Ground-breaking bluegrass guitarist and singer Jimmy Martin died Saturday at the age of 77 in a Nashville hospice. Martin was diagnosed with bladder cancer over a year ago.
- “People have told me they enjoy the way I play bluegrass music and it makes me real happy. You know, there’s two kinds of tears that you shed in this world and that’s the tears of sadness and the tears of happiness. You’re looking at a man who has shed ’em all. But bluegrass music and country music has been good to me and I’ve loved it.” — Jimmy Martin, from an interview in 2003 documentary about his life, King of Bluegrass: The Life and Times of Jimmy Martin.
As a youngster in Sneedville, TN, Jimmy Martin was fascinated by the sounds of the weekly radio broadcast of WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, the pinnacle institution in country music for musicians of his generation. When he was 5 years-old, he made his first guitar out of a Prince Albert cigar can because Prince Albert was a sponsor of the Grand Ole Opry.
At the age of 21, Martin was fired for singing on the job in a factory in Morristown, TN. He then boarded a bus to Nashville to catch a show at the Grand Ole Opry. Following the show he talked his way backstage and approached his idol, bluegrass pioneer, Bill Monroe. There, he convinced Monroe to sing a couple of songs with him. Monroe hired him on the spot.
During his tenure with Monroe (1949-54), Martin helped change the sound of bluegrass music. His aggressive rhythm guitar added a fierce drive to his mentor’s music and Martin’s strong, high vocal range pushed Monroe’s tenor up into the sky, creating what has become known as the “high lonesome” sound. Together they recorded such classics as “The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake,” “Uncle Pen,” “A Voice From On High,” “Sitting Alone in the Moonlight,” “I’m Blue,” “I’m Lonesome,” “Walking in Jerusalem,” and countless others.
Martin then went on to have a successful solo career as Jimmy Martin & the Sunny Mountain Boys, cutting 136 sides and a number of hits for Decca Records, including “Widowmaker,” “Sunny Side of the Mountain,” “Freeborn Man,” “Ocean of Diamonds,” “Rock Hearts,” “Hit Parade of Love,” “Don’t Cry to Me,” “Tennessee” and others. He and his band were cast members of KWKH’s Louisiana Hayride and then the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree in West Virginia.
In 1972 Martin joined a parade of stars, including Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, Mother Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, and Doc Watson, to record the gold three-record set, Will the Circle be Unbroken, with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Martin sang the “Grand Ole Opry Song,” “Losing You,” “Sunny Side of the Mountain,” “My Walking Shoes,” and “You Don’t Don’t My Mind.”
Martin landed numerous hits on the country charts, won songwriter and vocalist awards, and in 1995 was made a member of the International Bluegrass Hall of Honor. In the late 1990s, Bear Family Records released a 5-CD box set of Martin’s Decca recordings. Most recently Martin was the subject of an independently produced documentary entitled King of Bluegrass: The Life and Times of Jimmy Martin, which was accompanied by a companion CD of rare live recordings of Martin, entitled Don’t Cry to Me.
Survivors include three sons, a daughter, and ten grandchildren.