NASHVILLE SKYLINE: A Hall of Famer?

(Nashville Skyline is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Listening tonight to an advance copy of a sparkling CD of the work of Jimmy Martin, I am struck by one thought. Why isn’t this remarkable artist in the Country Music Hall of Fame? And will he ever be?

Probably not in his lifetime, I have to conclude, sadly. Spirits this free — except for the occasional and undeniable Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson — aren’t allowed in the sacred ring of honor. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope so. But personally vulnerable artists like Martin, especially in these frightened times of corporate greed and stupidity and panic, sometimes are turned into sacrificial lambs. Because — the ultimate sin — they’re no longer considered marketable. They’re demographically unclean.

Martin, as you surely know, is widely known as the “King of Bluegrass” — for good reason but also because that’s what he named himself. The man has a healthy sense of self-worth, not to mention a bit of ego.

I first met him in 1971 when I was covering the recording sessions in Nashville for Rolling Stone for the original Will the Circle Be Unbroken Album. The imperial bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe had declined an offer by the longhaired California country-rock group the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to join the likes of Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs in recording what was then regarded on Music Row as a marginal hippie and over-the-hill-country-artists project. Martin was invited as a surrogate Monroe, who felt the project was beneath him. But Martin was adventurous and welcomed the challenge. At the sessions, he was wonderful to be around: salty, frank and full of music stories. And he sang with the force of complete musical integrity — no holding back, no compromising.

He’s a one-of-a-kind, like a Waylon or a Willie. He speaks his mind. And he takes a drink now and then. Or two drinks. Or three. So did a lot of the greats. Sometimes, he has over-served himself. Much has been made of that, especially as spelled out in a 1999 magazine article in the Oxford American about a drunken visit he made to the Grand Ole Opry, in which he was chauffeured by the writer of the magazine article. He was drunk backstage at the Opry — hardly a first — and he threatened to whip the asses of Ricky Skaggs and Bill Anderson. That sort of thing has happened before there, but it’s seldom appeared in a magazine article — which the Country Music Hall of Fame itself then published as a slim book, through its Country Music Foundation Press. The book (True Adventures With the King of Bluegrass) in many ways reduces his career to one night as a drunken, washed-up buffoon — as observed by a visiting magazine writer, who brought him a bottle of Knob Creek bourbon as a sort of calling card.

What apparently set Martin off that night is something that has been gnawing at him for years. Although he was a hugely popular influential Opry guest, the Opry has never seen fit to invite him to be a member. That has been a dream of his since childhood. Now — in his 76th year on earth — he has probably concluded that it will never happen.

And — he’s already had his tombstone engraved. Along with a long biography chiseled into the stone are acknowledgments that he was inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Honor and the Hall of Fame Walkway of Stars, with the years for each induction. Below those is the line “In the Country Music Hall of Fame,” with a blank space left for the year of induction.

Martin has had a solid — if uneven — career that establishes him as a bedrock country artist. He became the lead singer for Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1949 and made his mark with such pivotal songs as “Uncle Pen.” His high lonesome tenor vocals are rivaled only by Ralph Stanley‘s. His solo career with his Sunny Mountain Boys introduced such Martin protégés as the great banjo picker J.D. Crowe and such songs as “Sophronie.” He was also instrumental in popularizing bluegrass on the Grand Ole Opry and Louisiana Hayride, primarily through his emphasis on vocals, as opposed to instrumentation. The album I’ve been listening to is titled Songs of a Free Born Man (CMH/Classic Bluegrass, due in April) and it certainly is all that. Martin runs through such classics as his “Widow Maker” and “Free Born Man.”

He may well be the last of a generation of true mavericks in country music, of genuinely independent individuals with fiercely determined ideas of musical integrity.

Last August, Martin’s friends held a surprise birthday party for him in the Country Music Hall of Fame’s rotunda where the Hall of Fame members are honored with large plaques. Martin strutted in with full country music star plumage, shiny two-tone cowboy boots and all. He was in fine voice, and friends like Tom T. Hall stood to give him a standing ovation. It was a pleasure to be there and hear Martin still exulting in the beauty and the joy of singing pure country music. He introduced his little grandson as his guest artist and just beamed at the warm applause. At the same time, you could kind of see him eyeing all the Hall of Fame plaques around the room and mentally measuring one for himself. Well, he sure as hell deserves it. As an artist, he has been fearless and fireproof. When’s the last time you saw someone like that?