Jimmy Martin

'The King of Bluegrass'

James Henry Martin, singer and guitarist: born Sneedville, Tennessee 10 August 1927; twice married (three sons, one daughter); died Nashville, Tennessee 14 May 2005.

Regarded by many as the finest singer in the history of bluegrass music, Jimmy Martin played a pivotal role in the development of the genre's characteristic "high lonesome sound". A larger-than-life character, who billed himself as "The King of Bluegrass", he emerged from the ranks of Bill Monroe's seminal late-Forties band to become an important leader in his own right.

He was born in Sneedville, in the Cumberland Mountains of east Tennessee, in 1927. At the age of five, he built a guitar out of a Prince Albert cigar can, because Prince Albert sponsored a portion of the Grand Ole Opry radio show. By his late teens he had his own daily show on WCPK in nearby Morristown, augmenting his income by working in a local paint factory.

In 1949 Martin was fired for singing too much on the job and resolved to head for Nashville where he planned to audition for a spot in Monroe's band, the Blue Grass Boys. He later remembered their first meeting, backstage at the Opry:

I sang one with Bill, then I played a solo - "Poor Ellen Smith", then I played "Orange Blossom Special" with [the fiddler] Chubby Wise. Bill asked Chubby what he thought, and Chubby said, "Lordy, I thought Lester Flatt had it, but this boy's flat got it."

Martin's tenure as lead vocalist with Monroe's outfit saw him play alongside his idol until 1951, at which point he briefly joined the Osborne Brothers. He returned to the Blue Grass Boys, remaining until 1953. During his time with Monroe they recorded 46 sides, including classics such as "Uncle Pen" and "I'm Blue, I'm Lonesome" (both in 1950) and "Walking in Jerusalem" (1953), and he was, with Joel Price and Red Taylor, a member of a short-lived spin-off project, the Shenandoah Valley Trio.

On leaving Monroe, he again worked with the Osbornes before, in 1956, striking out as leader of his own band, the Sunny Mountain Boys. That year he began an association with Decca Records that would endure for nearly two decades. His recordings were characterised by driving rhythms and high, haunting lead vocals that owed more than a little to the honky tonk tradition, and he enjoyed a number of hits on the country charts, including "Rock Hearts" (1958), "Widow Maker" (1964) and "Tennessee" (1968). He proved, too, an astute hirer of talent, with Tater Tate, Bill Emerson, Doyle Lawson and J.D. Crowe among those who passed through the ranks of his band.

Martin became a regular performer on both the Louisiana Hayride (1957-59) and the Wheeling Jamboree (1959-62), but, despite several guest appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, was never invited to join its cast, a situation he later regarded with some bitterness.

In 1972 he joined a host of veteran performers, including Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs and Mother Maybelle Carter, on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's multi-million-selling Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Although viewed with suspicion by some in Nashville, the triple-album project proved instrumental in bridging the generations and remains a musical landmark. In 1988 it was followed by another, similar, volume and Martin again participated.

On leaving Decca, Martin signed to Gusto, for whom he recorded half a dozen albums including Me 'n' Old Pete (1978), First Time Together (with Ralph Stanley, 1980) and One Woman Man (1983). More recently, he launched his own label which has reissued much of his early material. In 1995 he was inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Honour and last year was the subject of an acclaimed documentary, King of Bluegrass.

Paul Wadey

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
The cartoon depicts the UK (far left) walking around a Syrian child refugee
newsIn an exclusive artwork for The Independent, Ali Ferzat attacks Britain's lack of 'humanity'
Life and Style
Man taking selfie in front of car
health
Sport
footballManager attacks Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp after criticism of Diego Costa's apparent stamping
Life and Style
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Manager - OTE £40,000

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This web-based lead generation ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Intervention Teacher Required To Start ASAP.

£125 - £150 per day + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: A 'wonderful primary ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Our client is an 11-16 mixed commun...

Recruitment Genius: PHP / Drupal / SaaS Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly developing company in...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore