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Benny Martin
Born:  May 8, 1928
Died:  March 13, 2001
Bluegrass Hall of Honor (2005)
The National Fiddler Hall Of Fame (2018)
WSM Grand Ole Opry


About The Artist

Portrait - Benny Martin and guitar Benny Martin was a legendary bluegrass and country fiddle player who recorded extensively as both a sideman and session player in both styles. However, Benny also had a career as a country singer recording on several major and minor labels. In the long run it seems likely that his fiddling will be his major claim to fame as only one of his many country singles ever charted.

Benjamin Edward Martin hailed from Sparta, Tennessee, the same town as Lester Flatt. His first notable experience seems to have taken place about 1940 at a small radio station in Cookeville, Tennessee where he played in a group with his father, brother, and two sisters.

However, he came to Nashville in his early teens and began fiddling as a member of Big Jeff's Radio Playboys. By 1946, he was working on WSM with Robert Lunn and also with Milton Estes and the Musical Millers. That same year, he made his first single on the obscure Pioneer label, one side of it being his signature number "Me and My Fiddle" which he would later cut several more times over the next half-century.

In 1947, he joined Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, a band he would work and/or record with several times off and on over the years. By 1949, he had joined Roy Acuff's Smoky Mountain Boys and fiddled on some of his last Columbia sessions. He then did a couple of singles on MGM records that made little impression with a voice described by Eddie Stubbs, noted WSM deejay, as a "rich baritone-bass."

Benny then went to WNOX as a member of Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs & the Foggy Mountain Boys who soon moved to WVLK in Versailles, Kentucky and the Kentucky Barn Dance. About this time, the band also began their work at WSM for Martha White Flour on weekday mornings (but not the Opry until later). He cut 16 sides with them on Columbia (13 as fiddler and three as bass vocalist in the quartet), sometimes considered the best bluegrass ever recorded.

Promo Ad - Dover High School Auditorium - Big Jeff Bess and his Radio Playboys - Jack Henderson - Benny Martin - Hillous Buttrum - Crazxy Elmer - Ted and Wanda - October 1946
Promo Ad - Fountain Square - Indianapolis, IN - Lattie Moore - Benny Martin - April 1958

Promo Ad - Brown Couty Jamboree - Benny Martin - Jo Ann Martin and his Whippoorwills - Bean Blossom, IN - September 1958
Promo Ad - Bowling Green High School Gym - Little Jimmy Dickens - Bill Monroe - Little Rita Faye - Benny Martin - June Webb - String Bean - November 1956



Promo Ad - Lyric Theater - Indianapolis, IN - Roy Acuff - Kitty Wells - Johnny and Jack - Benny Martin - Smokey Mountain Boys - February 1955
Promo Ad - Thanksgiving Show - Madisonville, KY - Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys - Benny Martin - Don Reno - Jack Phelps - Joel Price - Shennandoah Valley Trio - November 1948
Promo Ad - Tennessee Jamboree Movie - Benny Martin - Jackson, TN - APril 1965

Picture - Benny Martin In February 1954 came the big switch (or trade) with Benny and Paul Warren changing bands and Benny going with Johnnie and Jack's Tennessee Mountain Boys.

Flatt and Scruggs may have got the best of this deal as Warren remained with them for the rest of his career while Benny went solo after about a year and a half, but later did a session with them.

While still working with the Tennessee Mountain Boys, Martin began a solo vocal career on Mercury in August 1954 and about a year later went on his own. In addition to a re-cut of "Me and My Fiddle," "Ice Cold Love" probably did best although none charted.

Benny was also an innovator. Red O'Donnell reported in his April 1957 column that Benny introduced an 8-string violin on the WSM Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night, April 13, 1957. Peter Cooper wrote in Benny's obituary he first used that violin on record in 1958.

He moved to RCA Victor in 1957 with three singles and similar results. Three singles on Decca from 1958 also failed to chart. Colonel Tom Parker managed Benny in that period and it is safe to say the "colonel" made more money managing Elvis in that era, but he did land Martin a regular spot on the Grand Ole Opry in 1960.

During research, a humorous incident occurred at the Opry one Saturday night with Benny. Bill Maples told readers that stagehands had to move him twice so that drops wouldn't knock him senseless as they descended between Opry acts. Well, he didn't get knocked down, but found himself looking at the stagehand, upside down. His trouser cuff got caught in a drop that was rising and it must have been a sight to see him hanging in the air. Behind the scenes at the Opry can get chaotic and Mr. Maples recalled a quote he had heard, "...how in the world do they ever get a show done?"

About that time Benny began to record for Starday. The company released several singles over a five-year period, one of which "Rosebuds and You" made the Billboard charts rising to number 28.

Promo Ad - Western Room at the Embers - Benny Martin - Nashville, TN - September 1971 In 1964, Benny formed a partnership with noted banjo picker Don Reno (recently split from Red Smiley) which lasted about a year. They did a quickie album on Cabin Creek and a longer one on Monument. A single "Soldier's Prayer in Vietnam" also charted at number 46. However, by the time the LP came out, Benny had departed and the album cover only had Reno's name on it. Later in the decade, he did three singles for Stop, none of which went anywhere.

By 1970, Benny had acquired a serious drinking problem. My first encounter with him was at Beanblossom that June where he was jamming on the fiddle with several pickers and guzzling beer can after can, much of which was missing his mouth and going all over him and whoever was close by. However, he seems to have got straightened out as the decade passed on. In a well produced album Tennessee Jubilee, he sang an autobiographical song containing the memorable line, "one drink is too many for Benny, and a thousand's not enough."

In 1976, Martin Haerle started CMH records and signed Benny to a contract. In addition to a pair of singles, he did two double albums and a single album, Turkey in the Grass (CMH 6218), credited to Benny Martin & his Electric Turkeys. Most reviewers did not consider his effort to mix bluegrass and modern country music successful. After that Benny pretty much retired except for a now and then record session.

One of Benny's more humane actions during the 1990s was to renew (or perhaps maintain) his friendship with Big Jeff Bess who had given him his first job as a sideman in the early 1940s. Big Jeff had suffered a stroke and was in bad shape in the years before his death. Benny and another former band member Hillious Buttram made frequent visits to cheer Jeff up until he died in 1998. Benny outlived him by three years.


In a column talking about traditional music versus modern singers such as Ronnie Milsap or Crystal Gayle, Ricky Skaggs brought up the subject of traditions that would be a part of the July Fourth concert in Washington DC. Ricky said, "Mark O'Connor is just as good an accoustic guitar player as he is a fiddler. He's amazing really. Other fiddlers keep arriving. Benny Martin is so innovative that he just spawned another generation."

Upon Benny's passing, tributes to his fiddle playing were many. John Hartford was quoted, "He's the best fiddle player I ever heard in my life. Every bluegrass fiddler in the business is carrying on licks that he played." Earl Scruggs said, "(He) had a lick he hit on the bow that was almost like slap guitar rhythm. He created more rhythm than a lot of fiddle players, because back in the early days, sometimes we didn't even have a bass player with us."

Eddie Stubbs, then WSM-AM disc jockey and country music scholar, was quoted by Peter Cooper, "When you go back to the fiddle players who emerged in the 1940's and went on to greater fame in the 1950's, the ones who commanded your attention were Chubby Wise, Howdy Forrester, Tommy Jackson, Dale Potter and Benny Martin. They're all gone now. Benny was the last one."

Promo Ad - The Cash Box - Benny Martin - I Can Read Between The Lines - November 1954
Promo Ad - The Cash Box - Benny Martin - You Know That I Know - March 1955

Benny Martin
Record Reviews
The Cash Box and The Billboard

Date Label Rec No. Review
3/10/1951 (CB) MGM 10912 Midnight Flyer b/w Where Is Your Heart Tonight?
Benny Martin goes to work on a couple of different numbers and makes them both soimd fine. Top deck is a choo choo thing on which Benny does some good vocal work and gets an interesting background. The flip is a ballad which comes out ok. Upper half gets our nod.
3/5/1955 (CB) Mercury 70560 Ice Cold Love — Benny Martin comes up with a bright reading on an infectious, fast moving sentimental piece. Instrumental backdrop flavors the deck. (Rating: B)

You Know What I Know — Under portion is a tender, up tempo item that the artist delivers effectively. Warm blending of lyrics and melody. (Rating: B)
6/11/1955 (CB) Mercury 70631 That's What I'll Do For You — Benny Martin has a gay, happy-go-lucky, romantic cutie to work with and he performs it in excellent vocal and instrumental style. Deck could be a smash. Watch it. (Rating: B+)

Give Me One More Chance — Here Martin sings in soft sincere fashion on a tender, middle beat ballad. Pretty job. (Rating: B+)
5/11/1956 (CB) Mercury 70794 If I Didn't Have A Conscience — Benny Martin could have a big platter on his hands as he effectively puts over a moderate paced, heartfelt lover’s ballad. Strong material. (Rating: B+)

You're Guilty Darling — Under side is a fast tempo romantic opus that Martin socks out in stellar style. Fetching musical support. (Rating: B+)
6/9/1956 (CB) Mercury 70883 Lover Of The Town — Benny Martin happily brags that the local people have branded him the number one romeo in town. It’s a cute, fast paced musical-pick-me-up with tasty lyrics. Fetching instrumental assist. (Rating: B+)

Whippoor-Will — Under half is an enchanting, sentimental filter that Martin spins in ear-pleasing style. (Rating: B)
5/23/1958 (CB) Decca 30712 My Fortune — The polished tones of Benny Martin shine on this persuasive waltzer that also displays the winning' vocal wares of Jo Ann Martin, Benny wants to know how his love life stacks up and the palmreader Jo Ann, tells him. (Rating: B)

Border Baby — Lower side is a quick moving entry, with a ‘South-of-the-border’ flavoring, dished up in spirited style by Martin. Appealing coupler. The Whippoorwills ably back up on both sides. Either end can make noise. (Rating: B)
8/8/1959 (CB) Decca 30935 Untrue You — Martin stands a chance of coming up with a sleeper here. Tune’s a bouncy rhythmic affair that will set feet a-tapping. Could collect pop coin too. (Rating: B+)

If I Can Stay Away Long Enough — This time Martin takes a trip to the sad ballad area, and turns in another top notch performance. Excellent coupling. (Rating: B+)
2/27/1960 (CB) Decca 31050 Top Gun — Martin has a strong entry in this western ballad. It’s a sincerely carved opus and though deck is quite long, should pick up sizeable play. (Rating: B+)

Going Down This Road — Martin returns to a more familiar country weeper. A bright, chorus-aided upbeat side with lots of attractiveness. (Rating: B+)
7/23/1960 (CB) Starday 507 Hobo — Benny Martin appears a solid choice to step out smartly on his initial Starday pressing. Titled “Hobo,” the tune’s a galloping swinger with a set of I-don’t-care lyrics somewhat like the standard “Bummin’ Around.” And Benny’s driving instrumental sounds pick up where his lively vocalizing leaves off. (Rating: Cash Box Bullseye)

Her Baby Girl — Flip it over for a pleasant ballad interlude, “Her Baby Girl.” (Rating: Cash Box Bullseye)
10/29/1960 (CB) Starday 519 Dime's Worth Of Dreams — Traditional country weeper is told in endearing vocal terms by the songster. Attractive slice. (Rating: B)

Pretty Girl — Easy-on-the ears upbeat ditty set to a familiar melody. Barnes’ 8 string fiddle is highlighted. (Rating: B)
2/18/1961 (CB) Starday 536 You Are The One — With his “Dime’s Worth Of Dreams” still up there, Benny Martin will add to his chart credits with the infectiously jaunty romancer “You Are The One.” It’s a real flavorful ditty with lots of fine fiddlin’. (Rating: Cash Box Bullseye)

No One But You — Flipside, Benny teams with Joanne Martin for an interesting duet slicing of a tender love ballad, “No One But You.” (Rating: Cash Box Bullseye)

The Tennessee Mountain Boys - Johnnie Wright - Lester Wilburn - Jack Anglin - Shot Jackson - Benny Martin

Portrait - Benny Martin

Credits & Sources

  • Hillbilly-Music.com would like to express its thanks to Ivan M. Tribe, author of Mountaineer Jamboree — Country Music in West Virginia and other books that can be found on Amazon.com and numerous articles in other publications for providing us with information about this artist.
  • 'Round The Clock; Red O'Donnell; April 15, 1957; Nashville Banner; Nashville, TN
  • It Takes An Effort To Avoid Trouble Backstage At Opry; Bill Maples; May 4, 1958; The Tennessean; Nashville, TN
  • Capitalizing On the Fourth: From Dublin To Washington; Mike Hughes; July 1, 1995; The Tennessean; Nashville, TN
  • Renowned fiddler, songwriter Benny Martin dies at 72; Peter Cooper; March 15, 2001; The Tennessean; Nashville, TN
  • Martin, Bluegrass Fiddling Legend, 8-String Inventor, Dies; March 16, 2001; The Commercial Appeal; Memphis, TN

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Recordings (78rpm/45rpm)

 
CMH
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  1506 A Dueling Fiddles
  1506 B Lara's Theme from Dr. Zhivago
  1536 A Don't Go to Sleep on the Road
  1536 B Touch of the Fiddle
 
Decca
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  30712 A Border Baby
  30712 B My Fortune
  30935 A Untrue You
  30935 B If I Can Stay Away Long Enough
  31050 A Top Gun
  31050 B Going Down the Road
 
Fiddle & Bow
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  755 A Me and My Fiddle
  755 B Orange Blossom Special (with Rudy Lyle, banjo)
 
Gulf Reef
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  1005 A The Man Next Door
  1005 B Thinking About Love
 
Jab
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  9002 A I'm a Father Alone
  9002 B Salvation Army
 
K-ARK
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  1011 A Brother in War
  1011 B Chico Gonzales O?Greer
 
Mercury
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  70476 A I Can Read Between The Lines
  70476 B The Secret of Your Heart
  70508 A Me and My Fiddle
  70508 B The Law of My Heart
  70560 A Ice Cold Love
  70560 B You Know That I Know
  70631 A That's What I'll Do To You
  70631 B Give Me One More Chance
  70664 A Take My Word
  70664 B Who Put Those Tears in Your Eyes
  70731 A Yes, It's True
  70731 B I'm Right and You're Wrong
  70794 A If I Didn't Have a Conscience
  70794 B You?re Guilty Darlin?
  70883 A Whip-Poor-Will
  70883 B Lover of the Town
 
MGM
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  10912 A Where Is Your Heart Tonight
  10912 B Midnight Flyer
  11138 A The Thirteenth of May
  11138 B Trying to Chase These Blues Away
  14485 A Mona Lisa
  14485 B When She Cries
  14556 A From a Blond to a Redhead
  14556 B His Burdens Are Greater than Mine
 
Monument
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  912 A Soldier's Prayer in Vietnam (w/Don Reno)
  912 B Five By Eight (w/Don Reno)
 
RCA Victor
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  20-6855 A That's The Story of My Life
  20-6855 B Look What You've Done
  47-7003 A The Torch of Love
  47-7003 B I Saw Your Face in the Moon
  47-7100 A Do Me a Favor
  47-7100 B Phoebe Snow
 
Sparton
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  927 A Hobo
  927 B Hey Baby Girl
  955 A A Dimes Worth Of Dreams
  955 B Pretty Girl
 
Starday
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  507 A Hobo
  507 B Her Baby Girl
  519 A A Dime's Worth Of Dreams
  519 B Pretty Girl
  536 A You Are The One
  536 B No One But You
  623 A Rosebuds And You
  623 B Sinful Cinderella
  646 A Down In The Shinnery
  646 B Two Take Away One Equals Lonesome
  705 A Stick Your Finger In A Glass Of Water
  705 B The Other Me
  725 A One Way Or The Other
  725 B Weekend Ellie
  743 A Hello City Limits
  743 B I'll Never Get Over Loving You
 
Stop
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  146 A Who Wants to Catch a Falling Star
  146 B Ice Cold Heart
  182 A If I Can Stay Away Long Enough
  182 B Don't Let Your Deal Go Down
  262 A Here's 30,000 Unmarried Women
  262 B Old London Town


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