The musical festival bears the name of Country Music Hall of Fame member Chet Atkins. The night belonged to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Duane Eddy. Compared to contemporaries Atkins and Eddy, Grady Martin’s contributions have gone relatively unsung.
The Nashville “A-Team” guitar great received some of his much-deserved due Wednesday night (April 5) at the Ryman Auditorium during “Witness History III: The Twang Years,” the keynote event of the annual, four-day Chet Atkins’ Musician Days festival in Music City. Martin and Eddy were honorees of the concert. Atkins, frail after suffering some mild strokes, made a brief appearance on stage to give the tribute show his blessing.
Eddy, perhaps the most successful instrumental rocker of his time with 15 Top 40 hits between 1958 and 1963, was on hand to swap guitar licks with Vince Gill and John Fogerty and to receive accolades from Peter Frampton and Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell. Martin, 71, ailing and lately unable to play the guitar, missed the hometown tribute paid to him. Gill, Willie Nelson and Marty Stuart presented the “Chetty” award — named after Atkins — to Martin’s son, Josh. Accepting the trophy, he acknowledged his father appreciates the honor but was unable to attend because he is “not doing well these days.”
Nelson, backed by a large band that included Gill on guitar, performed an instrumental medley of big hits associated with Martin’s guitar sound, including the insistent riff of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” and the flamenco-flavored guitar of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso.” After the Chetty presentation, Nelson kicked off his vocal set with “On the Road Again,” a No. 1 hit the singer recorded alongside Martin in 1980.
In 1979 Martin, a native of Chapel Hill, Tenn., recorded the guitar parts for Nelson’s film Honeysuckle Rose and shortly afterward joined Nelson’s “Family” band. The guitarist had a considerable influence on both Nelson’s use of the nylon-string guitar and his playing technique. Martin remained in the band until he was forced to retire for health reasons in 1994.
“Grady’s an old friend, and I’m probably his biggest fan. So, I’m glad to be here,” Nelson told country.com a few minutes before show time. “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 said with a laugh, acknowledging the subtleties of Martin’s playing are hard to reproduce.
Other artists — and producers — must have recognized Martin’s special touch, too.
Martin is known, at least in recording industry circles, as one of the most versatile and one of the most recorded session guitarists in Nashville. He’s among a select group of musicians in Music City known as the original A-Team, a group of masters including guitarists Atkins, Hank Garland, Harold Bradley and Ray Edenton, bassist Bob Moore, pianist Floyd Cramer, drummer Buddy Harman, saxophonist Boots Randolph, fiddler Tommy Jackson and multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy. Martin’s studio work includes hundreds of sessions; he has backed artists ranging from Hank Williams to Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley. On many sessions, he served as band leader and de facto producer, meaning he led the musicians and directed the impromptu arrangements that became a trademark of Nashville sessions.
The guitar slinger’s contributions to chart-topping recordings span several decades, from Red Foley’s 1949 “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy” to Merle Haggard’s 1983 “That’s the Way Love Goes.” Martin’s other classic credits include Johnny Horton’s “Honky-Tonk Man” and “Battle of New Orleans,” Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Lefty Frizzell’s “Saginaw, Michigan,” Ray Price’s “For the Good Times,” Jeanne Pruett’s “Satin Sheets,” Little Jimmy Dickens’ “May the Bird of Paradise Fly up Your Nose,” Conway Twitty’s “Linda on My Mind,” Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me.”
Hardly a Nashville rockabilly session passed without the ever present guitar-work of Martin, be it for Buddy Holly, the Johnny Burnette Trio or Janis Martin (no relation).
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 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 his long tenure with Nelson.
Wednesday night’s guitar honorees never worked together — Eddy recorded his best-known work in Phoenix and Hollywood — but Eddy was happy to share the six-string salute with Martin.
“He’s one of my favorite guitar players, and the countless contributions he’s made over the years are amazing,” Eddy said during a backstage interview.”He’s one of my heroes.”