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Remembering Jimmy Martin

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Jimmy Martin, a True Bluegrass Legend, Passes

A Remembrance by Pete

I was about 15 or 16 when I first heard “The Hit Parade of Love”, performed by some folks I knew in NY City. They had a cool harmony on it, and it seemed like a pretty upbeat song, with snappy lyrics and good banjo picking. Before long I picked up my first Jimmy Martin record (his second of two at the time), and connected with one of the greatest musical forces bluegrass has ever known.

There was a lot to like in the music of the Sunny Mt. Boys. Jimmy’s voice had a power and urgency that always got my attention. He grew on you, with a great tone, definitely hillbilly, and absolutely clear and true. Spirited and disciplined at the same time. We fans of his singing would start noticing little note turns, much as George Jones would do. His subtly ornamented style could merge with the feeling and the lyrics of a song to really communicate.

And the band, the Sunny Mt. Boys – always tight, always alive with a strong, clear, determined sound, the solid banjo roll, the always-clear mandolin soloing. the driving guitar with more bass runs than the early rhythm players usually did.

And the harmony – clear trios sung full bore, right in tune, blending all the while. Dependable, professional. Good matching outfits, right to the end.

Jimmy’s career and life were marked with his strong and unique personality: his persistent flamboyance, his carefully cultivated sense of music excellence, his always wanting and getting your attention — all in pursuit of his art of helping people have a good time. His eccentric, outspoken side received much play, especially in later years, as it inevitably shared the spotlight with the musical legend. The stories about him abound, but what will last the longest is his music.

All that spark, uniqueness, and desire to please — combined to drive a sound that changed bluegrass. I noticed several years ago: The Jimmy Martin style of bluegrass is the most often copied, and popular, style of bluegrass today, a good 50 years after his arrival on the scene. Though the Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs or Stanley band sounds are distinctive and influential, none are as widespread as the Jimmy Martin approach. Having cultivated the banjo styles of J.D. Crowe and Bill Emerson, there came to be what might be considered a Jimmy Martin banjo sound. A regular column in Banjo Newsletter, “Jimmy Martin Banjo” kind of makes that official. Being a Jimmy Martin banjo player meant you had to reach a very high standard. Folks like Crowe, Emerson, Tom Adams, Alan Munde, Chris Warner, Doyle Lawson (yes, on banjo) have carried Jimmy’s influence far and wide.

Photo by Bob Grannis/Getty Images

Jimmy joined Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in 1949 and played guitar, sang lead, and served as emcee for Bill’s stage show for 5 years. Here they perform at the Grand Ole Opry in 1951

It’s pretty hard to top the music that Jimmy made with Bill Monroe and Rudy Lyle in the Blue Grass Boys of the early 50s. The duets with Monroe are classics: “I’m Blue I’m Lonesome”, “The Old Kentucky Shore”, “My Dying Bed”, “The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake”. This is some of the all-time great, genre-defining bluegrass music. Then the trios – “On and On” and “Uncle Pen” resound with authority and talent. Jimmy was in his mid-20s.

As the leader of the Sunny Mt. Boys, Jimmy created his personal band style. Song after song with his trademark, “Good ‘n Country” sound, only a few duds here and there, when the gimmicky “novelty” numbers wore thin. “Sunny Side of the Mountain”, “You Don’t Know My Mind”, and a host of others, many written by Paul Williams with Jimmy’s help, gave him one of the best repertoires any bluegrass performer has ever had. As a bluegrass DJ through most of the 1960s, I would reach very often for one of his several consistently fine Decca albums in the then-small bluegrass album stack. Jimmy was famous for having a great, tight band, gripping material, and an upbeat, professional show.

I first got to see Jimmy perform at the first Bluegrass Festival, in Finncastle, VA in 1965. I recorded an interview with him there, and got to interview him again, about 20 years later. He had a lot to say, and quotes from Jimmy are some of the most colorful and right-on advice I know about bluegrass singing. They are sprinkled throughout my Bluegrass Songbook. “If you got a voice, sing in the tone.” That took me some time to “get” but it’s a gem.

Though some of Jimmy’s behavior in later years put off a lot of people, myself included, I have always held his music high, and valued what a great contribution he has made. Less than a month before he died, I was able to reach him on the phone to express my best wishes and my gratitude.

He was very pleasant and mellow, and though we didn’t talk long, he parted with, “When you get to Nashville, come and see me.” He is buried in the same cemetery as John Hartford, in a prominent place near the front, with a large, characteristically flamboyant stone that he proudly had put in place several years ago. I will go see him there, on my way to visit John and Marie’s graves, way in the back of the Springhill Cemetery on Gallatin Rd. in Madison, TN.

So much can be, and is being, and will be said about Jimmy, I feel like the above only touches main points. The richness in his music and legacy will be listened to, and felt, for a long, long time. Rest in peace, Jimmy. You earned it.

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