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

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