Of the many ways to describe Jimmy Martin, the one least well known among Bluegrass Music fans is hero. Once Jimmy saw a car engulfed in flames. He immediately pulled a father, mother, and two small children to safety, then hearing another voice from the car, returned, found a small baby, and quickly brought that child to its mother’s arms. He received The Metropolitan Award of Honor from the Mayor of Nashville, Tennessee, for his heroic act.
Music awards have continued to mount as well for this legendary figure of Bluegrass Music. He is a member of The Bluegrass Hall of Fame, is in the Walkway of Stars in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, was voted Best Bluegrass Vocalist in 1971, and received the Gold Guitar Award from a California country music magazine as The Most Dedicated Country Artist in 1963. He earned a Gold Record and a Grammy nomination for his work on the first Will the Circle be Unbroken triple album with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He also won The Americana Award in 1968 for The Most popular Group from a Madison, Tennessee radio Station. Martin was enshrined in SPBGMA’s Preservation Hall of Greats, in 1986.
James H. “Jimmy” Martin, was born August 10, 1927 in Sneedville, Tennessee, near Kingsport. His father passed away when he was four years old, and sometime later, his mother married a man who taught the singing schools and conventions that spread shape note Gospel music across the South. Jimmy attended many of his step-father’s singing schools and learned much about music. When he could be absent from his duties on the family farm, he would work at odd jobs, saving enough money to buy his first instrument, a guitar. He learned the chords from a friend and sang in a quartet in Sneedville. Listening to the Grand Ole Opry, he became fascinated with the music of Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys.
When he was nineteen years old, Jimmy moved to Morristown, Tennessee, where he played mandolin with Tex Climer and the Blue Coffee Boys, on WCRK radio at 4:30PM. Called “The Singing Painter,” he would rush to the studio from his painting job, still wearing his paint-splattered clothing, to play and sing.
The Grand Ole Opry had provided much pleasure to the young Jimmy Martin, and in 1949 he caught a bus and went to Nashville, not just to visit the Opry, but to see Bill Monroe, the man he had come to idolize. Jimmy has always possessed much courage. That he never exhibited more than during that evening at the Opry. He watched Bill Monroe perform “Brakeman’s Blues” on the stage, and then went to the artist’s entrance. When Bill came out, he introduced himself and told Bill; “I play the mandolin in a band in Morristown, but I can play the guitar in your style, and I know all of your songs, and I can sing lead, tenor, baritone and bass.”
Bill asked Jimmy to go inside the Opry House and sing a song with him. He handed Jimmy his own Martin guitar, that had been played by Lester Flatt, and they sang; “The Old Cross Road,” then Jimmy did a solo, “Poor Ellen Smith,” and played rhythm guitar while Chubby Wise fiddled “The Orange Blossom Special.” Bill offered Jimmy a job with the Blue Grass Boys. He immediately accepted, replacing Mac Wiseman. Jimmy’s high, lonesome, lead voice blended perfectly with Monroe’s tenor, and they recorded many songs that are now Bluegrass standards: “Uncle Pen,” “On and On,” “I’m on my Way Back to the Old Home,” and many more. Jimmy participated in ten recording sessions from 1950 to 1954, recording forty three songs with Monroe.
Jimmy’s lead singing proved particularly well suited for the Blue Grass Quartets. He helped record some of the greatest Gospel songs in the history of the music: “Lord, Protect my Soul,” “River of Death,” “Happy on my Way,” and others, setting the pattern for other Bluegrass quartets in the future. The late Carter Stanley once said about Jimmy Martin; “When better Hymns are led, Jimmy Martin will lead them.” Ralph Stanley can be heard repeating these words on Rebel (SLP 1554-55) Live at the Old Home Place. Jimmy played mandolin and sang “White Dove” with Ralph on this double LP.
Jimmy Martin stayed with Bill Monroe through 1954 with the exception of two absences, one being in 1951 when he went to Bluefield, West Virginia, to play guitar and sing lead with The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. The previous guitar player was Bob Osborne, who switched to the mandolin, had previously played guitar for the Fiddlers. Before long Jimmy and Bob teamed up as Jimmy Martin, Bob Osborne and the Sunny Mountain Boys. Through Jimmy’s connection with King Records, they recorded four songs for that label in August, 1951, but their partnership was all too short as Bob was headed for the Marine Corps. Jimmy returned to Monroe, taking with him a fourteen year old banjo player. Bob’s younger brother, Sonny Osborne.
Jimmy Left Monroe in 1954 and went to Middletown, Ohio where he formed a group with J. D. Crowe, banjo and Bill Price, mandolin. The group rehearsed extensively, but Jimmy was not satisfied with the sound. When in August, 1954 Sonny and Bob Osborne came to Ohio for a visit with him, one of Bluegrass Music’s all time great ephemeral bands was formed: Jimmy Martin and The Osborne Brothers. On November 16, 1954 this trio recorded for RCA songs that now rank among the classics of Bluegrass: “20-20 Vision,” “If I Could Count on You,” “Chalk Up Another One,” and many more. Jimmy’s great lead merged with Bob’s tenor and Sonny’s baritone, to create some of the most perfect harmony singing ever recorded. The songs they recorded have been reissued many times on albums.
The Osbornes and Jimmy went their separate ways on August 5, 1955, and Jimmy hired Sam “Porky” Hutchins to play banjo and Earl Taylor, mandolin. After rehearsals Jimmy contacted Paul Cohen of Decca Records, an agreement was reached, and his long association with that label began. After about one year, Sam and Earl departed, and were replaced by J. D. Crowe on banjo, with Paul Williams, whose last name is really Humphries, on mandolin. This trio of musicians made it’s mark as J. D. and Paul became role models for future members of Jimmy’s band. They became members of the Louisiana Hayride, earning encore performances, playing to overflow crowds at personal appearances, and received national exposure, since the show aired over the CBS radio network. They recorded some major “hits” such as; “Ocean of Diamonds,” “Rock Hearts” and “Sophronie,” just to name a few. They moved to WWVA, Wheeling, West Virginia in 1960, where their success continued.
J. D. Crowe left Jimmy’s band after about five years, replaced by Bill Emerson. Jimmy has always spent much time tutoring his sidemen, allowing them to bring their musical talents to the highest degree possible. Some of the musicians that have been members of Jimmy’s Sunny Mountain Boys and have gone on to their own successful careers include: J. D. Crowe, Bill Emerson, Alan Munde, Vernon Derrick, and Doyle Lawson. Page 26 of Bluegrass Unlimited's July, 1986 issue listed ninety two people, who have been members of Jimmy’s Bands.
Jimmy Martin has played and recorded his unique style of Bluegrass Music through five decades. His sound has remained constant due to his dedication and willingness to work with young musicians. Doyle Lawson, who played both banjo and mandolin as a member of the Sunny Mountain Boys, explained his feelings about Jimmy Martin: “I have to give a lot of credit for my success in music to Jimmy Martin. He influenced me more with his music than anyone, other than Bill Monroe. I know I got that ‘drive’ in my music from Jimmy. I’ve always liked the ‘Jimmy Martin Drive,’ just like I liked the ‘drive’ that Monroe always had. When I left Jimmy and went with J. D. Crowe for five years, it just strengthened that ‘drive,’ then when I joined The Country Gentlemen, there was Bill Emerson on banjo, Bill Yates on bass, and it seemed like we all went to the same school, as we had all played with Jimmy Martin. When the time came to form my own group, I didn’t have to worry about any ‘drive’ in my music, as it was already in place, thanks to Jimmy Martin.”
Jimmy has had much success with his music, becoming one of the most copied Bluegrass musicians of all time. His signature ending to songs, a powerful G-run with a final chop on all instruments, can be heard played by many of today’s Bluegrass bands. He has recorded for major record labels: RCA, Decca, (now MCA), and Starday, one of only a few Bluegrass musicians to do so, and he survived a most difficult time for Bluegrass and country musicians, the rock and roll era.
Looking back over Jimmy’s wonderful career, only one thing seems missing; he has never been a member of the Grand Ole Opry. A guest many times with encore performances, the situation was discussed with him, but the invitation never came. It is very sad that this man was never to be so honored, because his musical success has far exceeded any qualification standards.
Jimmy has set a pattern for others to follow with his style of Bluegrass and entertained millions of people with his music. His contributions to the history of Bluegrass Music prove enormous. He has certainly assured his place as one of the legendary pioneers of Bluegrass.