Jimmy Martin, the brash fireball whose electrifying stage
presence and soaring vocals made him one of bluegrass music's most consequential
and colorful artists, died yesterday morning at a Nashville hospice from
complications of bladder cancer. He was 77.
Known as "The King of Bluegrass" and "Mr. Good'n Country," Mr. Martin
became known as a master of American roots music. In 1949, Mr. Martin
auditioned for and joined Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys,
and his vocal contributions ushered in what is now known in bluegrass
as the "high, lonesome sound."
"Jimmy's strong, high vocal range pushed Monroe's tenor up into the
sky, helping shape what has become known as the 'high lonesome sound,' "
wrote George Goehl in the liner notes to Don't Cry To Me, a compilation
that accompanied Goehl's King of Bluegrass documentary.
Mr. Martin's contributions went beyond the bluegrass field. His was
the first voice heard on the first Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will The
Circle Be Unbroken album, and he sang on the subsequent two volumes
as well, appearances that brought his voice and feisty spirit to audiences
that would never have thought to attend a bluegrass festival.
Despite the acclaim, he never became a member of the Grand Ole Opry, a
slight that pained Mr. Martin. Mr. Martin sometimes cried when he
spoke of being left off the Opry roster, which he equated with the loneliness
he felt after his father died.
"Ever since I was a little boy, I've felt left out of things," he told
The Tennessean several years ago.
One of his enduring hits was a celebration called Grand Ole Opry Song,
a number he probably thought would be a ticket to Opry membership. Mr. Martin's
talents merited such an honor, but backstage he could be confrontational
and argumentative. Those qualities have never been in favor at the Opry,
where Hank Williams was once dismissed for misbehavior.
Mr. Martin was born in Sneedville, a farming community in Tennessee's
eastern hills. His father died when he was 4, and Mr. Martin spent
much of his childhood plowing corn. Recreation came each Saturday
night, when he would listen to Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe and others on
Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts from Nashville.
Mr. Martin dropped out of school in the eighth grade. He did not get
along well with his stepfather and didn't fare much better with many
co-workers once he left home: He was fired from several jobs for
singing while working.
His outlandish, energetic performing style made him a star
on radio shows including the Louisiana Hayride
and the WWVA Jamboree in Wheeling, W. Va.
"In his heyday, he could take an audience of any size and have them
eating out of his hand," said Sunny Mountain Boy Emerson. "He'd just
smoke those people, and they'd be waiting in line for him when he got offstage."
In 1995, Mr. Martin was inducted into the International Bluegrass
Music Association's Hall of Honor, and he borrowed
the text of the Hall of Honor plaque for use on his own
gravestone. The stone has been on display for more than
five years at Spring Hill Cemetery in Madison. Mr. Martin
was thrilled to find a plot directly across from Country Music
Hall of Famer Roy Acuff and delighted in the notion
that the "King of Country" and the "King of Bluegrass"
would rest in eternal proximity.
Survivors include two other sons, James H. "Timmy" Martin of Fort
Lauderdale, Fla., and Ray Martin of Mt. Juliet; a daughter,
Lisa S. Martin-Arnold of Hendersonville; and three grandchildren.
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