Jimmy Martin, the self-proclaimed and duly honored “King of Bluegrass,” died Saturday morning (May 14) at Alive Hospice in Nashville after a long struggle with cancer. He was 77.
In addition to having been one of the most significant members of Bill Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys, Martin made trailblazing recordings with the Osborne Brothers before establishing his own band, the Sunny Mountain Boys. He was one of the few Nashville legends who performed on all three of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken albums.
Born Aug. 10, 1927, into a poor farm family in mountainous Sneedville, Tenn., James Henry Martin grew up listening to the kind of traditional country music then being played on the Grand Ole Opry. He was especially drawn to the music of Opry star Bill Monroe, a high-speed, “high lonesome” sound that would eventually become known as “bluegrass.”
In George Goehl’s 2003 film, King of Bluegrass: The Life & Times of Jimmy Martin, the singer said his first “guitar” consisted of rubber bands stretched across a flat tin Prince Albert tobacco can. Later, he learned basic guitar chords from a neighbor. Martin played occasionally on radio stations in Knoxville and Morristown, Tenn., in the late 1940s before heading to Nashville in 1949 to audition for Monroe’s band.
Monroe hired him, and he sang lead and played guitar with the Blue Grass Boys until 1953. This artistic union resulted in such memorable recordings as “Uncle Pen,” “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome,” “My Little Georgia Rose” and “Letter From My Darlin’.”
Martin teamed up with the Osborne Brothers in 1954 to record several sides for RCA Records. Among the best of these sessions were “20/20 Vision” and “Save It! Save It.” The next year, Martin struck out on his own with a band he called the Sunny Mountain Boys. Banjoist J.D. Crowe joined the group in 1956 and remained with it until 1960. Martin and his band performed as members of the Louisiana Hayride from 1957 to 1959 and of the Wheeling Jamboree in West Virginia from 1959 to 1962.
In 1958, Martin began a long association with Decca (later MCA) Records. He charted that year with “Rock Hearts,” which went to No. 14. It would prove to be the highest position he ever reached on the charts, although he rose into the Top 20 in 1964 with his trucker anthem, “Widow Maker.”
Martin’s great goal in life — even as he routinely disparaged the notion — was to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry. He seemed close to the goal by the early ’60s, but he never made it. Certainly, he received no help from his old boss, Monroe, who was so jealous of the type of music he created that he lobbied to keep other bluegrass acts, particularly Flatt & Scruggs, off the Opry.
Speaking to Monroe’s biographer, Richard Smith, Martin recalled, “Me and Bill Monroe, I would say, were as close as any two musicians have ever been when I was a Blue Grass Boy. But when I went out on my own and my records started getting up on the charts, he started to ignore me and wouldn’t even talk to me. It seemed like the more popular I was, the less he cared for me.”
But Martin was also brash, loud and opinionated, not traits the conservative and well-mannered Opry held dear. “I think Jimmy is his own worst enemy,” Crowe once said. “He’s made a lot of mistakes, and he’s alienated a lot of people — people who could have helped him had he let them.”
Marty Stuart concurred: “He didn’t have sense enough to tone it down — thank God. … When he hits the stage, it’s like cannons going off. … I think he’s uncontrollable.”
Martin found fans beyond country and bluegrass in 1972 when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band invited him to join them in recording Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a triple album of traditional tunes with such country music luminaries as Mother Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson. The album yielded Martin his last chart single, “Grand Ole Opry Song,” which peaked at No. 97 in 1973.
Martin left MCA Records in 1974 and afterward recorded for a number of independent labels. He continued to play bluegrass festivals into 2004.
When Martin was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor in 1995, he accepted the award with characteristic tact.
“I don’t know if I should say this or not,” he said. “I wanted to be up here a lot earlier. But looks like they run out of anybody to give it to, and they decided to give it to me tonight.”
As a songwriter, Martin penned several tunes that are now parts of the bluegrass canon, including “All the Good Times Have Passed,” “Don’t Cry to Me,” “Hit Parade of Love,” “Hold Whatcha Got” and “Tennessee.” In 1994, Bear Family Records released the most comprehensive single collection of his work, the five-CD, 146-song box set, Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys.
Years ago, Martin designed his own tombstone that was placed in the Spring Hill Cemetery in the Nashville suburb of Madison, Tenn. The tombstone Martin erected for himself stands as tall as he did, bears his photo and is topped by the legend “Now Sings in Heaven” and engraved with virtually every one of his achievements through his induction into the Hall of Honor.
However, Stuart offered the most succinct summation of Martin’s life when he said, “He dared to be different, and he’s paid the price for it.”
Martin is survived by his children, Timmy, Ray, Lisa and Buddy Lee.