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Who Jimmy Martin
What Jimmy Martin brought fire to bluegrass
When May 15, 2005
Where Nashville

Jimmy Martin, the brash fireball whose electrifying stage presence and soaring vocals made him one of bluegrass music's most consequential and colorful artists, died yesterday morning at a Nashville hospice from complications of bladder cancer. He was 77.

Known as "The King of Bluegrass" and "Mr. Good'n Country," Mr. Martin became known as a master of American roots music. In 1949, Mr. Martin auditioned for and joined Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, and his vocal contributions ushered in what is now known in bluegrass as the "high, lonesome sound."

"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,' " wrote George Goehl in the liner notes to Don't Cry To Me, a compilation that accompanied Goehl's King of Bluegrass documentary.

Mr. Martin's contributions went beyond the bluegrass field. His was the first voice heard on the first Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will The Circle Be Unbroken album, and he sang on the subsequent two volumes as well, appearances that brought his voice and feisty spirit to audiences that would never have thought to attend a bluegrass festival.

Despite the acclaim, he never became a member of the Grand Ole Opry, a slight that pained Mr. Martin. Mr. Martin sometimes cried when he spoke of being left off the Opry roster, which he equated with the loneliness he felt after his father died.

"Ever since I was a little boy, I've felt left out of things," he told The Tennessean several years ago.

One of his enduring hits was a celebration called Grand Ole Opry Song, a number he probably thought would be a ticket to Opry membership. Mr. Martin's talents merited such an honor, but backstage he could be confrontational and argumentative. Those qualities have never been in favor at the Opry, where Hank Williams was once dismissed for misbehavior.

Mr. Martin was born in Sneedville, a farming community in Tennessee's eastern hills. His father died when he was 4, and Mr. Martin spent much of his childhood plowing corn. Recreation came each Saturday night, when he would listen to Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe and others on Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts from Nashville.

Mr. Martin dropped out of school in the eighth grade. He did not get along well with his stepfather and didn't fare much better with many co-workers once he left home: He was fired from several jobs for singing while working.

His outlandish, energetic performing style made him a star on radio shows including the Louisiana Hayride and the WWVA Jamboree in Wheeling, W. Va.

"In his heyday, he could take an audience of any size and have them eating out of his hand," said Sunny Mountain Boy Emerson. "He'd just smoke those people, and they'd be waiting in line for him when he got offstage."

In 1995, Mr. Martin was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association's Hall of Honor, and he borrowed the text of the Hall of Honor plaque for use on his own gravestone. The stone has been on display for more than five years at Spring Hill Cemetery in Madison. Mr. Martin was thrilled to find a plot directly across from Country Music Hall of Famer Roy Acuff and delighted in the notion that the "King of Country" and the "King of Bluegrass" would rest in eternal proximity.

Survivors include two other sons, James H. "Timmy" Martin of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Ray Martin of Mt. Juliet; a daughter, Lisa S. Martin-Arnold of Hendersonville; and three grandchildren.

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Contact Peter Cooper
The Tennessean


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