Jimmy Martin, 77; Outspoken Bluegrass Singer and Guitarist

Times Staff Writer

Jimmy Martin, a pioneering singer and guitarist dubbed “the king of bluegrass” whose feisty temperament was part of his lore, has died. He was 77.

Martin died Saturday in a Nashville hospice of bladder cancer, according to his son, Lee Martin.

“He loved bluegrass music, country music. Bill Monroe was his idol and someone he patterned himself after musically,” Lee Martin told Associated Press on Saturday.


Martin performed as lead vocalist and guitarist for Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys, from 1949 through 1954 and later formed the Sunny Mountain Boys, recording with Decca records for 18 years.

“What a musician. What a great entertainer,” Sunny Mountain Boys band member Bill Emerson told the Tennessean newspaper in 2002. “He’s one of the guys that’s absolutely responsible for where the music is today, but people don’t recognize that. They seize upon the bad stuff and put him in the background.”

“In his heyday, he could take an audience of any size and have them eating out of his hand,” Emerson told AP on Saturday. “He’d just smoke those people, and they’d be waiting in line for him when he got offstage.”

Martin recorded several bluegrass standards, including “Rock Hearts,” “Sophronie,” “Hold Watcha Got,” “Widow Maker” and “Sunny Side of the Mountain.”

The singer and guitarist was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Assn.’s Hall of Honor in 1995.

In 2003, after seeing Martin perform at a festival in Indiana, bluegrass fan George Goehl made an independent documentary film about him, “King of Bluegrass: The Life and Times of Jimmy Martin.”

“Jimmy’s strong, high vocal range pushed Monroe’s tenor up into the sky, helping shape what has become known as the ‘high lonesome sound,’ ” Goehl wrote in the liner notes to “Don’t Cry To Me,” a compilation that accompanied the documentary.

Born on a hog farm near Sneedville, Tenn., Martin hunted possums and sold the skins to buy a guitar when he was 10.

After being fired at 21 from a Morristown factory for singing on the job, he went to see the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and talked his way backstage, where he persuaded Monroe to sing a couple of songs with him. Impressed, Monroe hired him.

As his reputation grew, Martin performed on KWKH’s “Louisiana Hayride” in Shreveport, La., and the “WWVA Jamboree” in Wheeling, W. Va., both well-known country music radio shows.

He also made several guest appearances on Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts. But for reasons attributed to his mercurial behavior, he never achieved his childhood dream to become a regular cast member. The slight sent Martin into public rants until his death.

Martin collaborated with many artists throughout his career, including the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. His voice is the first heard on the Dirt Band’s 1972 album, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and his performances on subsequent albums brought his feisty spirit to audiences that might never have attended a bluegrass festival.

“Jimmy’s temperature is higher than the rest of ours,” Dirt Band member Jeff Hanna said in a 2002 interview with the Tennessean. “He’s a wild man in the best sense of the term, and he’s the only one who brought the fire of rockabilly music to bluegrass.”

Songwriter and recording artist Jim Lauderdale told the Tennessean for the same article:

“He’s one of the few bluegrass or country performers who really has an attitude. It’s almost a punk-rock attitude, but he has the goods to back it up.”

When his documentary came out, Goehl told the Chicago Sun-Times: “All the bluegrass greats -- Bill Monroe, Del McCoury, Earl Scruggs, the Osborne Brothers -- are to some extent diplomatic Southern gentlemen. Jimmy is more of a rock ‘n’ roll personality. He can be arrogant, insecure, sentimental and agitated in a matter of moments.”

Martin made no apologies for his manner, telling the Tennessean in 2002: “I’m just an old country boy with a third-grade education, and I’m liable to say anything.”

Some of those things he said were preserved in marble several years ago when he purchased a gravesite near that of country music great Roy Acuff in Spring Hill Cemetery outside Nashville and erected his own tombstone, which he enjoyed showing to visitors.

The marker features a sketch of Martin in his trademark oversize cowboy hat and describes him as “a consummate entertainer and musician” who “produced profound and enduring influences on bluegrass music.”

Nobody’s arguing.