Friends and fans of Grady Martin celebrated the legendary guitarist’s life and music at a small, informal memorial Monday afternoon (Dec. 10) at Nashville’s Belcourt Theater, home of the Grand Ole Opry in the mid-1930s.
Bassist Bob Moore and his wife, Kittra, organized and hosted the tribute, held one week after Martin’s death on Dec. 3 of heart failure at age 72 (see related story). Formal services were conducted Thursday (Dec. 6) in Martin’s hometown of Chapel Hill, Tenn.
Original A-Team Nashville studio musicians, Martin and Moore played on hundreds of sessions together in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
“Grady was like my big brother,” Moore recalled. “I was 16 when I met him. He had a car and I didn’t. He’d come by and pick me up, along with my bass, and carry me wherever we were working. At that point, we became almost brothers. He’d get a flattop, and then I’d have to go get me a flattop. He’d get a pair of black-and-white shoes; I’d go and get some black-and-white shoes. He was my best friend and we stayed close all our lives.”
Fellow A-Team members Harold Bradley, Buddy Harman and Ray Walker and Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires turned out to pay their respects. Vintage photos of Martin with Bradley, Moore and others were displayed at the theater ticket booth. A pair of wreaths were hung in Martin’s honor on each side of the theater stage, where musicians jammed together in loose, mixed-and-matched groupings throughout the afternoon.
As is often the case in Music City, pickers and singers paid tribute through songs as much as stories and speeches.
Grand Ole Opry star Billy Walker performed “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Charlie’s Shoes,” which he recorded with Martin in the early ‘60s.
Martin played on nearly every session Walker recorded during the first 15 years of his career. Walker recalled Martin’s musical mastery and joked about how terse the guitarist could be in the studio.
“When Grady played on ‘El Paso’ it changed western music,” Walker said. “I came along and cut ‘Cross the Brazos at Waco.’ At the session that day, ol’ Grady said, ‘How do you want this damn thing played. anyway?’ You know he could be belligerent at times. I said, ‘Well, Grady, just play it like you feel it.’ He said, ‘I don’t feel the damn thing!’ But it turned out to be a smash anyway.”
Country star Gail Davies , who spent time with Martin in the late ‘70s when they were both on the road with Jerry Reed , performed three songs: Johnnie & Jack’s “Poison Love,” Webb Pierce ’s “Back Street Affair” and the Karl Davis-penned country standard, “Kentucky.”
Chris Scruggs –- Davies’ son –- performed Johnny Horton ’s “I’m a One-Woman Man” backed by Moore and others. Scruggs emulated Martin’s guitar licks featured on the 1956 hit recording of the song.
The jazzy, Django Reinhardt-inspired Hot Club of Nashville –- featuring dazzling guitarists Bryan Sutton and Richard Smith –- opened the tribute with “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
Country-gospel star Martha Carson, who turned 80 in May, delivered Merle Travis ’ “That’s All” and her signature song, “Satisfied.” Martin’s son, Tal, was called upon to back Carson on guitar.
Meeting Tal for the first time on stage, Carson told him how much his father’s guitar playing meant to her. “I had never before been brave enough to sing a real slow tempo song until I recorded ‘Just Around the Bend,’” she remembered.
“I was scared to death to sing it until Grady’s guitar introduction set me in the mood to sing it. What beautiful guitar work; he just set the stage so much. I just [felt] every lyric in that song –- my bass voice doing the best it could with a slow song. I couldn’t have done that song without the Grady Martin touch.”