Grady Martin

Thomas Grady Martin, guitarist: born Chapel Hill, Tennessee 17 January 1929; three times married (10 children); died Lewisburg, Tennessee 3 December 2001.

Grady Martin was among the most influential guitarists in country music. He was a member of the elite group of Nashville session musicians whose work helped shape the genre in the decades following the Second World War, and his innovative playing can be heard on hundreds of recordings.

Artists as diverse as Hank Williams, Bing Crosby, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Joan Baez benefited from the highly developed aural imagination he brought to his session work. His atmospheric Mexican guitar playing on Marty Robbins' landmark western ballad "El Paso" (1959) provided a definitive moment in country music history, as did his influential distorted solo on another Robbins' classic, "Don't Worry" (1961). In 1964 he supplied the compelling and dramatic riff that opens Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman".

Willie Nelson, who has long acknowledged the debt his own nylon-string guitar work owed to Martin, tried to sum up his friend's approach:

Grady has a touch on the guitar that you really don't hear from any other guitar player. It's a very distinctive tone. Players like Chet Atkins and Django Reinhardt have their own tones and sounds, and Grady Martin has his. It's a sweet tone; the notes are huge. I've tried to rip him off and I never could.

Born on a farm in Chapel Hill, Tennessee, Thomas Grady Martin was drawn to music as a child. Encouraged by his piano-playing mother, he learned successively to play the piano, guitar and fiddle. At 15 he joined the band of Nashville musician Big Jeff Bess and spent the next two years touring. In 1946 he found himself working with the Bailes Brothers and fulfilled a childhood dream by performing on the Grand Ole Opry.

In February 1946 he travelled to Chicago and made his recording début alongside the husband-and-wife team of Curly Fox and Texas Ruby. There he formed a partnership with a fellow guitarist named Robert "Jabbo" Arrington. Together they developed a blistering twin-guitar style that would gain widespread exposure when both joined the band of the country star Little Jimmy Dickens. Their work on Dickens' numbers like "Country Boy" (1949), "A-Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed" and "Hillbilly Fever" (both 1950) has a dazzling intensity that foreshadows much of the best rock 'n' roll guitar work.

Martin's fine performance on Red Foley's "Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy" (1949) further raised his profile and, by now using a twin-necked guitar, he spent the next few years performing with Foley both in the studio and on The Ozark Jubilee radio show. In addition he continued to play on sessions behind other musicians, even, at one point, playing fiddle for Hank Williams on Kate Smith's networked television show.

In 1951 Martin formed a country-jazz band, Grady Martin and the Slew Foot Five, and, in addition to backing mainstream acts like Bing Crosby and Burl Ives, they began to record a series of fine discs in their own right. Later sessions under the name Grady Martin and his Winging Strings, featured Martin alongside fellow guitarist Hank "Sugarfoot" Garland, bassist Bob Moore, fiddle player Tommy Jackson and steel guitarist Bud Isaacs. A 10-inch LP they recorded at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium for Decca remains a much sought-after collector's item.

Over the next two decades Martin became one of the most respected session leaders in Nashville. He made memorable contributions to recordings by, among others, Floyd Cramer, Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, Ray Price, Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard and by the 1970s was working as a producer for Monument Records.

It became clear, however, that he was becoming jaded by new trends in record production and in 1978 he returned to the life of a touring musician; working alongside first Jerry Reed and then, until his retirement some 16 years later, with Willie Nelson. He remained modest about his achievements, saying

I'm not a star. Makin' a good record and havin' it accepted – just bein' part of havin' a hit record – that's what mattered to me.

Paul Wadey

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