Sneedville, TN. | #BluegrassTrails

Part of the mygrassisblue.com #BluegrassTrails series, on the trail of bluegrass history and its pioneers/early protagonists.

Fifty miles from Maynardville, Tennessee, ‘The Cradle of Country Music’ and the birthplace of Roy Acuff and just shy of the Hancock County Virginia state line, rural gets very rural and sleepy in Sneedville, Tennessee. With a population of just over 1,000, this may be one of the poorest towns in the US (so says Wikipedia – don’t shoot the messenger), but at least it can lay claim to being the hometown of Jimmy ‘King Of Bluegrass’ Martin. Suffice it to say, this is the only reason we found ourselves on the streets of the town searching out signs of Sneedville’s favourite son while receiving inquisitive stares from the few locals we encountered; Sneedville is a friendly place (we got free coffee), but it’s still the kind of town where everybody knows everybody else and if you ain’t from round these parts then you’re gonna stand out. We did.

Bluegrass road trip pit stop. Sneedville, Tennessee. October 18, 2017.

Knives, amo, smokes, kerosene and, em, free coffee. We ventured into the neighbouring shop to use the toilet. While here we filled up on caffeine. We obviously attempted to pay but were given the coffees for free. I still can’t figure out why. The Irish charm working its charm on charming small town USA maybe.

Bluegrass road trip. Sneedville, Tennessee, the home of Jimmy Martin. October 18, 2017.

The only reference we could find to Sneedville’s favourite son was the above sign on the fringes of the town. Instrumental in developing the bluegrass high lonesome sound as a member of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, #JimmyMartin was, by all accounts, a volatile, high-strung character both on and off stage, traits which, it is widely believed, kept him from realising his lifelong dream of becoming a member of the @Opry. #bluegrass

He didn’t have sense enough to tone it down – thank God… When he hits the stage, it’s like cannons going off… I think he’s uncontrollable. He dared to be different, and he’s paid the price for it.

Marty Stuart, quoted in Edward Morris, “‘King of Bluegrass’ Jimmy Martin Dead at 77,” CMT.com, May 14, 2005.

Jimmy Martin | IBMA Hall of Fame Bio
I love 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.

Quoted in The Big Book of Bluegrass, 1984.

“I love #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.” – #JimmyMartin #quote, ‘The Big Book of Bluegrass’, 1984. #KingofBluegrass

IBMA Hall of Fame Induction | 1995
Born | August 10, 1927 in Sneedville, Tennessee
Died | May 14, 2005 (buried in Spring Hill Cemetery, Nashville, Tennessee)
Primary Instrument | Guitar

Jimmy Martin was a true original in any field of endeavor. A talented singer and guitar player, he was a musical perfectionist with a clear and unswerving vision of what would sound good and please the public. He led some of the tightest performing and recording ensembles in the history of bluegrass. He was also profoundly insecure, compensating with a brash and overbearing personality that derailed many personal and professional opportunities. For good or ill, no one who ever saw Jimmy Martin ever forgot him.

Born in the east Tennessee farming community of Sneedville, Jimmy Martin was the middle of seven children, two of whom died in infancy. When he was four and his father died of pneumonia, Jimmy and his siblings assumed much of the farm work, under the cruel direction of stepfather Ellis Johnson. Johnson sang gospel music in a quartet and took the aspiring vocalist with him to performances, but discouraged Jimmy’s interest in instruments because of his religious beliefs.

Martin dropped out of school in the eighth grade and left home for work as a painter and factory hand, playing music on the side. Hearing that lead singer and guitarist Mac Wiseman would be leaving Bill Monroe in 1949, the 22-year-old took a bus to Nashville and insinuated his way backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. Monroe’s banjo player Rudy Lyle heard him sing and arranged an on-the-spot audition. A week later, Jimmy was on the road as a Blue Grass Boy.

I was paintin’ machinery in a factory in Morristown, Tennessee, and I was playin’ on WCPK from 4:30 to 5:00 every evening. I got fired on my job for singin’ too much, and I cussed out the foreman for firin’ me. When I went back after my clothes, I seen him on the street, and told him, ‘Listen in on Saturday night, ’cause I’m singin’ with Bill Monroe on the Grand Ole Opry.

Interview with Wayne Winkler, “Jimmy Martin: Too Wild for the Grand Ole Opry,” Now & Then, East Tennessee State University, fall, 2008.

During several stints with the band, Jimmy Martin participated in 11 Decca sessions during 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, and 1954. Martin’s high voice and vocal stamina contributed to a more intense and harder-edged sound for the style (which had not yet been named bluegrass). The Monroe-Martin harmonies are revered as some of the best and most affecting ever recorded, including “Memories of You,” “I’m On My Way to the Old Home,” “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome,” “Uncle Pen,” “Lord Protect My Soul,” “Letter from My Darling,” “Memories of Mother and Dad,” “The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake,” and “On and On.”

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.

Bill C. Malone, Country Music U.S.A., 1968.

Money was tight in those days, and Jimmy Martin tried several times to find a better-paying musical niche. In 1951, he joined the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers and recorded four sides for King with bandmate Bobby Osborne under their own names. After Bobby’s stint with the Marines in Korea, they formed Jimmy Martin & the Osborne Brothers at WJR-AM in Detroit and CKLW-TV in nearby Windsor, Ontario. RCA liked the sound and released three singles, including “Save It! Save It!” and “20/20 Vision.” The Osbornes left for Wheeling in 1955, and Jimmy decided to stay in Detroit at the head of a group he called the Sunny Mountain Boys.

Decca had become interested in recording Jimmy as a solo act while he was a Blue Grass Boy on that label. In 1956, he began 18 years with Decca by recording “Hit Parade of Love,” “You’ll Be a Lost Ball,” and six others. By the next year, he had assembled his classic band, with brother-in-law Paul Williams on round-hole mandolin and tenor vocals and J.D. Crowe on banjo and baritone vocals. The act rehearsed diligently and was hard to beat in any field of music. From 1958 to 1960 they starred at the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, and from 1960 to 1962 at the Wheeling Jamboree in West Virginia. KWKH and WWVA were both clear-channel 50,000-watt powerhouses that exposed the Sunny Mountain Boys to millions. In 1962, Martin returned to Tennessee and established his base of operations just outside Nashville, where WSM’s Grand Ole Opry proved an elusive goal.

During the Decca/MCA years, some of Jimmy Martin’s most popular tunes were “Sunny Side Of The Mountain,” “Widow Maker,” “Ocean Of Diamonds,” “Freeborn Man,” and “You Don’t Know My Mind.” A few of the other musicians who passed through the band included Bill Emerson, Paul Craft, Doyle Lawson, Vic Jordan, and Alan Munde on banjo; Earl Taylor, Vernon Derrick, and Ronnie Prevette on mandolin; Bill Yates on bass; Tater Tate on fiddle; and Lois Johnson, Penny Jay, and Gloria Belle as high harmony singers and instrumentalists. Jimmy’s MCA contract – as well as those of country music icons Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn – ended in 1974.

Jimmy continued recording with Gusto and performing in country and bluegrass settings, including outdoor parks in the border states and a growing circuit of festivals. He drew national attention among new audiences as a featured guest on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s three Will the Circle Be Unbroken album projects, and as the subject of a book (True Adventures with the King of Bluegrass, 1999) and a movie (King of Bluegrass: The Life and Times of Jimmy Martin, 2003). Feisty to the end, #JimmyMartin served as ambassador for the #BeanBlossomBluegrass Festival and held court each year in the lobby of the @IntlBluegrass association’s annual convention. #BluegrassHistory #KingofBluegrass After he was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2004, a steady stream of fans and interviewers passed through his home in Hermitage Hills until the end came on May 14, 2005, at the age of 77.

– Reproduced from the Jimmy Martin entry on the Hall of Fame Inductees page of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum website

Bluegrass road trip. Sneedville, Tennessee. October 18, 2017.

Elsewhere | VideoKing of Bluegrass: The Life & Times of Jimmy Martin
The 2004 documentary ‘King of Bluegrass: The Life & Times of Jimmy Martin‘ by director George Goehl is available on YouTube in 3 parts. A fascinating look and now a fitting tribute to one of the genre’s most flamboyant characters, it features interviews, exclusive live footage and rare historical footage of Jimmy Martin and many of bluegrass music’s early pioneers (66 minutes).

TN/VA state line. Bluegrass road trip en route from Sneedville, Tennessee, to Coeburn, Virginia, the home of Jim & Jesse McReyolds and The Stanley Brothers. October 18, 2017.

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2 Comments

  1. mike carver

    We saw Jimmy at Slagles Pasture in Tennessee years ago.

    Reply
    • Dave Jnr

      We never did see Jimmy live. Would have loved to. Thanks for stopping by, Mike.

      Reply

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