass hybrid on his great Decca recordings of the 1950s and 1960s? Wasn’t that why they called him ‘Mr. Good’n’Country’? Wasn’t he a crucial figure on the 1972 Will The Circle Be Unbroken album?
A Controversial Musician
All these claims were true, but the way they were presented often rubbed people the wrong way and made Martin one of the most controversial figures in country music. He was the Jerry Lee Lewis of bluegrass – an indisputable genius, an over-the-top personality and an undeniable pain in the neck. How else do you explain his failure to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry or the Country Music Hall Of Fame while he was alive, despite achievements that dwarfed many other members?
He grew up in poverty in the East Tennessee mountains, listening to Bill Monroe on the radio and practising those songs beneath a tree. Martin finally travelled to Nashville in 1949, accosted his hero at the backstage entrance and asked if he could sing a few songs with Monroe. After three songs, Monroe asked Chubby Wise what he thought, and the fiddler said, ‘Oh, Lordy, son, he’s flat got it, ain’t he?’
He did. As Monroe’s new singer-guitarist, Martin provided a louder, higher voice than Lester Flatt or Mac Wiseman and convinced Monroe to raise the pitch on many of his songs, making them even higher and more lonesome than before. And Martin’s guitar work had a pulsing bounce that gave the band a different rhythm. Martin sang all or part of the lead vocals on such Monroe classics as ‘In The Pines’, ‘Walking In Jerusalem’ and ‘Uncle Pen’.
The Martin Boot-Camp
Martin left Monroe for good in 1954 to pursue his dream of forming a band with Bobby and Sonny Osborne. They recorded the regional hit ‘20/20 Vision’ and seemed on their way when Martin’s outsized personality alienated the brothers and caused a split in 1955.
A year later, the classic version of Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys was assembled, with Paul Williams on mandolin and a 19-year-old, skinny J. D. Crowe on banjo. Much like a movie drill sergeant, Martin rehearsed them mercilessly till both the vocal harmonies and instrumental rhythms were to his exacting standards. Many musicians, before and after, fled Martin’s boot-camp practices, but Williams and Crowe stuck it out and helped create – with various fiddlers and bassists – one of the greatest bluegrass bands of all time.
On recordings such as ‘You Don’t Know My Mind’, ‘Sophronie’ and ‘Rock Hearts’, it is obvious how all that rehearsal paid off in seamless arrangements and an unprecedented toughness. Martin’s in-your-face assertiveness had more in common with honky-tonk...
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