Jimmy Martin, 1928-2005
Born in rural Sneedville, TN in 1928, Jimmy Martin showed a talent for singing early in life, and as a child he and his brothers and friends used homemade instruments to imitate the sounds of the string bands they heard on the radio. Martin's desire to pursue a music career only grew as the years went by, and in 1949, newly fired from a paint crew in Morristown, TN, he traveled to the Grand Ol' Opry in Nashville, talked his way backstage, and launched into an impromptu audition for bandleader Bill Monroe—who hired Martin on the spot as a singer and rhythm guitar player. A coda to that story, possibly apocryphal, has Jimmy driving all the way back to Morristown, finding his old boss, and telling him, "Thanks for firing me, you horse's ass—and if you want to hear about my new job, tune your radio to WSM next Saturday night!"
Known for his strong tenor voice, often punctuated with sharp breaks, yaps, and yodels, Jimmy Martin toured with Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys through 1955, and his singing can be heard on a number of important Monroe sides, including "On My Way Back to the Old Home," "Uncle Pen," "In the Pines," "The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake," "A Voice from on High," and "Sitting Alone in the Moonlight"—the last three of which feature Martin on lead vocal. But Jimmy Martin's greatest legacy was arguably his punchy, syncopated rhythm guitar style, which influenced generations of bluegrass guitar players to come. As Tony Rice said, "When I was just a kid, doing a radio show with Clarence White at KFOX radio in California, I asked Clarence, 'Is Lester Flatt your favorite rhythm guitar player?' Clarence answered simply, in that real quiet voice of his, 'No. Jimmy Martin.' That has affected me to this day."
After leaving Monroe's band, Martin joined forces with Bobby and Sonny Osborne (mandolin and banjo, respectively) in a group called the Sunny Mountain Boys. The Osbornes left a year later, but Martin carried on with the group name, recording many fine songs for Decca, including "You Don't Know My Mind," "20/20 Vision," and the Martin-penned "Hit Parade of Love." A number of contemporary bluegrass greats got their start in Jimmy Martin's Sunny Mountain Boys, most notably the singer and mandolin player Doyle Lawson and banjoist J.D. Crowe, who continue to headline festivals across the US.
Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys had the occasional country music hit through the 1960s, but their fortunes nosed downward until 1971, when Martin was tapped as one of the guest artists on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's seminal album Will the Circle Be Unbroken. As with most of the other senior performers on that record, Martin's career got a good shot in the arm, and he continued to tour and perform at music festivals though 2004.
No stranger to excess, Martin garnered his share of detractors over the years, which surely led to his neglect at the hands of the Grand Ol' Opry—where Martin was allowed to perform, but conspicuously was never invited to join the cast as a member. Still, Martin remained the consummate bluegrass entertainer, touring relentlessly, working crowd after crowd, and seldom failing to dedicate at least one song to "all the folks back in good ol' Sneedville."
A well-known photograph from the 1930s—one of those boilerplate Americana shots that turns up in every book, film, or television show on the subject of rural music—shows a ten-year-old boy in overalls, strumming a loudly painted "cowboy" guitar and singing with his mouth wide open in an almost impossible smile. Coincidentally, the kid in the photo was Jimmy Martin—and, in fact, that was always Jimmy Martin.