Book Excerpt: True Adventures With the King of Bluegrass

Jimmy Martin Profile Written by Tom Piazza Reissued in Paperback

Editor’s note: In this excerpt from True Adventures With the King of Bluegrass, author Tom Piazza has already convinced Jimmy Martin — one of the most colorful characters in bluegrass history — to be interviewed for an Oxford American magazine profile. But first, with a promised bottle of bourbon in tow, Piazza tags along with Martin in the singer’s temperamental blue limo, then gives the reader an indelible image of Martin’s home in Hermitage, Tenn. A decade after appearing in book form, True Adventures With the King of Bluegrass was published in paperback earlier this year.

I grabbed my stuff and approached the limo, the tinted driver’s-side window rolled down halfway, and there was Jimmy Martin looking up at me, unsmiling, suspicion in his red and slightly watery eyes, his head as big as a large ham and very jowly, with long grey sideburns and thin grey hair combed back and left a little bit long by the collar of his black nylon windbreaker.

“Leave your bags in your car,” he said. “I gotta do an errand here; you can come with me.”

By the time I climbed into his passenger seat, Martin was trying to maneuver the limo into a five-point U-turn so that he could get it out of his driveway. He worked the gear shift, which was on the steering column, with dogged concentration and without saying a word. The hood was as big as a queen-sized bed. On the first leg of the turn the limo stalled, and Martin cursed and restarted it with effort. The car stalled twice more before he got through the turn; at one point he spun the wheels and they splattered mud all over my car, which was about twenty feet behind the limo. Finally, the turn was completed and we coasted down the driveway with the engine gurgling uncertainly, and out onto the road.

Once we were underway I tried a few conversation openers, but it was like trying to play tennis in the sand. It took three long minutes, driving at about 15 miles an hour, to get to our destination just off the main road: the back of a one-story brick building where somebody was busy throwing wood and other garbage into an incinerator.

“Wait here,” Martin said, getting out and slamming the door. For the first time I turned and looked in the back area of the limo, which was upholstered in blue velvet but not very well cared for, littered with scraps of paper and junk. In the middle of the back seat were two giant bags of garbage and a broken crutch. Martin opened the back door, grabbed the garbage, and closed it again. I watched him bring it over to the guy; they stood around talking, inaudibly to me, for about five minutes while I sat in the front seat.

When they were finished Martin got back in without any explanation, and we headed back to the house, with the limo stalling only once more.

The dogs were really whooping it up when we arrived, and Martin hollered at them as we got out and they skulked away quietly. At the end of the driveway stood a big STOP sign, with stick-on letters added, reading BAD DOG WILL BITE TAIL. I grabbed my bags out of my car and followed Martin inside.

We walked under a carport and through a storm door into an unheated den, where the floor was piled with boxes of cassettes, CDs, an upright bass, sound equipment, and other stuff. I followed him up a few steps, through a door and past a daybed where a collection of mesh caps of all sorts was displayed, then through another door into a vestibule with a bathroom and a bedroom off of it, which led directly into the kitchen. It was obviously a bachelor’s house: clothes were set out to dry on a chair by the heater, and at the Formica kitchen table space would have had to be cleared amid papers, mail-order catalogs, letters, and empty cassette cases to make room for a second person to eat. I unpacked my cassette recorder and notebook while Martin wordlessly looked through some mail, but before we got started I was going to give him the whiskey I promised him.

I had put some thought into the choice, actually. I had initially bought him a bottle of Knob Creek, a very good Kentucky bourbon. But after I bought it I wondered if there wouldn’t be some state of loyalty involved in Martin’s whiskey preference. He had begun life in Tennessee, after all, and had spent the last 25 years living there. Tennessee was the home of the Grand Ole Opry, etc., etc., and for all I knew some kind of horrible blood rivalry might exist between Tennessee and Kentucky. So I went back to the liquor store and picked up a bottle of Gentlemen Jack as well, to cover the Tennessee base.

Now I reminded him of the conversation, made a little speech about my rationale for the choice, during which he looked blankly at the bottles, then I handed the bottles to him, feeling proud of myself.

“I drink Seagram’s 7,” he said. Then he walked across the kitchen, stashed the bottles in a cabinet, and that was that.

Reprinted courtesy of the Country Music Foundation Press & Vanderbilt University Press. Copyright 1999 by Tom Piazza. Paperback published in 2009.