By Wayne Winkler
Author’s note: Jimmy Martin, of Hancock County, Tennessee, is directly connected to many Melungeon families in that area. This article is reprinted with the permission of Now and Then magazine, http://www.etsu.edu/cass/nowandthen/, published by the Center for Appalachian Studies and Services at East Tennessee State University.
The Grand Ol’ Opry has often been unkind to the wild men who have graced its stage. Hank Williams’ drinking and drug abuse led to his firing just a few months before he died in 1953. When Elvis Presley brought his R&B-inspired gyrations to the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, the Opry manager told him to go back to driving a truck. But Jimmy Martin – the widely-acknowledged “King of Bluegrass” and the man who created hits like “Sophronie,” “Hit Parade of Love,” and “Widow Maker” – was never invited to be a member of the Grand Ol’ Opry. And sadly, Martin’s reputation for wildness sometimes threatens to overshadow his legacy as one of the most innovative pioneers in bluegrass music.
When asked about his banishment from the Opry, Jimmy often wryly relied that he wasn’t good enough to be a member. At other times, he would blame individuals, particularly his former boss and mentor Bill Monroe, for keeping him off the Opry. But many agree with the assessment of bluegrass musician and promoter Tim White, who commented, “The man who kept Jimmy Martin off the Opry was Jimmy Martin.” Doyle Lawson, who played with Martin, agreed: “Jimmy was probably his own worst enemy.”
“He didn’t get on the Opry because Jimmy was like Jimmy was,” says White. “They were afraid of him – afraid of what he might do or what he might say. But if he wasn’t like he was, he wouldn’t have been Jimmy Martin.”
James Henry Martin was born in 1927 in Sneedville, Tennessee. Like thousands of Americans, he regularly listened to the Grand Ol’ Opry broadcasts from Nashville. As he learned to play the guitar, he dreamed of one day performing on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium with his voice beaming out across the country on radio waves. In the fall of 1949, he made his first step toward country music stardom.
"I was paintin' machinery in a factory in Morristown, Tennessee,” Martin recalled, “and I was playin' on WCPK from 4:30 to 5 every evening. I got fired on my job for singin' too much, and I cussed out the foreman for firin' me. When I went back after my clothes, I seen him on the street, and told him, 'Listen in on Saturday night, 'cause I'm singin' with Bill Monroe on the Grand Ol' Opry.’” Jimmy Martin never lacked confidence.
Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys had introduced the hard-driving sound of bluegrass to country music a few years earlier. Recently, his band had featured vocalist/guitarist Lester Flatt and a banjo player with a unique three-finger style named Earl Scruggs. Flatt and Scruggs left Monroe in 1948 to form their own band, and Mac Wiseman, who was now filling the lead vocal slot, wanted to move on to a solo career. Jimmy Martin had picked a good time to visit Bill Monroe backstage at the Opry. After listening to Martin sing with a borrowed guitar, Monroe told Martin to pack his bags and get ready to hit the road.
Many consider Jimmy Martin the best vocalist ever to sing with Monroe. They recorded some outstanding songs together, including “New Muleskinner Blues,” “I’m On My Way to the Old Home,” “Uncle Pen,” and “Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake.” Martin’s singing inspired Monroe to raise the pitch on some of his classic songs, and the combination of Martin’s lead vocals backed by Monroe’s tenor defined what would become known as the “high lonesome sound.”
But there was tension in the relationship; Martin was somewhat high-strung and temperamental, and was not the type to take a secondary role onstage. A video clip of him performing with Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys shows Martin bopping, dancing, and kicking his leg in contrast to the other musicians who are relatively frozen in place. For his part, Martin resented the low pay Monroe offered his musicians. “When it came time to get paid,” Martin once recalled, “Bill would ask, ‘How much can you get by on this week, Jimmy?’ I was having trouble making it there.”
Martin eventually teamed up with mandolin player Bobby Osborne. They played on the “Farm and Fun Time” on Bristol’s WCYB radio in 1951. “We stayed there for a while,” Martin told Tim White in an interview, “and, you know, it was hard to make a living. We played just percentage shows and WCYB didn’t pay us anything to play on the radio station – we just played there to plug our show dates. I left there and joined ol’ Cas Walker down in Knoxville.” Walker, a grocer who hosted a local morning television program, featured country music and gave early exposure to a number of performers, including Dolly Parton. “He paid us very poorly too, but at least we made enough to eat on.” Then Bobby Osborne went into the Marine Corps and Martin moved to Ohio to work with Bobby banjo-playing brother Sonny, then 14 years old.
After another brief stint with Bill Monroe, Martin returned to Ohio where he worked with another teenaged banjo wizard, J. D. Crowe. Meanwhile, Bobby Osborne (newly discharged from the Marines) and his brother Sonny were in Knoxville. “They were working for Cas [Walker],” Martin recalled, “and I knew what kind of money they were making, when they could get show dates. We started talking about getting together.” Then Casey Clark, the MC of the “Lazy Ranch Barn Dance” on Detroit’s WJR radio, called with a job offer. “When we played the auditorium for Casey there was about 150 people in the audience. They hadn’t heard nothing like what we were doing. We tore the house down.”
Detroit was ripe for some good down-home bluegrass; during and after World War Two, the city was filled with expatriate Southerners who had moved north for good-paying factory jobs. Many of Jimmy Martin’s relatives lived in or near Detroit, including his cousin from Sneedville, Willis Winkler, who was also my father. Jimmy visited the house sometimes and brought a bit of showbiz glamour to our home. He was building quite a name for himself, especially after Casey Clark began broadcasting his “Jamboree” on CKLW-TV from Windsor, Ontario, just across the river from Detroit.
Martin and the Osbornes perfected their three-part harmony singing with Jimmy on lead, Sonny on baritone, and Bobby on tenor. While playing with Bill Monroe, Martin had been offered contracts with RCA, Columbia, and Decca Records, and had later recorded a few songs for Cincinnati-based King Records. Now that he had a band that sounded the way he thought they should sound, he contacted RCA. In November of 1954, Martin and the Osbornes, along with Cedric Rainwater on bass and Red Taylor on fiddle, recorded six songs, including “Save It! Save It!’ and “20-20 Vision.”
“When we went in to record we knew what to do,” said Martin. “We were really rehearsed. My guitar, Bobby’s mandolin, and Sonny’s banjo were all on the same microphone…When Bob would come in and take a break, Sonny knew just how to back him up and I knew just how hard to hit my guitar. Each of us knew when to hit it hard and when to hit it soft. That way the man who cut the records wouldn’t have much to do ‘cause we’d already mixed it for him.”
“Save It! Save It!” and “20-20 Vision” were successful, but that didn’t mean Jimmy and the Osbornes were rolling in money; Sonny’s wife Pat and Jimmy’s wife Barbara had to take jobs to help support their families, leaving the men to take care of their sons during the day and rehearse or work show dates at night. They worked in the Midwest and Canada to appreciative audiences, but by 1957 the Osbornes were ready to leave. It wasn’t an amicable parting and hard feelings persisted between them. The Osbornes moved to Wheeling, West Virginia, and then on to Nashville and the Grand Ol’ Opry. Martin stayed in Detroit and before long he had a mandolin-banjo team that suited him: Paul Williams from Wythe County, Virginia, and the still-teenaged J.D. Crowe from Kentucky.
Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys were offered a regular spot on the “Louisiana Hayride” program originating from 50,000-watt KWKH in Shreveport. The Hayride reflected a broader musical taste than the Grand Ol’ Opry and had provided a welcome to Hank Williams and Elvis Presley when the Opry wanted no part of them. Martin’s contract with RCA was not renewed after his split with the Osbornes, so in February of 1958 he brought his band into the studio for Decca Records.
J. D. Crowe recalled “When we went into the studio there was no rehearsing. We had it all worked out. We’d run over it with the studio musicians. Usually we’d do this stuff in one or two takes. Martin knew exactly what he wanted.”
One of the songs recorded during that session was “Rock Hearts,” which was Martin’s first song to hit the Billboard charts, reaching Number 14 on the list. Later in 1958, Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys recorded more classic numbers, including “Hold Whatcha Got,” “Bear Tracks,” and “Cripple Creek.” Constant rehearsal kept the band sharp and the group practiced vocal harmonies as they drove from date to date. Martin prohibited alcohol use by band members during working hours, and according to Crowe, didn’t drink on the job himself. Later, Martin developed a reputation for drinking which sometimes got out of hand.
In 1959, Martin and the band moved on to the “Wheeling Jamboree” on WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia. This was a very productive time for Martin and many who have worked with him consider this period to be his best. Martin began to tinker with the traditional bluegrass sound on his recordings to make them sound fuller, like the other records coming out of Nashville. “It seemed that whenever they played bluegrass on the radio, the volume always dropped down,” Martin said. “I wanted my records to be loud like the other records. I wanted it to stand out.”
To accomplish this, Jimmy introduced a snare drum in his recordings in 1960. Later, he would introduce elements such as a female voice singing high baritone along with the male singers’ three-part harmonies. These innovations were always wedded to rock-solid bluegrass, anchored by Martin’s trademark “G-run” on the guitar.
He remained a perfectionist in the studio. Doyle Lawson (who, like Martin, had lived in Sneedville) played with Martin in the early 1960s and again in the 1970s.”Jimmy knew exactly what he wanted with his music. It was cut-and-dried; it was not, ‘Well, that’ll do.’ He knew what he wanted and he expected you to play what he was hearing [in his mind]. Of course, he was already established by that time; he was at the top of his form. He had a formula that was working, and he expected anyone who came into the band to play Jimmy Martin’s music.”
Material was also important to Martin, and he was attracted to songs outside the bluegrass field. "I tried to be different in bluegrass, and I tried to pick out good songs,” he told one interviewer. “[The record producers would] play me a tape and I'd say, 'Right here is a real good bluegrass song. You just give that to Bill Monroe or Jim & Jesse, and see if they'll record it, because I don't think it's a good-worded song. Gimme one of them songs ol' Marty Robbins is gonna record, and they'll say it's bluegrass, time I get done with it. There ain't a George Jones song I couldn't sing, but they'd call it bluegrass. Take 'Picture Of Me Without You' -- that's plain bluegrass if I ever heard it. That's a Jimmy Martin song. Hank Williams' songs is perfect bluegrass songs."
Martin’s first long-playing album was released in May of 1960. The title of the album came from producer Owen Bradley’s question to Martin: “What are we going to call this?” Martin replied, “I don’t care, just as long as you call it something good and country.” Good and Country became not only his first album title; it also became the marketing slogan used by Decca Records. The word “bluegrass” never appeared in the title of one of Martin’s albums.
At the end of 1962, Martin, along with Barbara and their boys, Tim and Ray, and most of the Sunny Mountain Boys, moved to Nashville, the center of the country music business and home of the Grand Ol’ Opry. Later, Martin told an interviewer that his old boss, Bill Monroe, had told Barbara, “I’d advise you to stay [in Wheeling]. I hear Jimmy’s doing real well up there. If he moves to Nashville, I’ll do everything in my power against him.” A few years earlier, Monroe had circulated a petition to keep Flatt and Scruggs off the Opry and no one had signed it, so it is doubtful Monroe had the ability to keep Martin off the show. Nonetheless, Martin always blamed Monroe, at least in part, for keeping him from becoming an Opry member. And despite his growing popularity, he found it difficult to get bookings on the Opry.
His Opry appearances were successful but Martin’s aggressive personality and tendency to tell people exactly what was on his mind (especially after a few drinks) alienated some that might have helped him. “It got to where I couldn't even get on there anymore,” he later reflected. “I musta hurt somebody's feelin's, didn't I? I'm not sayin' it braggin'. I just thank the Good Lord that I could walk on Grand Ol' Opry and tear it up. They did promise me that I would be a member. Then it got down to I couldn't even guest on there -- and me encorin' and goin' over big. Now I don't know if I sounded all that good or if the audience felt sorry for me."
During the 1960s, Martin scored several hits – “Widow Maker,” “I’m Just An Old Standby,” “Freeborn Man,” and novelties such as “Guitar Pickin’ President” (penned by an up-and-coming songwriter, Tom T. Hall) and “I Can’t Quit Cigarettes.” Martin enjoyed novelty songs. “I like to see [the audience] slapping their hands and enjoying and laughing, a smile on their faces. I like to see people dance and pat their hands. It takes a novelty to do that. A man can’t be sad all the time. If he does, he’ll get out and shoot himself. He’s got to be happy. The novelty songs do that.” Martin would later contribute stories and vocals to The Possum Tapes and Chicken Pickin’ by the VW Boys.
Life was turbulent in the Martin household. Jimmy and Barbara now had four children – Lisa and Buddy were born after the family moved to Nashville – but Barbara frequently left the home for a while or had Jimmy arrested. By the end of the 1960s, Barbara had left for good, leaving Jimmy to raise the children at their home in Hermitage, just outside Nashville. In 1988, Martin married Theresa Sutherland from Pennsylvania, but that marriage didn’t last either.
Decca Records became MCA in 1970, and Martin’s output began to slow; he recorded only 21 songs for the label between 1970 and 1974. However, in 1972, Martin appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s seminal album Will The Circle Be Unbroken. The album brought veteran performers such as Martin, Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson together with relative newcomers like Norman Blake and Earl Scruggs’ sons Randy, Gary, and Steve. The three-record set introduced a generation of urban rock listeners to the sounds of bluegrass and traditional country music and secured Martin’s status as one of the old masters of the music.
In 1974, MCA dropped many veteran country performers from the label, including Ernest Tubb, Loretta Lynn, and Jimmy Martin. After half a dozen releases on the Gusto label, Martin formed his own Sunny Mountain Records. He had made some good investments and was able to live comfortably while devoting more of his time to hunting than to performing. His status as a pioneer in bluegrass was secure, yet the Grand Ol’ Opry never relented in its determination to keep Martin from becoming a member.
In 1999, writer Tom Piazza released his book True Adventures with the King of Bluegrass, based on a weekend he’d spent with Martin for a magazine article. Piazza recognized Martin’s unique talent but his admiration was overshadowed by his account of Martin’s misadventures backstage at the Opry, where, fueled by whiskey, he squabbled with Ricky Skaggs and threatened to kill Bill Anderson. This type of publicity did not endear Martin to the Opry.
Doyle Lawson, who now leads his own band, Quicksilver, says Martin was hurt by the Opry’s rejection. “He loved the Grand Ol’ Opry; he never lost that passion for it. I think some of the things that were said or happened were simply out of frustration…I worked the Grand Ol’ Opry with Jimmy and when he hit the stage, he had that crowd wrapped around his finger. They loved it – he knocked ‘em dead.”
Tim White of the VW Boys believes Martin took a degree of pleasure in his exclusion from the Opry. “I think he knew the reason he wasn’t on the Opry and I think it tickled him. If he’d had his rathers, he’d rather have been on the Opry. But he actually, at some point, resigned himself [to the idea that] ‘I’ll never be on the Opry, so in that case, I’ll just rub it in their faces a little bit. That’s the way Jimmy was and I loved him for it.”
The final cut on the VW Boy’s Chicken Pickin’ features a hair-raising yodel by Martin, followed by his invitation to come back to visit him at his home. “I’ll do the [yodel] again here in my kitchen for ya, but I can’t do it backstage at the Grand Ol’ Opry, I’ll tell ya that right now.” When White protests, “Aw, they’ll let you in,” Jimmy replies, “Hell no, I can’t go backstage at the Opry no more, ‘cause I can do that stuff and they can’t do it!” There was no mistaking the note of pride and defiance in his voice.
In 2004, Martin learned he had bladder cancer. He died on Saturday, May 14, 2005, and was buried in Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville, under a tombstone he had designed himself and installed years earlier.
In the summer of 2007, Tom T. Hall released a CD of songs co-written with his wife entitled Tom T. Hall Sings Miss Dixie and Tom T. The final cut on the disc is “Jimmy Martin’s Life Story,” a song which covers the highlights of his life and career and features yodeling from Martin. Doyle Lawson has recorded a CD of Martin’s gospel songs with Martin’s former Sunny Mountain Boys, Paul Williams and J. D. Crowe.
Recent documentaries such as High Lonesome and King of Bluegrass have introduced many listeners to Martin’s music and reminded others of the place Martin carved out for himself in country music. Jimmy Martin’s legacy lives on despite the reluctance of the Opry to acknowledge it. Given the blandness of today’s corporate country music, Jimmy might have even taken a bit of pride in the knowledge that he was too wild, too outspoken, and far too real for the Grand Ol’ Opry.