Jimmy Martin-The King of Bluegrass

Jimmy Martin was one of the founding fathers of bluegrass music, from the generation of musicians just after Bill Monroe who helped make Monroe’s very personal style of mountain string band music into a genre of American roots music. Martin began his career at age 22 when he joined the Blue Grass Boys as guitar player and lead singer. He sang and picked on some of Monroe’s most compelling and iconic recordings of the early 1950s. After leaving Monroe, he formed the Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys, which he led for the rest of his life. With his band, Martin recorded many songs and instrumentals that became bluegrass standards, covered by other bands and picked around festival campfires for decades. His music was remarkably consistent through his long career-early on he found a style he liked and stuck with it, as musicians came and went. Like the Blue Grass Boys, Martin’s band was an incubator for top bluegrass talent.

This post focuses on Martin’s music, but a few words about the man himself are warranted. Jimmy Martin’s personal life was chaotic. The memoir, “Don’t Give Your Heart To A Rambler – My Life With Jimmy Martin The King Of Bluegrass” by his long time and long suffering partner, booking agent, and manager, Barbara Martin Stephens, depicts a charismatic, temperamental, and occasionally abusive man eaten up with frustrated ambition. Despite Jimmy Martin’s monumental musical talent and accomplishments, his personal problems kept him from being asked to join the Grand Ole Opry. The Stephens book and another memoir about a visit with Jimmy Martin late in Martin’s life, Tom Piazza’s “True Adventures With The King Of Bluegrass-Jimmy Martin,” provide background about these aspects of Martin’s life and career.

Jimmy Martin was born in 1927 in east Tennessee. He grew up on a large farm and early on showed talent as a singer, performing in a gospel quartet with his stepfather. He left home and school after the eighth grade and supported himself with a variety of odd jobs. A friend showed him how to play the guitar and Jimmy was soon performing on the radio. In 1949, age 22, Jimmy went to Nashville to audition for Bill Monroe. Flatt and Scruggs were gone from the Bluegrass Boys by then, leading their own competing band. Jimmy was confident that he was the man for the job as Bill’s guitarist/lead singer. As Jimmy told it, he knew the words and all the vocal parts to all of Monroe’s songs. He managed to get backstage at the Opry and talked Bill into singing with him. Martin’s confidence was justified; Bill was so impressed that he hired Jimmy on the spot. Said Bill, “He had a wonderful voice that would really fit with mine.”

Thus began one of the most legendary musical pairings in bluegrass. Jimmy was a powerful singer, and from his deep study of Monroe’s music he could follow Bill’s singing like a brother (even better, in my opinion, when compared to big brother Charlie Monroe). Together they recorded, among many others, standards like “On My Way Back To The Old Home,” “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome,” “Uncle Pen,” “Letter From My Darling,” “In The Pines,” “On And On,” and “Sitting Alone In The Moonlight” (the last four featuring Jimmy’s lead vocal). Jimmy’s powerful guitar playing came through loud and clear on these recordings, especially on the snappy guitar run kicking off “Uncle Pen.”

Jimmy Martin was also responsible for bringing banjo prodigy Sonny Osborne to the Bluegrass Boys. Sonny toured and recorded with Bill when he was only 14, beginning his own storied career in bluegrass, which is detailed in the November 2021 post in this series. Martin had met and played with Sonny and his older brother Bob Osborne in the early 1950s while Jimmy was on hiatus from the Blue Grass Boys.

Jimmy played his last session as a Blue Grass Boy with Monroe in January 1954. Soon he teamed up with Sonny and Bob Osborne as Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain boys. In November 1954, this group recorded six sides, including “20/20 Vision,” “Chalk Up Another One,” and “That’s How I Can Count On You.” These songs also rapidly became bluegrass standards.

The Osborne Brothers soon left Jimmy Martin and began their career as bandleaders, which brought them to the Opry as members in 1964. Jimmy re-formed the Sunny Mountain Boys with a succession of high caliber musicians, including most famously banjoist J.D. Crowe (the defining Jimmy Martin-style banjo player), who started with Jimmy as a teenager, banjoists Bill Emerson and Alan Munde, mandolinist and vocalist Paul Williams (“Williams” was a stage name, Paul’s real last name was Humphrey), and mandolinist Doyle Lawson. Together with Jimmy Martin, these men recorded some of bluegrass music’s finest performances. The following list is just a sampling of some of my personal favorites-I left many great ones off the list. And the list contains far too many songs to link to here; the ones not linked to below should be readily available elsewhere:

Hit Parade Of Love
Sophronie
Rock Hearts
Hold Whatcha Got
Home Run Man
You Don’t Know My Mind
What Was I Supposed To Do (a Paul Williams song, recorded at a Martin session, which Paul sings with country accompaniment)
There Ain’t Nobody Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone
Don’t Give Your Heart To A Rambler
Widow Maker
Freeborn Man
Mary Ann
The Last Song

As mentioned above, Jimmy Martin had his own style that didn’t vary much over the nearly 20 years separating the earliest and latest songs above. Contrast him with Bill Monroe, whose style evolved over his long career, often to accommodate the talents of his sidemen. Jimmy’s style was driven by his strong rhythm on the guitar and his powerful vocals. Jimmy liked to play and sing right on the beat, which gave his material a little more bounce than, for example, Bill Monroe’s. Jimmy Martin was one of the best bluegrass rhythm guitar players; his bass runs were powerful, well placed, and instantly identifiable, and they drove the band. He also wanted the banjo to continue to roll behind vocals and other instrumental solos; he felt that interrupting the roll was the musical equivalent of pants falling down in the middle of a song. He told all his banjo players to play it just like J.D. Crowe had on the songs that Crowe recorded with him. Crowe had a bluesy style and played a beautiful rolling backup that Martin admired.

One of Jimmy Martin’s career highlights was his appearance, with other leading bluegrass and traditional country artists, on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” recording, released in 1972. Martin was exceedingly proud of the gold record he received for this best selling album. His new versions of “Grand Ole Opry Song,” “Sunny Side Of The Mountain,” “You Don’t Know My Mind,” “Losing You (Might Be The Best Thing Yet),” and “My Walkin’ Shoes” brought his hard driving music to a new generation of fans. In 1990, Martin appeared on the “Circle” sequel, singing “Sitting On Top Of The World.”

Jimmy Martin died in 2005. His musical legacy is secure, based on the recordings above and many more like them. As previously noted, his personal legacy is mixed. Among other things, in his later years he often played shows with local musicians when he wasn’t carrying a full touring band, and he could be unpleasant to them on stage when he felt they weren’t playing his music right. But it would be unfair to Martin’s memory to omit a story told me by a friend that shows him in a positive light. At the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual trade show and music festival not long before Jimmy Martin died, he was jamming at the hotel with my friend and several music pros. During a break, my friend, who was thrilled to be playing with the King of Bluegrass, said to Martin, “Isn’t this the best music ever?” Jimmy didn’t say a word, he just threw his arms around my friend and hugged him. That’s the Jimmy Martin I like to think of as I listen to his incandescent music.

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