Guitarist Grady Martin , one of country music’s most acclaimed sidemen, died Monday night (Dec. 3) of congestive heart failure at Marshall Medical Center near his home in Lewisburg, Tenn. He was 72. Ailing for years, Martin retired from Willie Nelson ’s road band for health reasons in 1994.
A native of Chapel Hill, Tenn., Martin is among a select group of studio musicians in Nashville known as the original A-Team, a group of session masters including late guitarists Chet Atkins and Hank Garland , late pianist Floyd Cramer and drummer Buddy Harman.
“Grady had a natural talent for guitar, a natural feel for it,” Harman said Tuesday morning (Dec. 4). “He invented many great sounds on record – intros and all kinds of things –- he was heads and shoulders above most of the other players. He’s going to be sorely missed.”
Martin’s studio work included hundreds of sessions; he backed artists ranging from Hank Williams to Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley. On many sessions, he served as bandleader and de facto producer, meaning he led the musicians and directed the impromptu arrangements that became a trademark of Nashville sessions.
His insistent riff on Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman,” flamenco-flavored stylings on Marty Robbins ’ “El Paso” and distorted “fuzz” guitar solo on Robbins’ “Don’t Worry” are among the most memorable guitar signatures in all of country music.
Martin’s other classic credits include Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” Johnny Horton ’s “Honky-Tonk Man” and “Battle of New Orleans,” Loretta Lynn ’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” Lefty Frizzell ’s “Saginaw, Michigan” and Ray Price ’s “For the Good Times.”
Known for his versatility, Martin also played on pioneering rockabilly recordings by the Johnny Burnette Trio, Janis Martin, Buddy Holly and others.
Martin signed to Decca as a solo artist and cut over 170 titles through the 1950s and the first half of the ’60s. However, the guitarist preferred to stay in the background and was most active as a sideman.
By the late ’70s, Martin had become somewhat disillusioned with the methods and fads he believed had come to dominate the session scene. He cut down drastically on his work but still played sessions for friends like Conway Twitty and Nelson. In 1978 Martin briefly joined Jerry Reed’s band, making a living on the road for the first time in many years, before beginning a 14-year tenure with Nelson’s “Family” band.
Martin was honored April 5, 2000, at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium during “Witness History III: The Twang Years,” the keynote event of Chet Atkins’ Musician Days. Health problems prevented Martin from attending the tribute concert. Nelson, Vince Gill and Marty Stuart presented the “Chetty” award –- named after Atkins -– to Martin’s son, Joshua. Atkins, Duane Eddy, John Fogerty and others also were on hand to honor Martin.
Martin had a considerable influence on Nelson’s use of the nylon-string guitar and his playing technique.
“Grady’s an old friend, and I’m probably his biggest fan,” Nelson told country.com at the tribute concert. “Grady has a touch on the guitar that you really don’t hear from any other guitar player. It’s a very distinctive tone. Players like Chet Atkins and Django Reinhardt have their own tones and sounds, and Grady Martin has his. It’s a sweet tone; the notes are huge. I’ve tried to rip him off and I never could,” Nelson joked, acknowledging that the subtleties of Martin’s playing are hard to reproduce.
Visitation will be held at 5 p.m. Wednesday (Dec. 5) at Lawrence Funeral Home in Chapel Hill, Tenn. Funeral services will be conducted at 1 p.m. Thursday (Dec. 6) in the funeral home’s chapel with Rev. Bob Norman officiating. Burial will follow in Hopper Cemetery in the Laws Hill Community of Marshall County, Tenn.
Martin is survived by 10 children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.