Jimmy Martin , known widely as the King of Bluegrass, is featured in a new documentary about his life as well as in a new retrospective CD release.
The new documentary, titled King of Bluegrass: The Life and Times of Jimmy Martin, has its world premiere Tuesday (April 29) at the 34th annual Nashville Film Festival. Tom T. Hall will introduce the film. Following the screening, Martin himself is expected to make a rare Nashville appearance at the well-known bluegrass headquarters, the Station Inn. Taking part in a tribute to Martin at the Station Inn will be Marty Raybon, Irene Kelley, the Sidemen and others.
The documentary is the first film by a Chicago man whose first glimpse of Martin onstage changed his life. George Goehl saw Martin perform at Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival in 1999, and Martin’s performance electrified him. Goehl recalled that he “completely lost it” on seeing the irrepressible Martin onstage and decided to make a film about the performer. It took him three months of telephoning Martin to get permission to start filming but once he did, he followed Martin on hunting trips, on his tour bus with the Sunny Mountain Boys and onstage at bluegrass festivals. He also interviewed Ralph Stanley , Tom T. Hall, Marty Stuart , J.D. Crowe and others.
One of the film’s premises is that the great regret of Martin’s life is that he has never been offered a membership on the Grand Ole Opry. In a wide-ranging conversation with CMT.com, Martin said that he understands that it was his former mentor Bill Monroe who kept him from being an Opry member. “The Grand Ole Opry has never done nothing’ to help me,” he said. “It has done nothin’ but hurt me. And that was on account of my idol Bill Monroe. He said he would resign if they let me be a member. Well, that got all that stuff started. … But if there’s ever a man who loved Bill Monroe, you’re lookin’ at him right now. I admire him. There was nothin’ like him. I would just stand and look at him. Watch him get off bus with his hat and his mandolin on, just watch him walk to the stage, watch him stand up on the stage and there was nothin’ like him. Nothin’ like him.”
Martin said that he regrets that the Opry’s recent evolution is turning it from the traditional show that it has been. “Too many of them not singin’ it from the heart. Not too many of ‘em sing like Alan Jackson or George Jones. They just don’t have it. And they ain’t gonna be around as long as George Jones , neither. It would break my heart to know that that would be the last [country] show and it’s come nigh to getting away from us. Well, not away from me because I have no part of it. But I would have liked to have been a part of it. The entertainment part of the Opry, the real hard stuff, has just about gone and all for a dollar. If I had to get up and just sing and entertain people just to get their money, I’d just stay at home. I want ‘em to be happy. If I sing a happy song, I want ‘em to clap their hands and holler. If I sing a sad song, I want ‘em to get their handkerchiefs out and start crying. And you’ll see tears in my eyes. I love country music that good.”
Martin’s long career is highlighted in the new CD Songs of a Free Born Man: Jimmy Martin Recordings 1959-1992 (CMH Classic Bluegrass). The disc features a 1950s jam session, a live concert and Nashville studio sessions. Duet partners include Stuart, Leona Williams, Jett Williams, Paul Williams, Little Jimmy Dickens and Ricky Skaggs . Songs on the 25-cut disc include Martin’s signature songs “Sunny Side of the Mountain” and “Made in the Shade (If a Tree Don’t Fall).”
Martin said he’s enjoying as much popularity now as he ever has. “Don’t take this for braggin’, but thank God, I’m a-sellin’ more now at my shows than I ever sold in my life. Nothin’ to sell two and three or four thousand [CDs] at a show. We went up and played two days and sold five or six thousand. Sold everything that we had in Alberta, Canada. So, not being a member of the Grand Ole Opry has not hurt me none in my draw. It has helped me. You want to know the reason why it has helped me? Because it confuses people and makes ‘em wonder why they won’t let me on that Opry and sing. I hear that. I hear it everywhere we go. Everywhere we go. We can’t understand why we can’t hear you on that Opry.”