Born near Sneedville, Tenn., 1927; son of a farmer. Bluegrass singer, guitarist, and songwriter, 1949--. Joined Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, 1950; formed band with Bobby, Sonny, and Louise Osborne and signed with King label, 1951; moved to Kitty label; rejoined the Blue Grass Boys, 1952-54; formed the Sunny Mountain Boys, 1955; performed on WJR Radio, Detroit, 1955-56, and on the Louisiana Hayride, 1956. Leader of the Sunny Mountain Boys, 1955--, recording principally with Decca Records. Other Sunny Mountain Boys have included J. D. Crowe, Vic Jordan, Bill Emerson, Allan Munde, Earl Taylor, Paul Williams, and Sam Hutchins. Addresses: Record company-- MCA Records, Inc., 70 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, CA 91608.
Jimmy Martin is a pioneer of bluegrass whose high tenor voice and ripping instrumental style continue to attract new fans to mountain music. Like his mentor Bill Monroe, Martin adheres to the traditional form of bluegrass, with its three- or four-voice harmonies and accelerated guitar, mandolin, and banjo runs. His band, the Sunny Mountain Boys, has been a training ground for some of the finest bluegrass musicians in the business, and Martin himself has contributed a number of classic songs to the bluegrass canon.
According to Bill C. Malone in Country Music U.S.A., Martin is a "consistently loyal partisan of bluegrass music," keeping faith with the old-time sound even as others dabble with rock and jazz influences. Malone added: "At his best (which is most of the time) he has given the music he loves some of its greatest moments both as a singer and as a guitarist."
Jimmy Martin was born into the hard farming life of rural Tennessee. He grew up near Sneedville, singing in church and with friends from surrounding farms. When he was in his teens he bought a guitar. Martin told The Big Book of Bluegrass: "I learned the basic chords from an old hillbilly named Reuben Gibson, who lived in the hills around Sneedville, and I taught myself how to play. I heard Lester Flatt and Charlie Monroe both play runs, but I didn't try to top them. I mostly just developed them how I felt, when it came natural for a song."
Early in his career Martin decided that he would try to sing with Bill Monroe. At the time--in the late 1940s--Monroe had a famous and ground-breaking band, the Blue Grass Boys. Almost on a whim, in 1949 Martin took a bus to Nashville and sought out his hero. In fact, Martin lived what must be every country musician's dream: He watched Monroe perform on the Grand Ole Opry and when the show was over went backstage unannounced and offered his services to the group. He auditioned in the dressing room and was hired on the spot.
Martin said: "I went backstage and got to sing [a song] with [Monroe] and one by myself, and he asked me if I wanted to go on the road with him. He said it would be hard traveling, and I said, 'Bill, it can't be no harder than plowing corn or digging a ditch or pulling a crosscut saw.' I think that's why we got along so well. We were both country boys, raised tough. We understood each other."
Martin's addition to the Blue Grass Boys helped to soften the blow Monroe received when he lost band members and later bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. As Malone put it, "Martin's high, reedy voice, and subtle intonations complemented Monroe's singing extremely well, and his strong rhythm guitar playing, punctuated frequently with dynamic bass runs, gave the Blue Grass Boys a surging, supercharged sound that not even the Lester Flatt years had witnessed.... Martin and Monroe evoked images of that lonesome, rural life that had originally been the context for bluegrass music's emergence. It was 'white soul singing' at its best."
Martin played and sang with the Blue Grass Boys during the years 1950-51 and again from 1952-54; his contribution can be heard on such Decca Records classics as "Uncle Pen," "On the Old Kentucky Shore," and "The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake." Martin's periods of absence from the group enabled him to forge professional relationships with other musicians, especially the Osborne Brothers. In 1951 Martin and Bobby Osborne formed a group, recruiting the teenage Sonny Osborne on banjo. Together they made a few recordings for small labels in the summer of 1951, but soon thereafter Bobby was inducted into the Marines. Martin returned to the Blue Grass Boys with Sonny Osborne and they both played with Monroe until Bobby was released from the service.
In 1954 the re-formed Martin-Osborne band found work at WJR Radio in Detroit. With the Osbornes and Casey Clark on fiddle, Martin finally had a group that could create its own style. The band signed a recording contract with RCA and one of its first singles, "20-20 Vision" was a Number-One hit on the country charts. The pay in Detroit was "good and steady," Martin remembered, but after making a series of recordings in Nashville, the Osbornes decided to go their own way. Martin remained in Detroit until 1956 and was then offered work on the Louisiana Hayride, a radio show that rivaled the Grand Ole Opry in popularity.
Later, Martin move to Shreveport, Louisiana, as the head of a new band, the Sunny Mountain Boys. While there he recorded with Decca, turning out "Hit Parade of Love," "Sophronie," and "Ocean of Diamonds." Success spawned success and soon the high-spirited Martin was attracting impressive young talent to his group. His recordings from this period feature the musicianship of J. D. Crowe, Paul Williams, and Bill Emerson. Recalling those days in The Big Book of Bluegrass, Martin said that hiring Williams and Crowe "brought my records out and got me on my feet more than any other musicians I've had in the Sunny Mountain Boys."
Martin has always been a disciplined and demanding artist, and the personnel changes in his band have been many. Despite the ever-changing round of musicians behind him, however, he managed to weather the lean years of the late 1950s and emerge in the 1960s as one of the few prosperous bluegrass performers. In 1972 Martin was invited to contribute to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which featured the talents of giants Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, and Maybelle Carter. In The Big Book of Bluegrass Herschel Freeman wrote that Martin's songs on Will the Circle Be Unbroken "brought Jimmy's talents full force to a whole new generation of acoustic listeners, many of whom were not yet born when Jimmy came to prominence."
Martin's hard-driving work is well represented in bluegrass anthologies, and his early recordings with the Osbornes and the Sunny Mountain Boys are collectors' items. Although well into his sixties, he still performs on the festival circuit and in Nashville, giving listeners a taste of bluegrass as it was performed in its earliest stages of development. "I love bluegrass," Martin told The Big Book of Bluegrass. "It's the only kind of music I ever will love. When I sing those songs it hits me deep, and when I'm at the microphone I give it all I've got. I want to see bluegrass stay up so bad, and do something for it however I can."
by Anne Janette Johnson
Jimmy Martin's Career
- Selective Works
- Jimmy Martin MCA.
- Big and Country Instrumentals MCA.
- Country Music Time MCA.
- Singing All Day and Dinner on the Ground MCA.
- Sunny Side of the Mountain MCA.
- This World Is Not My Home MCA.
- Jimmy Martin with the Sunny Mountain Boys MCA.
- Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys Sing MCA.
- Mr. Good 'n Country Music MCA.
- Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin, and the Stanley Brothers Highland Music, 1987.
- Also appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album Will the Circle Be Unbroken United Artists, 1972.
May 14, 2005: Martin died on May 14, 2005, in Nashville, Tennessee, of bladder cancer. He was 77. Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/05/16/showbuzz/index.html#2, May 18, 2005; New York Times, May 17, 2005, p. D8(L).
- The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony, 1977.
- Kochman, Marilyn, editor, The Big Book of Bluegrass, Morrow, 1984.
- Malone, Bill C., Country Music U.S.A., revised edition, University of Texas Press, 1985.