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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 452

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This is the grave of Jimmy Martin.

Born in 1927 in Sneedville, Tennessee, Martin grew up in a poor farming community that was typical of any number of people in southern Appalachia. The church was a central part of life and so was the music that served as entertainment. While radios were bringing outside sounds and entertainment options to people by this time, old-time music was still a central part of this culture. For Martin, this was good as he was functionally illiterate his entire life. He started playing the guitar as a kid, teaching himself, and then played on local radio shows and with local bands. His big break came in 1949. Mac Wiseman had just left Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys and Monroe needed a new guitarist. Martin took a bus to Nashville, got backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, and started picking. He was hired right away. Martin was also Monroe’s lead vocalist in the harmonies that made up so much of bluegrass. Martin also helped reshape Monroe’s music. His original band with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs was a bit more pop-oriented with an accessible sound. Martin encouraged Monroe to embrace his Appalachian roots and together they came up with the high lonesome sound that was bluegrass at its best.

They didn’t stay together for too long though. See, both Martin and Monroe were kind of terrible people, difficult at the very least and more than that for Martin. So they finally broke in 1953. Martin played with the Osborne Brothers for a little but soon formed his own band, The Sunny Mountain Boys, in 1955. He discovered J.D. Crowe, perhaps the most important of the next generation of bluegrass musicians, in this period. Martin also did something that today’s bluegrass purists find outrageous–he had a snare drum in his band. Yes, bluegrass purists are the worst.

Martin released a lot of albums. His high voice which can cut right through you was a signature of bluegrass and he became known as “The King of Bluegrass,” largely because that’s what he called himself and because he was clearly competing with Monroe. He also remained musically innovative and hired a female lead singer named Gloria Belle in 1975, which had never happened before in a traditional bluegrass band, though by that time, singers such as Hazel Dickens were playing on their own. Martin also treated Belle like he treated most women, which was not good. Like most bluegrass artists, he didn’t have a lot of chart-topping hits. His highest was “Rock Hearts,” which hit #14 on the country charts in 1958.

But Jimmy Martin was a really awful guy. He was a massive alcoholic, he beat women, and you never knew what you were going to get night to night, which is why he was never invited to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry, a lifetime dream of his. A lot of the early bluegrass legends were pretty wild and sometimes violent men, including Monroe and Carter Stanley. In fact, another part of the reason that Martin never made the Opry is that Monroe, a man as equally insecure and jealous, actively lobbied to make sure that no other bluegrass acts became members. However, others have stated that Martin was probably sleeping with Monroe’s daughter and the latter hated him for it.

Martin could be funny–I once read a story where he confronted Ricky Skaggs after the latter returned to bluegrass and brought his slick top 40 country style to the music. Personally, I don’t care for this music. So I found it amusing when I read how Skaggs walked up to Martin and was promptly told that his music was fucking bullshit (I don’t have the book in front of me, but this is only a minor paraphrase; there was a string of cursing about how bad Skaggs is involved). But while that might be funny to read from a distance, especially when it’s one musician I think is great telling off another musician I think wasted his prodigious talents on crap, it’s actually a horrible thing to do and to witness.

This was the way Jimmy Martin lived his life. Crowe later said about his mentor, “I think Jimmy is his own worst enemy. 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.” For that matter, when, in 1995, he was inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor, he said in his induction speech, “I don’t know if I should say this or not. 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.”

Martin died of bladder cancer in 2005, at the age of 77.

Let’s listen to some Jimmy Martin.

Jimmy Martin is buried in Spring Hill Cemetery, Nashville, Tennessee. He designed his own tombstone.

This grave visit was supported by LGM reader contributions. As always, I am extremely grateful. If you would like this series to visit more bluegrass legends, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Carter Stanley is in McClure, Virginia and Lester Flatt is in Sparta, Tennessee. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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