At 75 years old, Jimmy Martin is still the King of Bluegrass. He knows he’ll never be a member of the country club, and he doesn’t mind telling you why.
October 2, 2002
Jimmy Martin is being driven to his grave. He rides in the passenger’s seat, heading north on Old Hickory Boulevard through Madison, Tenn. Driving over the Cumberland River, he’s singing “Knoxville Girl,” the tragic tune of a man who takes a Sunday evening stroll with his girlfriend, beats her to death and throws her body into the river.
Martin wears a red jumpsuit and a white pair of canvas Converse sneakers. His long white sideburns peek out from beneath his cockeyed baseball cap.
He’s 75 years old and The King of Bluegrass. He’s also known as Mr. Good ‘n’ Country, for his first solo album, Good ‘n’ Country, recorded on Decca Records in 1960.
“You can use them both,” he says. “I like them both. I’m damn sure good and country. I don’t care what they call me, just as long as they let me out there and pick.”
In the Spring Hill Cemetery, Martin’s tombstone is taller than he is, adorned with his picture and his epitaph.
“I had nobody to look out for me,” he says, “so I just went ahead and had me one made. Of course it cost me a little bit more money to get what I wanted. I wanted to put it as close to Roy Acuff as I could get it.”
Martin shelled out $15,000 to move his grave directly across from Acuff’s, the final resting place of the King of Country Music.
“That’s as close as I’m ever going to get to Roy Acuff,” he says.
Martin’s tombstone reads in part, “A colorful and consummate entertainer and musician, Jimmy Martin produced profound and enduring influences on the idiom during its critical formative years and throughout the remainder of bluegrass music’s first half century.”
There’s no mention of Martin’s lifelong rejection by the Grand Ole Opry, the Promised Land for every young country boy of his generation.
Driving back to his home, Martin is still singing and having a fine time mimicking Acuff’s “Wreck on the Highway.”
Who did you say it was, brother?
Who was it fell by the way?
When whiskey and blood run together
Did you hear anyone pray?
Martin lives in a comfortable brick home in Hermitage, Tenn., a suburb of Nashville. In front of his house sits his 1985 Lincoln Town Car limousine with the personalized license plate, “KING JM” and a license plate in front that reads, “Widow Maker.”
There’s a stop sign in his driveway with a message in gold letters: “BEWARE OF DOG. BAD DOG WILL BITE TAIL.”
“I’ve got some good dogs,” he says. “I love my dogs.”
His guard dogs – Joe Louis and Little Dixie Hall – roam the property. In his back yard, his hunting dogs, for hunting coons, rabbits and squirrels, are penned up. They’re named Tom T. Hall, Patty Loveless, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Little Tater Jimmy Dickens, Mel Tillis, Charley Pride, Hank Williams Sr. and Eddie Stubbs. He also has guineas, chickens, a mule, a billy goat and a pet raccoon.
Martin lives only 250 miles away from were he was born and raised in the Cumberland Mountains of East Tennessee, in the little town of Sneedville. At the age of 4, his father died and his mother remarried. He was one of 10 children who worked the family farm. He went to school until the third grade, but quit to help out on the farm.
He grew up listening to The Midday Merry Go Round radio program on WNOX in Knoxville. It’s where he heard the music of Carl Story, Charlie Monroe and The Bailey Brothers. He also tuned in to the Grand Ole Opry on WSM in Nashville, where he heard Uncle Dave Macon, Roy Acuff and his hero, Bill Monroe.
He says of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, “I think they played better music. I think they was really together and had their outfit and all their singing together.”
Martin’s stepfather had a quartet, and it was where Martin learned to sing bass, baritone, lead and tenor. His first singing job was with Tex Climer and his Blue Band Coffee Boys on WCRK in Morristown, Tenn. During the day, Martin worked in a factory, and in the evenings he sang.
“We lived about 30 miles across the hill,” Martin says, “and my family and all my kinfolk could hear me singing on the radio. I thought there was nothing like that, just to dedicate my folks songs, hope they were listening to me.”
In 1949, at the age of 22, Martin took a bus to Nashville to see the Grand Ole Opry. From the balcony, Martin watched Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys perform.
Martin says Monroe “was my idol in bluegrass. That’s who I wanted to work with when I was back home on the farm. I always wanted to be a guitar player and sing with Bill Monroe. And when I first sung the first note with him, he gave me a job right the same day.”
After the show, Martin waited for Monroe outside of the Opry. When Monroe walked through the back door, Martin introduced himself and said he knew all of Monroe’s songs. Monroe invited him inside to play a few numbers.
With Monroe on mandolin, Martin on Mac Wiseman’s guitar, Rudy Lyle on banjo and Chubby Wise on fiddle, they sang “Old Crossroads.”
Roy Acuff stood in the doorway listening. When they were through playing, he said, “Boy, he sure suits your singing good. He sounds good with you, don’t he, Bill?”
Martin also played “Poor Ellen Smith” and says he “got it as lonesome as I could.” After playing “Orange Blossom Special,” Monroe made him a member of the Blue Grass Boys.
When Martin thinks back on those days, tears come to his eyes.
“When Bill gave me a job on the Grand Ole Opry,” he says, “I didn’t get much of an education in school, but it gave me the greatest education that I ever wanted in my life. When I could stand on the side of the stage and watch Roy Acuff and how he approached the crowd, that’s the best education I could have ever got in my life. It’s been good for me. It taught me to know kindly how to talk to a microphone and how to talk to a crowd of people. I watched all that and I got all the experience I could get. Of course, I used my own way of doing it, my own heart and my own soul. If you do something that you like and do it the best you can, that’s the only thing you can do.”
Some say that Martin was the best singer Monroe ever had in his band. It’s undeniable that Martin’s playing and singing complimented Monroe’s. His high, nasally voice and gut-wrenching vocal expressions have come to define the high lonesome sound of bluegrass music.
For five years, Martin played with Monroe, helping him write standards like “Uncle Pen.” In 1953, Martin left the Blue Grass Boys and teamed up with Bob and Sonny Osborne. Three years later, he parted ways with the Osborne Brothers (in a dispute that has kept them from speaking to each another to this day), signed with Decca Records and formed his own band, The Sunny Mountain Boys.
Throughout his solo career, Martin recorded such tunes as “20/20 Vision,” “Sunny Side of the Mountain” and “Hit Parade of Love.” He performed frequently on the Louisiana Hayride and the Grand Ole Opry. Even though his performances brought the house down, Martin says for years, Monroe threatened to quit the show if he was ever made a member of the Opry.
He says, “There’s no hard feelings that I wouldn’t hug Bill Monroe’s neck. Boy, what good times we had together when we was together. The best friend I had was Bill Monroe, and the best friend he had was Jimmy Martin. I loved him. I loved him as good as anybody, but he don’t want me down there singing on that Opry. It’s not like he wanted to shoot me.”
Martin also appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The landmark album bridged the gap between the younger musicians and their musical elders, and also featured Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Merle Travis and Vassar Clements. Martin also appears on volumes two and three of the albums of the same name.
In 1997, in the first Southern music issue of The Oxford American, Tom Piazza published an article about his encounter with Martin. In True Adventures with the King of Bluegrass, Piazza contacted Martin by phone to ask for an interview. Martin asked Piazza, “Is there gonna be a few dollars in it for Jimmy Martin to buy himself a fifth of whiskey?” Piazza explained that he couldn’t pay him for an interview, but he would bring him a fifth of whiskey, if that’s what it was going to take to get an interview. Martin agreed.
Piazza interviewed Martin at his home on a Thursday morning. He brought a fifth of Knob Creek and a fifth of Gentleman Jack. Martin looked at the bottles, said he drank Seagram’s 7, and put them away. After the interview, the two made plans to visit the Grand Ole Opry the following Saturday night.
When Piazza arrived at Martin’s home that Saturday night, he found him intoxicated. Piazza drove them both to the Opry in Martin’s limousine, after nearly being electrocuted while jumping off the battery.
Backstage at the Opry, Piazza wrote that when Martin saw Ricky Skaggs, he yelled, “Is that the BIGGEST ASSHOLE in Nashville?” Skaggs later strolled up to Martin and was polite. Martin harangued him for not singing a tenor part on a song with him. Skaggs eventually excused himself from the conversation.
Martin later threatened country singer and songwriter “Whispering” Bill Anderson. Martin told Piazza, “He talked to me in a way I don’t like to be talked to, and I’m going to knock his ass off.”
Since then, Martin has been banned from ever setting foot in the Grand Ole Opry.
Martin says, “A lot of the writers tells it like they think it, like stories about George Jones and me. They don’t tell the real, exact story.”
According to Martin, the real, exact story is that “Tom Piazza come to Nashville to get just what he could get out of Jimmy Martin to sell a book. He set me up. I don’t prefer putting in a book what I said to Ricky Skaggs. That should be a little bit personal, but since he said it, I don’t give a damn. I did say it and I’m not sorry of it.
“Tom Piazza come during hunting season when I didn’t even want him to come to be interviewed. I told him I didn’t want him to come, but he come here anyway to my house and brought a fifth for me and him to drink and took me down to the Grand Ole Opry and he said he didn’t know I was a big drinker until he come and visited me. That’s a pretty good deal, ain’t it? He didn’t know that Jimmy Martin was a heavy drinker until he come to my house to visit with me and he come in the nighttime and he had a fifth with him.
“When I do take a drink with somebody, it’s not that strong. See, like Jack Daniels and that kind of stuff, I don’t drink it. I might take a drink of Seagram’s 7, where it’s kindly light. If I take a drink, I don’t drink to raise hell with anybody or anything like that.
“He got me down there at the Grand Ole Opry and what I said to Ricky Skaggs in his book is nothing I regret, because Ricky Skaggs is five times worser than what I could ever say about him. He didn’t tell why I said that to Ricky. I said that to Ricky in a recording studio when he come over to record with me. He was to sing tenor on ‘If Teardrops Were Pennies.’
“I know Ricky sings it, and he knows it. I’ve even asked people in Ricky Skaggs’ group, ‘Do you think Ricky could have sung tenor with me on that?’
“They said, ‘Why hell yes he could. We’ve told him that, but he just didn’t want to do it.’
“At that time, Bill (Monroe) was still living and (Skaggs) was afraid he would hurt Bill Monroe’s feelings if he sung a duet with me on a record. Ricky Skaggs can flat sing tenor with Jimmy Martin. I have sung with him at bluegrass festivals around the fire, and me and him could sing any song together.
“And besides, that same day over there at the studio, he said, ‘Jimmy, your voice is too powerful.’ That’s how come I called Ricky this. I told him just exactly what he was, and I mean that. I’d say it the same way again today. There’s no apologizing to it. He’s what I’d call a big hypocrite.
“I like Ricky Skaggs, but he’s done me just like the stars of the Grand Ole Opry. I’ve not done nothing to none of them.”
Piazza laughs off Martin’s accusations that he forced him into an interview and got him drunk. Piazza was fully aware that Martin enjoyed whiskey, even before he made the initial contact with him.
He says, “That would be like going to the beach and not knowing they had water there. Everybody knows Jimmy drinks. There are stories about Jimmy and his drinking. All you have to do is get within about 100 miles of Nashville, and you’ll get a good Jimmy Martin story.”
But what’s unfortunate, Piazza points out, is that the wild tales of Jimmy Martin have a tendency to overshadow the man’s God-given talent.
“You have to love Jimmy Martin because of his incredible talent,” he says. “He’s a good man, I think, and a really difficult man and his own worst enemy. We’re all incredibly lucky to be around to see it. I’m grateful for the time I had to see him, as crazy as it was.”
And while the tales are sometimes what people remember the most, Piazza is quick to point out why we should even care.
“It’s natural to focus on a lot of the wild behavior,” he says, “but it’s more important to remember that the reason that we’re interested in that in the first place is because Jimmy is such a great musician and singer.”
Piazza’s article was a hit with music lovers and musicians. Vanderbilt University Press, in conjunction with the Country Music Foundation, later published it as a book.
In the foreword, country musician Marty Stuart writes of Martin, “He’s part preacher, part prophet and a card-carrying madman who is completely filled with the musical Holy Ghost. Time spent with the King of Bluegrass is not for the lily-livered or the faint of heart.”
The first time Stuart saw Martin perform was at the Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival in Bean Blossom, Ind. It was 1971 and Stuart was 12 years old, a young Mississippi boy who was in love with bluegrass. Stuart says Martin and his band “stomped their feet on stage. The feet stomping to the music on those wood planks followed me all the way back to Mississippi. I loved the pizzazz and the showmanship, but I had enough sense, at 12 years old, to know I was hearing great music. I knew back then that Jimmy Martin had a whole other thing going on.”
At the age of 14, Stuart joined Lester Flatt’s band as a guitarist and later as the mandolin player. Since then, he has gone on to work with The Sullivans, Doc & Merle Watson and Johnny Cash. In 1982, he released his first solo album, Busy Bee Café, with a heavy-hitting lineup of some of country music’s finest talent. But, his 1989 album Hillbilly Rock brought him national recognition and his first Top 10 hit.
It’s only within the last five years that Stuart and Martin have become close friends. Stuart says, “One day I woke up and I saw a musical genius.”
Last June, Stuart accompanied Martin to Bean Blossom as his guest. Martin wanted to make a grand appearance, so he and Stuart were delivered to the stage in a police car, with lights flashing and sirens blaring. After the fourth encore, Martin turned to Stuart on stage and asked him what he wanted to hear. Stuart said something he didn’t normally play. Martin broke into a rendition of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Brakeman’s Blues.”
Martin says, “He put it on its side and spun it around.”
The crowd went wild. As the police car carried them back through the crowd, Martin turned to Stuart.
“You know what’s a pitiful thing?” Martin asked.
“What?” Stuart replied.
“I do this to them everywhere I go.”
Stuart is planning an all-star country music tour across the nation, called the Electric Barnyard, and he says Jimmy Martin, along with Merle Haggard, will play an important role in the show’s success. What Stuart finds appealing about Martin is what others find so unsettling, that he’s quick to speak his mind and that he does it rather frankly.
“Jimmy is pushy,” he says, “but what he’s pushing is the truth, and he does it in a way that makes the establishment uncomfortable. It’s refreshing to have someone that blatant putting it out there. There’s a lot of old stigma that goes with Jimmy, and most of that has to do with the business end of a whiskey bottle. There’s only a couple of times I’ve seen him a little to the left, and the rest of the time he was right on the money and stole the show.”
Martin’s ability to pull out all the stops during his live performances may be part of the reason he’s never been made a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Or maybe it’s his refusal to conform to Nashville’s standards. Either way, Stuart says, “He knows damn well that when he plays the Opry he wrecks the place. At this point, Jimmy is very adamant he doesn’t need to be a member of the Opry, and if he became a member he wouldn’t have anything to complain about.”
Despite his showmanship and his talent, Martin says the professional jealousies of the folks backstage at the Grand Ole Opry have kept him from becoming a card-carrying member.
“I’ve never begged them to be on the Grand Ole Opry,” he says. “I’ve followed Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss and Bill Monroe, and the encore went over so big I must have something different than they got. I’m not bragging or boasting, but I’ve not done nothing to none of them down there.”
When it comes to Jimmy Martin, the folks at the Grand Ole Opry declined to comment.
Martin’s sitting in his kitchen and he’s on a roll. He’s talking about how the success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack had nothing to do with bluegrass and everything to do with “the biggest advertising campaign this country’s ever seen.”
Martin says he doesn’t care for the music coming off of Music Row these days.
“It all sounds alike,” he says. “I don’t know one star from another. If they ever make any of them that can out sing George Jones, the late Hank Williams, Buck Owens, Faron Young, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Carter Stanley, I want them to please get the record and bring it to me so I can hear it.”
When Martin’s building up steam, you don’t want to be the one to tell him to simmer down. While he talks, he points emphatically at the tape recorder sitting on his kitchen table, as if it has the ability to record the emphasis he’s adding with his eyes and his finger. The best thing to do is to sit back and let him at it.
“There’s only two kinds of tears that you shed in this whole world,” he says, “that’s tears of happiness, and that’s tears of sadness. You’re looking at a person that’s had them, and you’ve seen them in his eyes this morning when he was talking about the music he loves so good. Jimmy Martin has shed all of them. When I sing a happy song, I jump around and look happy on the stage, and the crowd looks the same way. When I get ready to sing a tear-jerker, they can get their handkerchiefs out right then because I’m liable to cry with them.
“One time I heard my folks say up in Sneedville, how can you sing ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ and go into a beer joint and sing a good gospel song? You know what Jimmy Martin said to them? That’s a very sad place to sing it. You’ll have more people crying there because there ain’t nothing there but broken-hearted people. It’s either a woman, her husband has left her with little kids. Or, it’s a man with a woman who’s left him and done him wrong, and he don’t know the way out of it. He’ll sit back and sing that song and cry with you. I’ve seen it done many times.
“What makes good music is a man that’s experienced. If he’s had a hard life, he’ll play hard music. If he’s lived it, he can play it. If he’s not lived it, he can’t play it. He’s just guessing at it. A lot of the people now days think you can get a bus, hire you a driver so they can sleep all the way there and back. They don’t even pick. We used to sing all the way sometimes. We’d sing those quartets for 200 miles. All you hear now on your bus is a bunch of snoring. Nobody wants to do nothing but get their money, and most of the guys want to run after girls or get them some beer and party and that just won’t get it.
“They’ve told on me about drinking. I never did care about drinking like I did about picking music and singing. I’ve always loved the style of music that I play. Bill Monroe said I talked about bluegrass more than anybody ever had in his band. It’s our living. It’s something I love. Every time I go on stage I do my best to do the best I can for them people out there. I put everything I can into that mic when I’m out in front of them people because I love them. If it wasn’t for them, I would be nothing. I want to go and put on shows as long as I can and satisfy the people and be good to them people that have made it where I can retire.
“If you put your heart into it and try and give it your best, you will always do good. But if you think you can just lay around and sleep and somebody’ll give you something, they ain’t going to do it. It’s out there if you work hard for it. I would say that in anything you go at. If you want to make a living and you work hard for it, you’ll get it done.”
Martin stares out of his window into his back yard.
“Put this in your write-up,” he says.
“I love all the people that supported me.”
His voice is cracking, and he’s holding back his tears.
“I never intend to let them down as long as I live. I want to shake hands with all of them. Tell them how much I appreciate them and how much I love them.”