One of the most flamboyant individuals that I ever had the opportunity to work with is bluegrass and country music icon Jimmy Martin.
His ability to steal the show is legendary. His heartfelt voice captures the attention and the emotions of the audience as he brightens their eyes with colorful costumes and his winning smile.
I had the pleasure of producing Jimmy in the Home Place studio in Nashville, Tenn., in 1990 when he gave his time and talents to sing on the “In the Heat of the Night” “Christmas Time’s a Comin’” CD.
My entire life I had heard some tall tales about Jimmy's antics — his passion for coon and squirrel hunting and his tendency to enjoy late night jam sessions.
When the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band did its original “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” albums in 1972 it was Jimmy who came into a studio with legends like Mother Maybelle, Roy Acuff and Doc Watson and stole the gold record-earning project with his performances of the “Sunny Side of the Mountain,” and the “Grand Ole Opry Song” among others.
Jimmy was let go from a factory job in 1949 and he decided to come to Nashville.
With shear will he worked his way backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, convinced Bill Monroe to audition him and won a job as his guitar player and lead singer.
The combination of these two voices created what many classify as the high lonesome sound of bluegrass. Martin remained for roughly five years creating classics such as “The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake” and “Uncle Pen.” He and the Osborne Brothers teamed up for about a year creating songs such as “20/20 vision” before Jimmy went out on his own.
With his Sunny Mountain Boys, he regularly created hit songs among the hundreds of songs he recorded. These made him a constant presence in both country and bluegrass radio. He was with Decca Records for almost two decades until the mid-70s and then he signed with Starday/Gusto.
Among my favorites are hits “Widow Maker” and “Sunny Side of the Mountain.”
While I never worked with him on stage, as we sat in his living room, we did discuss going out on the road together. Me performing with his Sunny Mountain Boys, what an honor that would have been to perform with a band that fostered talent like J.D. Crowe and Doyle Lawson, but it never worked out.
I cherish the many times we visited. One of my favorite records he did was a joint project with Ralph Stanley entitled “Our First Time Together.” To me it was the epitome of the bluegrass sound joining two legends.
One of my favorite childhood memories is seeing Jimmy and his Sunny Mountain Boys at bluegrass festivals such as Lavonia. I learned a great deal from his stage presence and probably use many of the techniques I saw him deliver.
I remember at some point he did a Christmas album “To Mother at Christmas.” He was promoting it from the stage in the middle of summer. You know what? He sold them. His charisma is amazing.
Last year he became the focus of a new film entitled “King of Bluegrass.” The documentary follows Jimmy’s lifelong quest to reach his childhood dream of becoming a regular cast member of the Grand Ole Opry. A goal not yet attained but richly deserved.
Director George Goehl’s project is touted to bring the reigning ‘King of Bluegrass’ into your life and “make you laugh, cringe and cry.”
I encourage you if you have never heard his voice to look up Jimmy Martin on the Internet, buy a CD or cassette or get this documentary and sit back and feel one of the true heartbeats of American music.
This great talent is now battling cancer. I hope each of you will remember him in your prayers or send him a card of support to P.O. Box 646, Hermitage, Tenn. 37076.Randall Franks is an award-winning musician, singer and actor. He is best known for his role as “Officer Randy Goode” on TV’s “In the Heat of the Night,” now on TNT. His latest CD release, “God’s Children,” is by etrecordshop.com. He is a columnist and staff writer for The Catoosa County News and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.