Beginning in 1949 Martin was lead vocalist for Bill Monroe‘s “Bluegrass Boys,”. Martin’s high voice mixed with Monroe’s tenor came to be known as the “high lonesome” sound. His influence radically changed Monroe’s music from the fast-paced but smooth style of the “original” 1945 band with Flatt and Scruggs. Martin challenged Monroe to raise the pitch on many of his classics and to write new, “lonesome” songs. This band with Rudy Lyle (banjo) and Charlie Cline (fiddle) was one of the many high points of Monroe’s career. Martin’s lead was defining in “lonesome” songs such as “Sitting Alone in the Moonlight”, “Memories of Mother and Dad” and “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome”.
Martin had a famously high-strung and exuberant personality, and inevitably clashed with Monroe’s equally stubborn temperament. He left Monroe and worked briefly with the Osborne Brothers until he formed his own band, “The Sunny Mountain Boys” in 1955. The classic lineup of this band, with J. D. Crowe and “Big” Paul Williams (stage name for Paul Humphrey) defined his “Good ‘n Country” style, a commercially-oriented, crowd-pleasing bluegrass with simple harmonies, catchy melodies, and a strong rhythm propelled by Martin’s effective guitar playing. He credited himself with inventing the “G” run- a guitar lick used widely in the bluegrass genre. However, aural evidence from the period before Martin began performing professionally clearly shows Lester Flatt using this run when backing Bill Monroe.
Three important components of Martin’s unique sound, besides his cutting tenor voice, were tight trio singing, sometimes a female high-baritone fourth part, and the use of a snare drum in place of mandolin to keep the back-beat.
Among Martin’s biggest hits of the 1960s were “Hit Parade of Love”, “Sophronie”, “Stepping Stones”, “Tennessee”, and “Widow Maker” (a popular truck driver’s song). His instrumentals (with the Sunny Mountain Boys) such as “Theme Time”, “Bear Tracks” and “Red Rooster” featured ultra-crisp playing by a series of banjo players including Sam “Porky” Hutchins, J.D. Crowe, Vernon McIntyre Jr. and Bill Emerson, and powered by Martin’s guitar runs, set a standard for bluegrass instrumentals that was highly influential.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys included singer and instrumentalist Gloria Belle, who is considered the first female lead singer in bluegrass. She toured Japan with Martin during 1975. In regards to her playing, Martin said jokingly, “She’s not very good, but we let her sing with us ‘cause we feel sorry for her.”
Martin was famous as a dangerously unpredictable but highly entertaining stage presence. He freely acknowledged his problems with drinking and volatile mood swings, which kept him from realizing his lifelong dream of joining the Grand Ole Opry.
He made frequent appearances on the Louisiana Hayride and Wheeling, West Virginia‘s WWVA Jamboree (renamed Jamboree U.S.A. in the 1960s), as well as the Grand Ole Opry, but was never invited to join the latter.
He joined producers Randall Franks and Alan Autry for the In the Heat of the Night (TV Series) cast CD “Christmas Time’s A Comin’” performing “Christmas Time’s A Comin'” with the cast on the CD released on Sonlite and MGM/UA for one of the most popular Christmas releases of 1991 and 1992 with Southern retailers.
Martin died May 14, 2005, in Nashville, Tennessee, after having been diagnosed with bladder cancer more than a year earlier. He is interred in the Spring Hill Cemetery in Madison, Tennessee. A report of his death in the Toronto Star called him “one of the greatest vocalists in bluegrass”.
- August, 10, 1927
- Sneedville, Tennessee
- May, 14, 2005
- Nashville, Tennessee
Cause of Death
- bladder cancer
- Springhill Cemetery
- Madison, Tennessee