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Emory Martin
Born:  August 26, 1916
Died:  April 17, 2006
Renfro Valley Barn Dance
WIBW Kansas Roundup
WIBW Topeka, KS

An article in a 1930s newspaper informs readers that a forthcoming stage appearance by Fiddlin' Sid Harkreader and His Roundup Gang will include "so far as is known, the only one-armed banjo player on the American stage. An odd feature of this act," the story adds, "is that he plays some tunes with his teeth."

John Lair, announcer for the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, introduces one of the performers in 1946:

"We have... a one-armed boy who plays the five-string banjo. He generally plays by noting the banjo with the stub of the arm. Sometimes he uses his toes. Tonight he uses his teeth. He's going to show you just what he can do. Now watch this boy play the five-string banjo with his teeth, and listen to every note just as perfect as if he had 15 or 20 fingers on the strings." Following a spirited rendition of Turkey in the Straw and a great deal of applause, Lair continues: "You can't do anything with a boy like that. You take a fellow with that much determination a boy who's had one arm all of his life and is determined to learn to play the banjo, a very hard instrument to master, and a fellow who can do it that way, you must have to take your hats off to the good old American spirit that keeps a boy like [this] on the job until he got clear to the top in his particular profession."

The subject of these comments is Emory Martin, a native of Hickman County, Tennessee. Born August 26, 1916, the second in a family of seven children, Emory's interest in music was shared by his older sister, Eva, who played guitar, and a brother, Kenny, who played guitar and bass with Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, and Robert Lunn. Young Emory learned from his father: "He was a banjo picker. He played the rapping style, as they called it back then. I learned every, thing that I knew from him. I was seven years old when I played the first tune." "It has a homemade neck," Emory says of his father's banjo, "that he made himself out of a walnut table leg. He made it with a chopping axe, a piece of glass, and his pocket knife."

Although Emory learned to play the banjo by watching his father, he could not play in the rapping style. "I couldn't play like that," he says. "I had to do it my own way. I picked with the thumb and the [index] finger, something on the order of the Carter Family style. Of course, I had never heard of the Carter Family at that time."

Having been born with only a six-inch stub instead of a left arm, Emory had to improvise to accomplish the results of the usual left-hand action. "I didn't make a chord for a long time," he explains, "and after I got to working I made the straight bar chords across with the nub arm. My background playing sounded a lot like a tenor banjo. I tried a lot of different ways [to play the left hand part]. So I laid the banjo down on the floor and used my foot." Using his heel as a pivot, he moved his big toe up and down the neck of the banjo to produce the note. "About the time [the audience] thought I had done everything I could, I'd note a few notes with my teeth."

In addition to his father, Emory's mother was a source of musical inspiration. "My mother knew a lot of songs-church songs. Back then I played a lot of songs that I ]earned at church. I would just pick them up a little bit. If they, was slow I would pick them up-double time, you might say."

"When 1 was 16 years old," Emory remembers, "Fiddlin' Sid put this contest on at the princess Theater [in Nashville. I won the contest [playing The Wreck of the Old 97], and after the contest he hired me. I went to work part-time. I was trying to finish school. He would write me a postcard to meet him at the Ansley Hotel, and we'd work a booking at a school or something. I worked part-time the first two years, and I finally quit school and went full-time."

Fiddlin' Sid Harkreader, whose career in country music spanners more than a half century, was one of the first performers on the Grand Ole Opry. In the 1920s he recorded more than 50 songs (some with Uncle Dave Macon) that were released on Vocation, Paramount, and other labels.

Emory recalls his first show date with Harkreader: "The first show was in Harriman, Tennessee—me and Sid and Jewell Fagan and Moody Carroll and Robert Lunn." At the time Harkreader was performing on the Grand Ole Opry. "He was the big man at WSM," Emory says. "Once in a great while I played on the Opry with him. Back then I think Sid was one of the fellows that got paid. Most of the people on the Grand Ole Opry didn't get paid back then. I think Mr. Harkreader must have got five dollars for playing. But we was on the road and wasn't required to come back in [to the Opry on Saturday nights]. Say, if we was in Richmond, Virginia, or somewhere and had to go back up in that vicinity, we didn't have to come to the Grand Ole Opry. I've been as high as 800 miles away from Nashville in a Model A Ford, in 1932 and 1933. We worked in Virginia; worked some in Pennsylvania. We done most of our bookings in places close around Nashville-maybe down in Alabama, Georgia, up in Kentucky a little ways. We played in theaters and schools." Regarding his pay, Emory says, "It was big money back then-two dollars and fifty cents a day and my expenses. I would get home with eight or ten dollars."

In 1936, Emory recalls, Harkreader disbanded his group and went to work for Uncle Dave Macon. "He even went so far as to buy a new car—a '36 Ford—for the show, and he took me with him. I worked quite a while with Sid and Uncle Dave."

While working with Harkreader and Macon in 1937, Emory had to take time off for an appendectomy. After his recuperation, which in those days was of long duration, he returned to Nashville to find his former employers on tour. To stay busy he went in search of another job. "I found that WSIX [a Nashville radio station] was new, so I went down to the station and went to work with Allen Carvell and his wife. They had two sisters [on the show and drove a great big long car. He was a policeman at night and worked this radio program [in the daytime. They had a fiddle player by the name of Shorty Hands."

While at WSIX, Emory met Johnnie Wright. "Johnnie and his wife [the future Kitty Wells] had a program on WSM and Johnnie and me got acquainted, and I went with Johnnie Wright's Tennessee Hillbillies." From WSIX, Emory and the Tennessee Hillbillies made a tour of radio stations that included WBIG, Greensboro, North Carolina; WCHS, Charleston, West Virginia; WHIS, Bluefield, West Virginia; and WNOX, Knoxville, Tennessee, where they worked on the popular "Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round" hosted by Lowell Blanchard. Others whose tenures with Johnnie Wright's group overlapped Martin's were mandolin player Ernest Ferguson, fiddler Paul Warren, and Jack Anglin.

World War II intervened while the Tennessee Hillbillies were at WNOX. Gasoline rationing limited travel for personal appearances, and Paul Warren and Jack Anglin were drafted. Emory returned to Nashville where he worked with his father, a rock mason, while waiting for an opportunity to get back into the entertainment business. After the war he rejoined Johnnie and Jack and Kitty Wells for a stint on the Louisiana Hayride over KWKH in Shreveport. On March 27, 1950, Emory was in the studio of Brown Radio Production's, in Nashville, to play behind Kitty), Wells during an RCA recording session. The other backup musicians were Johnnie Wright, guitar; Jack Anglin, guitar; Ray Adkins, steel guitar; Ernest Newton, bass; and Paul Warren, fiddle. The songs released from that session were:

  • How Far Is Heaven
  • My Mother
  • Make Up Your Mind
  • I'll Be All Smiles Tonight

Later the same day, according to Eddie Stubbs, who compiled a discography to accompany the Bear Family Records' reissue of the complete recordings of Johnnie and Jack, Emory was on hand at the same studio to provide backup for the duo on 12 sides. From this session came:

  • Shout
  • You Better Get Down On Your Knees and Pray
  • Too Much Sinning
  • Jesus Hits Like An Atom Bomb
  • Too Far From God
  • Jesus Remembered Me
  • Poison Love
  • Lonesome
  • I'm Gonna Love You One More time
  • A Smile On My Lips (And an Ache In My Heart)
  • Take My Ring From Your Finger
  • I Can't Tell My Heart

After leaving Knoxville in late 1942, Emory didn't have to mix mortar for his father's masonry business for long. While listening to the radio early one morning he heard the Holden Brothers, Jack and Fairley, broadcasting from WHAS in Louisville, Kentucky. "They were at Renfro Valley. I'd never heard of Renfro Valley, but I did know the Holden Brothers. I knew them from being over in the West Virginia territory. I had worked with them and Fiddlin' Arthur Smith at Bluefield for a short while. So I called and talked with Jack, and he told Mr. Lair about me. Mr. Lair called me, and in February of 1943 I went to Renfro Valley."

The Holden Brothers&151;who weren't brothers&151;were Georgia natives Milton Jackson and Fairley Holden. After meeting at a CCC camp in the 1930s and discovering a mutual interest in country music they decided to pursue a career as entertainers. Aware of the popularity at the time of brother acts in country music, they billed themselves as the Holden Brothers. Following their first job on a small radio station in Atlanta, they worked at several stations in the Southeast and in Ohio before joining the cast of the Barn Dance and other stage and radio shows at Renfro Valley.

Shortly after arriving at Renfro Valley, Emory again witnessed the effects of World War II. Jack Holden was drafted into the Army and Fairley left for a hitch in the Navy. As Jack was leaving for the service, Emory recalls, "He said, 'Emory, if I get back from this war let's you and me and Fairley get together and do some work like we used to do before we came to Renfro Valley.' So [after the war] he got us a job at Dayton, Ohio, and we went up there and started a barn dance on WHIO. Then our booking agent found us this job out in Topeka, Kansas." Among the other country music artists with whom he worked in Dayton, Emory recalls Natchee the Indian and Jimmy Skinner.

At WIBW in Topeka, the Holdens, Emory, and a fiddler named Wayne Midkiff worked under the name Jack Holden and the Georgia Boys. While in Kansas, Jack and Fairley, using the name Holden Brothers, with Emory providing backup banjo, recorded "Dust on the Bible" and "Mother's Not Dead, She's Only Sleeping" for the White Church label. Jack Holden and the Georgia Boys also recorded during the Topeka period for the Red Barn label, the country music companion label to White Church. The issued sides included "Black Mountain Blues", "Mama I'm Sick", "New Drifting and Dreaming", and "Listen to the Mocking Bird", a fiddle solo by Wayne Midkiff.

In the latter part of 1947 Emory left Topeka and returned to Renfro Valley to work on the Barn Dance on Saturday nights and go out on personal appearances through the week. "Mr. Lair took a whole bunch of us and went to the state of Florida in 1949, and we stayed down there all that winter. I put 13,000 miles on my car in 90 days after we got down to Florida, just crisscrossing all the time [playing] show dates and [working] on a radio station in Orlando." During that time there were two Renfro Valley Barn Dances, one in Kentucky and one in Florida.

Click here for Part Two of this story - Linda Lou Martin

Credits & Sources

  • Adapted from the article, "Emory & Linda Lou Martin, Sweethearts of Renfro Valley"; By Wayne W. Daniel; Originally published in Old Time Country, Fall 1992; Used by permission of author. Wayne W. Daniel is a retired college professor engaged in research and writing in the field of country music history. He is the author of the book "PICKIN' ON PEACHTREE: A HISTORY OF COUNTRY MUSIC IN ATLANTA, GEORGIA" published by the University of Illinois Press.

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