About The Artist
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.
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.
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.
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."
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