Jimmy Martin (1927-2005) was one of the great classic bluegrass artists, although his name isn't quite as well known as his first boss, Bill Monroe, or other old-timers who helped shape the genre in the 1940s and '50s. As a guitarist, Martin gave Monroe's early '50s band a sharp rhythmic kick; as a bandleader in his own right, he pursued a bluesy, country-drenched sound that placed greater emphasis on classic pop song structure, and less on flashy solos and hot picking. Which isn't to say Martin and his band, The Sunny Mountain Boys, were lacking in the musical department -- hardly! -- but that Martin had a real knack for recording memorable, catchy hit tunes, the sort of songs you'd find yourself singing along to for years to come. It's this country streak that makes Martin one of my favorite Golden Age bluegrassers, and that sets him apart from many of his more traditionally oriented rivals. Martin recorded with the Decca label from the late 1950s until the early '70s when, like many country old-timers, he was unceremoniously cut loose by the label in the early '70s. He went on to record several records for the budget-line independent Gusto label, and later set up his own label to release albums and tapes. Martin's legacy extended directly into the newgrass scene of the 1970s, particularly through the work of banjoist J.D. Crowe, who apprenticed in the Sunny Mountain Boys throughout the 1960s, and Doyle Lawson, who has become one of the best-known bluegrass gospel singers of the past few decades. But let's go back to the fountainhead for now, with a quick look at Jimmy Martin's work...
Jimmy Martin "...And The Sunny Mountain Boys" (Bear Family, 1994)
This 5-CD, 136 song set, covering Martin's 18-year association with the Decca/MCA label, is a true treasure trove. (Wish I could afford a copy...!) It's got the standard high-quality Bear Family audio quality, copious liner notes and archival pictures, and -- oh! -- the music! Just about everything he did during one of the most vital phases of his career. All the songs he recorded for the label are on here, including the signature tunes such as "Don't Give Your Heart To A Rambler, Little Girl" and "Ocean Of Diamonds," along with dozens of other equally sweet, equally amazing songs. This European import is probably a bit much for the average listener, but for any diehard bluegrass fan, it's a must-have. Highly recommended.
Jimmy Martin "The King Of Bluegrass" (Audium/CMF, 2001)
There's certainly no shortage of great material to draw on from Jimmy Martin's decades-long Decca/MCA catalog, and this CD -- the best set available domestically in the United States -- does an awesome job selecting some of the funnest stuff. This includes classics such as "20/20 Vision," "Hit Parade Of Love," "Ocean Of Diamonds" and "Milwaukee Here I Come"... A few songs, like "Hold Whatcha Got" and "Mr. Engineer" may be familiar to newgrass fans -- Martin's teenage banjo player, J.D. Crowe, went on to form the New South band, and brought a bunch of this material into the newgrass canon with him. All these songs are delivered in Martin's trademark style, an irresistible mix of old-fashioned, high lonesome nasality and honkytonk bluesiness... it's some of the best bluegrass you'll ever hear! There's also not a ton of overlap between this disc and the old collection out on Rounder, so fans who already have that album will not be disappointed. The only regret I have is that they haven't put out a second CD's worth yet!
Jimmy Martin "You Don't Know My Mind: 1956-66" (Rounder Special Series, 1990)
These are great old recordings from Martin's peak years on Decca/MCA, and has considerable overlap with the Audium album reviewed above. Features bluesy, pop-tinged classics such as the title track, "Don't Give Your Heart To A Rambler" and "Hold Whatcha Got." The band includes folks like Gordon Terry, Roy Huskey Jr. and a young J.D. Crowe on banjo - a class act all the way, and a lot of fun to listen to. For a long time, this was the only album of Jimmy Martin's classic work that was in print (either on LP or CD), and though it's slipped out of print itself, the disc still holds up as one of the best collections of his material ever made. Worth looking for!
Jimmy Martin "Don't Cry To Me" (Thrill Jockey, 2004)
Released as a companion disc to the documentary film, The King Of Bluegrass (listed below), this is a fine, fine set of live recordings and rarities that present Martin in his own element -- salty, sometimes rough, but an able and solid performer. Particularly revealing are some of the live introductions to various songs, including a few mildly off-color comments onstage, a roughneck streak that may have helped explain why his career was held back amid the more demure confines of the Grand Ole Opry and the commercial country scene. The selections include archival recordings from the 1950s and '60s, and more recent festival recordings that show Martin is still a powerful and compelling performer. A very nice set, and a great portrait of a highly consistent, highly entertaining old-school truegrasser.
Jimmy Martin "Lord, I'm Comin' Home" (MCA Special Products, 1997)
By comparison, how sad is it that this ten-song set was the best MCA/Universal could come up with as a domestic US reissue for such a great bluegrass artist? Still, it has several great Decca-era tunes on it, including "Guitar Pickin' President," "I Can't Quit Cigarettes" and the political "Lord Guide Our Leader's Hand." It's a paltry offering, but great music nonetheless.
Jimmy Martin "20 Greatest Hits" (Deluxe, 1988)
Jimmy Martin "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" (Hollywood, 1995)
Jimmy Martin "Me 'N' Old Pete" (Hollywood, 1988)
Reissue of a 1977 album on Gusto, with a tribute to country Pavarotti, George Jones, and another to "Pete, The Best Coon Dog In The State Of Tennessee," as well as oldies such as "Beautiful Brown Eyes" and "Knoxville Girl."
Jimmy Martin & Ralph Stanley "The First Time Together" (Hollywood, 1980)
Jimmy Martin "One Woman Man" (Hollywood, 1996)
Jimmy Martin "Hit Parade Of Love: Live 1958-1960" (Music Mill, 2001)
Jimmy Martin "Cabin On A Mountain" (King, 2004)
Jimmy Martin "King Of Bluegrass" (Power Pak, 1996)
More repackaged Gusto material, on a budget reissue.
Jimmy Martin "Best Of The Best" (Federal, 2001)
Jimmy Martin "Greatest Hits" (King, 2004)
Jimmy Martin "Good 'N' Country" (Decca, 1960)
Jimmy Martin "Country Music Time" (Decca, 1962)
Jimmy Martin "This World Is Not My Home" (Decca/Music Mill, 1963/2005)
Bluegrass gospel simply doesn't get better than this -- this is bandleader Jimmy Martin at the peak of his powers, with a band that included Bill Emerson on banjo and Paul M. Williams on tenor vocals and mandolin. Williams, of course, has gone on to become one of the finest gospel singers in the truegrass scene, and still leads a band of his own. Here, in recordings made between 1958-62, he stepped out of a supporting role in Martin's Sunny Mountain Boys to emerge as a powerful songwriter -- all but four of these songs were co-written by Williams, and he indelibly stamps them all with his fervor and conviction. Martin and all the high-powered pickers on these sessions were no slouches, either, and the musical end of this album is all first rate. This is the kind of gospel music that even secular truegrass fans can get into, since it's performed with such feeling and soulfulness. Recommended! (By the way, anyone know if the Paul Craft listed as playing the banjo on two tracks is the same guy who wrote all those great country songs in the 1970s?)
Jimmy Martin & The Sunny Mountain Boys "Sings Widow Maker" (Decca, 1964)
Jimmy Martin "Sunny Side Of The Mountain" (Decca, 1965)
Jimmy Martin "Mr. Good 'N' Country Music" (Decca, 1966)
Jimmy Martin "Big And Instrumental Hits" (Decca, 1967)
Jimmy Martin "Tennessee" (Decca, 1968)
Jimmy Martin "Free Born Man" (Decca, 1969)
Jimmy Martin "Singing All Day And Dinner On The Ground" (Decca/Music Mill, 1963/2005)
More fine bluegrass gospel from Jimmy Martin and his crew. About half these tracks were recorded in the early 'Sixties with Paul Williams in the band, playing mandolin and penning original spiritual material. The other half of the record is from a 1970 session that featured talented "progressive" bluegrassers such as banjoist Alan Munde and Doyle Lawson on mandolin, filling the same role as Williams did, but with a much softer approach. Like Williams, Lawson would go on to specialize in gospel material, and it's nice to hear him here, early in his career, taking the tenor vocals in a fine group harmony sound. Recommended!
Jimmy Martin "I'd Like To Be Sixteen Again (And Know What I Know Now)" (Decca, 1972)
Jimmy Martin "Moonshine Hollow" (MCA-Coral, 1973)
Jimmy Martin "Fly Me To Frisco" (MCA, 1974)
Excuse me, that's San Francisco...
Gary Brewer "Jimmy Martin Songs For Dinner" (Stretchgrass, 1999)
A fine, heartfelt, and entirely satisfying tribute to Jimmy Martin and his country-bluegrass style. Guitarist/singer Brewer -- backed here by an all-star cast, including Bobby Hicks, Doyle Lawson, Art Stamper, and former Jimmy Martin protege J.D. Crowe -- has a rich, deep, bluesy voice, and a real nice appreciation for the material. A dozen classic compositions, including the goofy title track, which was written by Tom T. Hall... This is true-blue bluegrass at its independently-produced best!
Jimmy Martin/Various Artists "SONGS OF A FREEBORN MAN: RECORDINGS: 1959-1992" (CMH, 2004)
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band/Various Artists "May The Circle Be Unbroken" (United Artists, 1972)
This top-selling concert album is an exceptional live bluegrass/old-timey selection, a grand variety show hosted by John McEuen & The Dirt Band, with guests ranging from country legends such as Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Maybelle Carter to young'uns like Norman Blake and Vassar Clements. Jimmy Martin is featured on several songs, helping him find a new audience with younger listeners, ironically, just before the axe was about the fall over at MCA. This was a fabulously influential album, officially introducing the hippie generation to the living history of for-real mountain music. The performances are all rock-solid, and the spoken introductions and between-song banter reveals the depth of the younger generation's affection for their musical forerunners. This album easily stands the test of time, and is definitely recommended!
Various Artists "A TRIBUTE TO JIMMY MARTIN: THE KING OF BLUEGRASS" (Koch, 2004)
(Produced by Ben Isaacs)
An all-star homage was organized by banjoist J.D. Crowe, along with several other alumni from Martin's bands. It's a great set, solid picking and singing throughout, and -- of course -- a stellar selection of Martin's bluesy, rollicking old songs. The band includes J. D. Crowe, along with Paul Williams and Audie Blaylock (who also worked with Martin over the years) as well as album producer Ben Isaacs, fiddler Mike Cleveland, Sonya Isaacs, and others. It's a good'n!
"King Of Bluegrass: The Life And Times Of Jimmy Martin" (2003)
This brief, brash documentary film goes to bat for Jimmy Martin, now an irascible, sandpapery old-timer who still feels slighted by the Grand Ole Opry for not placing him on their cast lo, those many years ago, when he was at his commercial peak. The reasons become apparent, as the filmmakers capture him onstage at a festival gig where the rough-edged Martin makes a few off-color comments as part of his between-song patter. The folks at the Opry, never fond of unpredictability or any behavior that's not family friendly, were understandably wary of hiring the salty, outspoken bluegrasser who was just as likely to cuss out a heckler as he was to sing a sweet gospel hymn. For his part, Martin felt it was his due to become an Opry castmember -- he was talented, he had a great band and plenty of real hit records, and he was an heir to the legacy of his old mentor, Bill Monroe. Although he pretends not to care about the slight anymore, it's plainly an obsession with him, and part of what defines his adult professional life and identity. Martin sees himself as a wrongly marginalized outsider, and a victim of the Nashville establishment, all of which makes him an ideal candidate for admiration by the anti-Nashy indiebilly crowd... The film also shows what a high-power musician and tremendously influential stylist Martin has been, even as it reveals what an unrepentant good ol' boy he is, praising President Bush while out on a raccoon hunt. This is a fascinating portrait of a difficult artist, a man with a craggy personality and gruff temperament that's ultimately endearing in the way that only truly crabby people can be. Plus, the guy is a legend. For an honest and human look at one of bluegrass music's lesser-known legends, this is a fine film, definitely worth checking out.
Hick Music Index
Top photo courtesy of kingofbluegrass.com.