Fabled fiddler Benny Martin died Tuesday night (March 13) at a Nashville-area hospital of causes not yet announced. He was 72 and had been suffering from a variety of illnesses, including a nerve disorder that affected both his voice and his eyes. Martin wrote of his medical problems — including his long bout with alcoholism — in the liner notes to his 1999 album The Big Tiger Roars Again, Part 1.
Benjamin Edward Martin was born May 28, 1928, in Sparta, Tenn. One of his childhood friends was Flatt & Scruggs founder Lester Flatt. Martin’s father, George Robert Martin, played guitar and led the part-time musical group the Martin Family. It included Benny (on fiddle) and the older two of his four sisters. He was “8 or 9 years old,” he recalled, when he made his radio debut with his family, playing on The Upper Cumberland Jamboree, a weekly radio show in Cookeville, Tenn. At 12, he hitchhiked to Knoxville to play on WNOX’s The Mid-Day Merry Go Round.
In 1941, Martin moved to Nashville to work with Big Jeff Bess and the Radio Playboys on station WLAC. He remained with the group for most of ’40s, also moonlighting as a studio musician. During this period he recorded on Pioneer Records, a tiny Nashville label, “Me and My Fiddle,” the tune that became his signature song.
Martin made his Grand Ole Opry debut in 1946, playing with the blackface act Jam Up & Honey. The next year, he began touring as a member of Red Foley’s band. On the side, he played sessions for such acts as Foley, Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe. Martin became a member of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1947 and stayed with him into the following year. In 1949, he played and recorded with Acuff’s Smoky Mountain Boys. Afterward, he joined Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ new band, the Foggy Mountain Boys. Due to Martin’s drinking, it was not an entirely happy union. He said Flatt often fired him and bailed him out of jail but that he stayed with the band on and off until 1953. (Martin ultimately quit drinking alcohol in 1978.)
Through the recommendation of his friend Hank Williams and William’s producer, Fred Rose, Martin signed as a solo act to MGM Records. MGM released two singles on Martin in 1953, neither of which charted. Later that same year, he moved to Mercury Records. During 1954-55, he toured with Kitty Wells’ and Johnnie & Jack’s band. He also played the Grand Ole Opry in the mid-1950s as a solo act.
Although Mercury released several singles on Martin, none charted, nor did the ones he subsequently recorded for RCA and Decca. It was on his Decca recordings, however, that he introduced his musical refinement, the eight-string fiddle. In 1961, Starday Records released Martin’s first album, Benny Martin: Country Music’s Sensational Entertainer. Finally, in 1963, Martin made the singles charts with his Starday recording, “Rosebuds and You.” He would chart only one more — “Soldier’s Prayer in Viet Nam” — in 1966 on Monument Records, with Don Reno & The Tennessee Cut Ups.
Even as he faded from mainstream country, Martin continued as a presence in bluegrass music. He recorded albums for CMH Records, notably the two-record sets The Fiddle Collection in 1977 and Big Daddy of the Fiddle & Bow (with Bobby Osborne and John Hartford) in 1979. Martin’s last album, The Big Tiger Roars Again, Part 1, on OMS Records, featured as guest artists Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Scruggs, Tom T. Hall, Hartford, Jim & Jesse McReynolds, Buck White, Del McCoury, Crystal Gayle, Bobby Osborne, Johnny Russell and others.
Martin is survived by a son and two daughters.