Jimmy Martin: Tinsel and Rot Hall of Famer
Here's another one that somehow slipped through the cracks. Surely, he should have been inducted a long time ago. But, unlike the Country Music Hall of Fame, I am willing to own up to my shortsightedness and correct it by welcoming Jimmy Martin into the Tinsel and Rot Hall of Fame.
By all accounts, Jimmy Martin was one of the true characters in country music. Evidence of this can readily be found by watching King of Bluegrass: The Life & Times of Jimmy Martin or reading Tom Piazza's undeniably awesome True Adventures with The King of Bluegrass, where I first became enthralled by the man shunned by both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry despite clearly belonging in both. Martin got his first big break playing with Bill Monroe and quickly parlayed that into a solo career that stands among the best in bluegrass.
A lot of bluegrass doesn't quite have the same punch it did when it was originally recorded, but Martin's best ("Sunny Side of the Mountain," "Free Born Man," "Tennessee," "Hold Whatcha Got," "Sophronie," "(I've Got My) Future on Ice". . . I'll stop there, but I could easily go on) hold up well today. They didn't call him the king for nothing (though, knowing Martin, it seems likely he may have bestowed the title on himself). For a good sampling of Martin's genius, try The King of Bluegrass CD or Songs of a Free Born Man, which would be worth the money if all you got was the cover (shown above). It takes a bold man to prepare his own elaborate gravestone and then pose next to it. I've never gotten the whole visiting famous people's gravestones thing, but I'll admit that I wouldn't mind making a trip to see Mr. Martin's. I tried to see him in concert in 2004, but his declining health forced him to cancel his appearance at Ralph Stanley's bluegrass festival in Virginia and I never got the chance to see him again. He died in May 2005. So the gravestone's the best I can do now.
YouTube clips of Mr. Martin don't quite do him justice (though a few do a passable job and are included below), but Piazza's book, originally an article written for the Oxford American, gives you a pretty good idea of Martin's irascibility and its impact on his career. The highlight of the book is Martin and Piazza's backstage visit to the Grand Ole Opry, in which Martin (a) tells a member of Ricky Skaggs's band that his boss's music is "about the sorriest f*&$in' bluegrass you could ever hope to be on with"; (b) upon seeing Skaggs yells out, "Is that the BIGGEST A$$HOLE in Nashville; and (c) lunges at Opry veteran "Whisperin'" Bill Anderson after telling Piazza, "I'm going to knock his a$$ right off him." Even if he hadn't produced all those great songs, I'd think he was brilliant solely based on Piazza's reporting.
Some say his stubborn, frequently caustic ways kept him from greater acclaim, but they won't keep him from the Tinsel and Rot Hall of Fame, which recognizes Jimmy Martin's spirit, toughness, and musical genius and welcomes him into the Hall.
"Free Born Man"