Grady Martin, the elite Nashville guitarist who made distinctive contributions to classic recordings such as "El Paso," "Oh, Pretty Woman" and "Battle of New Orleans" and worked with artists ranging from Bing Crosby to Buddy Holly to Joan Baez, has died. He was 72.
Martin and Chet Atkins were said to be the only musicians to accompany both Hank Williams and Elvis Presley. Martin died Monday at Marshall Medical Center in Lewisburg, Tenn. The sideman's health had eroded badly in recent years and, in 1994, forced him to leave Willie Nelson's touring band. Martin was a member of the celebrated Nashville collective nicknamed the "A-Team," which included guitarists Atkins and Hank Garland, drummer Buddy Harman and pianist Floyd Cramer.
On Tuesday, Harman, the only surviving member of the A-Team, noted that his old friend had a penchant for crafting music magic in unexpected ways.
"He invented many great sounds on record--intros and all kinds of things. He was head and shoulders above most of the other players," Harman told country.com, a country music Web site. "He will be sorely missed."
According to country music lore, one of Martin's unexpected creations was the "invention" of feedback, the buzzing distortion effect that would become a familiar part of the pop world's guitar lexicon. His fuzzy sounding solo on the 1960 Marty Robbins hit "Don't Worry" reportedly was a product of an electrical malfunction during the recording session, but the error evolved into a memorable accentuation.
Thomas Grady Martin was born Jan. 17, 1929, in Chapel Hill, Tenn. His parents, Claude Lee and Bessie May Thomas Martin, saw an intense musicality in their son at an early age. He was the youngest of four children, and his mother, who loved and read music, was strong in guiding his youthful pursuit of melody and harmony. By age 15, he already was performing on stage as fiddler for Big Jeff & His Radio Playboys and, that same year, joined with the Bailes Brothers and performed on the "Grand Ole Opry" radio show.
In 1946, he became a guitarist for the Arkansas Cotton Pickers, a western swing outfit, and began to display the versatility that eventually would make him a star among Nashville's community of sidemen.
Martin's studio career would span more than three decades, from the sessions for the 1949 Red Foley recording "Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy" to his work on Merle Haggard's 1983 track "That's the Way Love Goes."
Along the way, he would record with fiddle, acoustic and electric guitar, the six-string electric bass and other instruments. Moreover, his ear and zeal made him a strong session leader, and he often had a hand in the arrangements and production.
In the early 1950s, he formed the colorfully named Slewfoot Five, a session musician group, and they earned credits on hit recordings by Crosby ("Til the End of the World") and Burl Ives ("The Wild Side of Life").
Martin became a member of Presley's circle of musicians from 1962 to 1965 and, as music flavors and directions changed, he would go on to work with younger artists such as Baez, Kris Kristofferson and J.J. Cale.
It was Martin's classic country work, though, that would define his most lasting legacy.
On "El Paso," the 1959 hit for Robbins, Martin provided the nimble and evocative signature work on the nylon-string guitar that gave the song its Old West texture and helped it win the first Grammy Award ever presented for a country song. Other signature moments included his work on Johnny Horton's "Honky Tonk Man" and Lefty Frizzell's "Saginaw, Michigan." Martin's credits also include such memorable titles as Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter" and Nelson's "On the Road Again."
But by the late 1970s, the old-school craftsmanship of Martin put him at odds with the burnished, faddish sounds that became the Nashville focus. The wily sideman became an increasingly infrequent player on the scene. He returned to the touring life in 1978 with Jerry Reed's band and, two years later, jumped over to Nelson's band, where he remained a fixture through 1994.
Nelson often cited his bandmate as a strong influence on his own style and was one of the presenters last year when Martin was given a career achievement award at the storied Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Martin also appears with Nelson in the film "Honeysuckle Rose."
Martin is survived by two daughters, Alisa Martin of Dallas and Angie Martin Burt of Fort Mill, S.C.; seven sons, Grady Jr., Joe and Tal, all of Lewisburg, Tenn., Jason, Joshua and Justin, all of Brentwood, Tenn., and Steve of Nashville; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.