Jimmy Martin--Mr. Good N’ Country, the King Of Bluegrass
By Derek Halsey
Jimmy Martin died on May 14, 2005 of bladder cancer at the age of 77. Almost a year before that he was kind enough to have granted us at GRITZ a lively, historic, and wonderful interview. It was as much a hold-on-to-your-horses interview as we have ever done, and we thank him for a pourin’ it on us. And now, the interview with the King Of Bluegrass as it appeared in Gritz magazine in 2004.
Jimmy Martin is one of the most important and influential people to ever play bluegrass music. He is a man that was there when bluegrass music was beginning, and growing, and evolving as a brand new sound. He was a part of history, as a member of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, and he has made musical history on his own. And, he is also a bit of a rebel who never fails to speak his mind. One thing is for sure when you talk with Jimmy Martin, and that is you are going to get the full dose of what his thoughts on things are. He is not one to hold anything back, and he doesn’t here in this exclusive Gritz interview.
From the late 1930’s until 1945, Bill Monroe was searching for a new sound in music. In my opinion, Mr. Monroe had all the pieces put together but one, and when a young Earl Scruggs joined his Bluegrass Boys in 1945 the final part of the bluegrass puzzle was in place. But then, a few years later, Earl and band mate Lester Flatt left to form Flatt and Scruggs. Soon after those two left his band a young man approached Bill Monroe one night at the Grand Ole Opry and asked for an audition. That man was a 22-year old Jimmy Martin. Martin grew up living a hardscrabble life in the mountains of eastern Tennessee in a small town called Sneedville. His father died when he was very young, and his mother remarried. His stepfather worked the young Jimmy Martin hard on the farm. But even as a kid he knew what he wanted to do with his life, and that was to play music. So, after playing for him on that night in 1949, Bill Monroe hired him on the spot.
After a few very successful years with Bill Monroe in the late 1940’s and early 50’s, Jimmy also left the Father of Bluegrass to strike out on his own. Soon Jimmy’s albums, with the very young Osborne Brothers rounding out the band, were making their way up the charts. In the middle of the 1950’s Jimmy and the Osborne’s split up and he reformed his band with Paul Williams and the soon to be legendary JD Crowe, who was only a kid at the time. Jimmy would take his band to whatever town wanted him on a regular basis. He spent many months in Middletown, Ohio working at WPFB radio station, spent a couple of years in Detroit working on both radio and television, and spent an important year playing the Louisiana Hayride down in Shreveport. From there he moved to the very popular Wheeling Jamboree radio show in Wheeling, West Virginia and stayed there from 1959 to 1962. He had hit albums, like Widow Maker and Hit Parade Of Love, and eventually moved back to Tennessee to Nashville.
But, Jimmy Martin has ruffled more than a few feathers along the way with his opinions and thoughts, and still does. There is an excellent documentary movie about him out now called The Life And Times Of Jimmy Martin. A part of the movie delves into why the folks at the Grand Ole Opry have shunned him over the years and refused to make him a member. The Opry situation has become a recurring theme in is life, as he will discuss here. But, there is a good side to all of this attitude as well. As Marty Stuart says in the movie, “Jimmy was always too much of a rebel. He was too strong, he was too pure, he was too real. He didn’t have enough sense to tone it down, Thank God!” Marty calls him “a stone-cold musical genius.”
As I speak with Mr. Jimmy Martin in the spring of 2004 he has learned that he has cancer, and he is in the process of fighting it. And, while Jimmy does speak his mind in this interview, you also know that deep down he has a big and good heart, and that this boy from Sneedville, Tennessee with a third grade education has gone out into the big world and made good. So, hold on to your horses, as we hear the story of a true American music legend.
Were you nervous the first time you approached Bill Monroe and asked to play with him?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah, I was nervous. I was real nervous. He was my idol. He always was my idol. I still call him my idol. The only thing that started Bill Monroe shunning me, and not speaking to me, doing things against me, was when my records got hot.
I have always thought, concerning Mr. Monroe, that he finally got the sound and group together that he always wanted, and then was hurt when musicians like you left the band. He wasn’t happy when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs left him either.
He did that with everybody. He did that with Chubby Wise, too. He loved them, and the reason why he did things against them was because it was tearing his heart out because they were so damn good. They were good singers and good pickers. He didn’t have nobody to show music to when he had Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise, and Cedric Rainwater. They all knew as much about it as he did. He just had to hang in there. You see, they changed his style when they went with him. There is no use in me talking and running my mouth. All bluegrass pickers that got ears and know music know that Bill Monroe, when he took a band in 1938 and went until 1946, his band changed 80 to 90 percent when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs went with him. It changed to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ style, is what it did. It brought Bill in there to a different timing, and a different sound completely. And you don’t have to take Jimmy Martin a blabbing his mouth, you can just get the records and listen to it.
And, I knew that much about it because I studied music since I was a little boy. I sung in quartets with my stepfather in churches and funerals. I learned all the parts of the quartets. I tried to get me a guitar, and he tried to keep me from getting one because he knew I was going to leave him because I wanted to play on the radio. And, the main job that I always wanted from the time I started until I finished, was I wanted a job with Bill Monroe. It wasn’t too long after Lester and Earl left him that I went down there to the Grand Ole Opry and tried out with him. Not knowing at any time that I would get a job with him, but I had his songs learned, and I knew how they went. I know about all of his songs. And, when I sung with him that night, Roy Acuff helped me a lot. I sang a song with Bill and told him how good I liked his music. I sung two songs with him and played a fiddle tune with Chubby Wise. Roy Acuff stuck his head in the hall, in the room, and said, "Bill, is that boy any kin to you?" Bill said, "No, why Roy?" He said, "He sure blends good with you.”
What happened next?
He liked my singing and he took me off to the side and said to go with him that week and see how hard it was. He said, "It’s hard traveling." I went with him a week and we encored big, two or three times a night on the show. He had Mac Wiseman with him, and he really didn’t need a guitar player and a singer. But, it seemed like the people enjoyed us real good. And, we got out of the bus and he asked me "how did I like it." I said, "Pretty good." He said, "Do you think you can stand this hard traveling?" The bus broke down two or three times and we had to push it that week. I said, "It’s a lot better than digging ditches, and shoveling mud out of them, and plowing corn with one horse, and sawing wood with a crosscut saw." Growing up, we never had a truck, never had a car, we had two horses and a sled when I was home. I said, "I think I can do the job. I think I like it better than hauling hay to the barn, and hauling manure from it.”
So, when you were growing up you always had to plow with a horse?
Yeah, plowed corn one row at a time. Plowed two to turn the whole ground up with a turning plow. And, I plowed the whole farm up many a time just by myself. My Dad died when I was four years old. My mother married my stepfather and he liked to work the heck out of me.
My folks are from West Virginia…..
I used to play with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers when me and Bob Osborne first went together. We played all around Gilbert, and Bluefield, West Virginia. There was a radio station there. We played all around in them hills up through there, and them coal miners really love that good music.
My kin on my Dad’s side are from the mountains near Mullens, West Virginia. Did you play down in there?
Oh Yeah. Played all over up in there.
When you toured with Bill Monroe, were you a part of that traveling baseball game and concert show he had for a while?
Oh yeah, he had a college baseball team called the Bluegrass All Stars. We usually would sing and play on the pitching mound, with a lone microphone. And, when we’d a get through playing we would take it all down and start playing ball. We’d play every team a town had that we played music in. We didn’t ride in the bus, but we had a bus for the ball players. They rode in a bus while we rode four and five in a car with a bass tied on top. And our pillow was each other’s shoulder. I’ve gone as high as five, six nights and never see a bed. Finally, when the ball games were over he took a bus that still had seats in it and we’d try to sit by the heaters with quilts over us to try and stay warm. We didn’t have a big old station wagon, we had a Plymouth station wagon. The smallest that you can get. It was all he could afford.
Jimmy and Bill Monroe playing The Opry
JD Crowe said that you taught him how to sing baritone. Did that come from your ability to sing all the parts of a quartet when you were a kid?
Yeah. I taught Sonny Osborne baritone, too. I learned all the parts. I told Bill Monroe, when he took me, that I could sing baritone, lead, and tenor. But, I couldn’t sing tenor as good as him, but I could sing tenor. When he hired a new man I would help him learn the baritone and then teach them Bill’s tunes. When Bill was off, why we’d stay in a two-lane hotel, me and Rudy Lyle, and learn the new man all the tunes before Bill even got there. And usually we’d ride along in the car and a baritone part that Bill would have, or the new man couldn’t get to it, or bass, I’d hum it to him and show him how it’s done. And, Bill would say, "Just get it like Jimmy’s a showing you and it’ll work just right." People didn’t know that. They never have learned that. It’s never been out. A lot of the songs that I recorded with Bill I helped him write the lyrics to them. Such as "Uncle Pen," "When The Golden Leaves Begin To Fall," "On My Way Back to the Old Home," and "I’ll Meet You In Church Sunday Morning." "Up Along The Ohio River (On the Old Kentucky Shore)", just about every song I helped him record. Miss Lee would write them down on a tablet in the car with a pencil and an eraser. And, when we’d write a new line and it sounded stronger, why we’d erase it out.
So you would write while you traveled?
Oh yeah. And, while we’d sit in the back of theaters. We played a show every night, drive about 200 or 300 miles on up the road and play another one, then drive back within 50 miles and play another town, and do it all the time. Times were real hard back then. I stayed with Bill a long time, and try and be a big help to him. A lot of time we’d play at little theaters and schools and I was getting 60 dollars a week, and he’d just say, "I didn’t do too good this week, how much can you get by on?" And he’d let you have the least you could get by on. It wasn’t easy. A lot of the time we didn’t get paid all the money, but I stayed with him anyhow, and was good to him. People don’t know that. But, I did.
When did you leave Mr. Monroe?
I left him when Decca Records, that he recorded for, and Columbia Records and RCA Victor, all offered to record an album with me singing. When I sung "Poison Love" with him and things like that, and they heard my voice and they wanted to record me, they said they would record me and I could stay on with him. So, I asked him about it and he was paying me and didn’t want me to record for anyone else, because I think my albums would have sold real well because everybody wanted to hear me, you know. I’d always front the show and sing a song before I came out with Bill, and they always liked what I sang. So did Bill, like it.
Do you remember the day that you told him you were leaving the band?
Oh yeah, I remember it as well as it was tomorrow. I just come up and told him that I wanted to lay in my notice. He said, "Well, what have I done." I said, "You ain’t done nothing, if you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you." You see, he didn’t want me to record. So, I wanted to record, and I was barely living, just making it by paying my hotel bills, wasn’t getting ahead with no money or nothing, so I decided to leave and worked my two weeks notice out. He said he still didn’t have nobody, so I worked another week, and he said he didn’t have nobody, and I think I worked six or seven weeks, trying to wait until he got somebody. Finally, he told me he wasn’t ever going to get nobody to take my place. And when it come time I said, "Well, I got to go. I got places where I’m going to try and get me a group and record, Bill." He still held to my hand for a long time and kept squeezing it. I said, "I hope you get somebody good to take my place to help you." And he told me, "I’ll never will get nobody to take your place, Jimmy. I’d rather have you than anybody. If you get out there and can’t make it and you want you a job back just call me collect. I’ll send you the ticket to come back home." He said he’d rather sing with me than anybody he ever sung with, and he liked my rhythm, he liked my guitar playing. Me and him would sit down a lot of times in busses and rooms and just pick by ourselves and do different licks on the mandolin. You see, that’s how he done them little extra licks. He used to just stand straight and play the mandolin. When I got with him he kind of got on his tip-toes and jumped up and down a little bit. But he couldn’t stand that jumping beside of him. I was doing it too. (laughing)
Did Mr. Monroe make you guys practice a lot?
More than anybody. I did the same amount of practicing with him as I did with Sonny and Bobby, the Osborne Brothers. We used to rehearse about one o’clock until three or four every Tuesday and every Thursday when we were in Detroit, to get our records down like we recorded on RCA Victor. If you’ll ever listen to the records that me and the Osborne Brothers made you’ll say that there ain’t no better records made in bluegrass. The harmony was there, and the music was there. We all recorded on one mic. Me and Bob and Sonny, and Red Taylor, and Cedric Rainwater was on another one. Only had four of us. Me and Bob and Sonny sung in the same mic, and picked our banjo and guitar in the same mic. We had practiced and got ‘em down where Bob and Sonny knew every lick I was doing on the guitar, and I knew every lick they were doing on the mandolin and banjo. And, we knew how loud to hit it, and we knew how soft to hit it when we sang it. They couldn’t turn Bob, they couldn’t turn Sonny, and they couldn’t turn me up.
Now, me and Paul Williams and JD Crowe made some records like that. Then, we all ended up getting on a mic. I remember what they said the first session that we cut with JD Crowe. I got him a real good, loud Mastertone banjo. He picked real weak, he was weak on his picking, and I’d always get onto him. And he said, "I’m just going to quit ‘cause I ain’t big and strong like Sonny Osborne. I can’t play that strong." I said, "You stay with me and I’ll have you playing it stronger." Because I helped Sonny too, you know. And, he stayed with me and he got a lot stronger. And, when we came in to record, they’d have him on another mic. And he was playing right up with my guitar, you see, as loud as I was playing. So was Paul Williams. He’d get the same loudness on this mandolin, on that F-4. And the producer would holler, "Hey, we’re going to have to do something about that banjo. It’s coming through every mic we got down there. Jimmy, can you get him to hold it down?" I said, "Yeah, I can get him to hold it down." And, I’d ease over to JD’s ears and say, "Keep pouring it to it, JD, so they can hear you." (laughing) If he had got scared and nervous it wouldn’t have come out as good.
JD was just a kid when all of that happened, if I remember right. A teenager.
Yeah, just like Sonny. Sonny and him both were young when they come with me. About 15. I’ve always loved to help anybody pick. And I think I know when the bass is in there in the right timing with me. I think I know the mandolin playing, and the fiddle playing, and the banjo playing, drummers, but it’s hard to get ‘em in there. You can’t hardly find them in bluegrass right now. It has to work you to death, rehearse you to death, to get ‘em down there. That’s the only thing I got to say about bluegrass music today. I love them all, hope they all make good money. But, I hear this in my ear; A guy comes and plays with me now, tries out, and I had a guy to tell me, "Get your guitar Jimmy, and help me out a little bit. I’ve won a lot of championships on my mandolin." I said, "No, I just want to hear you." And, he gets his mandolin out and he gets ready, and I said, "Kick me off on ‘Sunny Side Of The Mountain’ there." He said, "What key are you doing that in." I said, "Well, you might as well put your mandolin back in the case. You don’t even know what I’m doing." Then he’ll say, "Well, if you give me the job I’ll learn it." I said, "I’m going to ask you a question; if you’ll learn my songs and can pick them then I’ll hire you." Then he said, "Well, if I get a job with you Jimmy, how would you want me to play the mandolin with you? Would you want me to play kindly like what’s on your records?" I said, "No, I want you to play what’s on everybody else’s records, and I’ll have the damndest group you ever seen." He just acted like I was crazy, you know, because he was asking me did I want him to play like my records. Would you ask a guy that? "Oh no, play like everybody then we’ll have a good band."
Your band has to play together. It has to come together just like a ballgame. You have to match your music just like you match your singing. I’ll tell you one man that could tell you that right quick, and that’d be Earl Scruggs. They kept their act together and everyone knew when to take a break and when not to. Not on account of Lester, but on account of Earl Scruggs. He was the boss over there. And there can’t be five guys go together and say "I’ll get to play like I want to." That’s the reason why I play in this group. You take five men playing what they want to, and they don’t want to play what the other one is playing, then how is your band going to sound? You got to be a team. And there’s got to be somebody that knows how to sound in there. And now today, most all the mandolin, most all the fiddles, and most all of the guitar breaks, are playing the same thing. All the flattop leads are trying to play the same thing. Some will be just a little bit better, but not that too much better. It’s sounding all alike. That’s the reason why, when you play my records, you know its Jimmy Martin. When they play Ralph Stanley’s records, they know it’s Ralph Stanley. When they play Mac Wiseman, they know it’s Mac Wiseman. When they play the Osborne Brothers, they know it’s the Osborne Brothers. When they play Don Reno and Red Smiley, they know it’s them. Now, you throw the rest of them in a barrel and they come out and you don’t know which one’s out. Go and play your records, its not there. The good old hard feeling of playing the tune of a song is out. And, what is there in a song, but the tune. It’s what you’re supposed to play. That tells the rights of a song. Not to get in there and try and make a mockery out of them.
You do speak your mind, and that has made some people mad over the years. What are your thoughts on that?
The Osbornes don’t come up and speak to me now. That just shows me there’s pure jealousy in bluegrass, and not only bluegrass, there’s jealousy in country music, too. I’m proud that I bother them that much that they don’t hardly want to speak to me. Sure don’t owe them nothing. I’m proud that my name is called and I’m a bad guy amongst all of them. But, I love everybody. I want to be good to everybody that will let me be good. But I don’t like for somebody to run over me. I speak my mind and I’m going to still speak it ‘till I die.
Tell me about your time living and playing in Detroit in the 1950’s.
I stayed in Detroit for about two years. We had a radio show daily, and then we had one every Saturday night, two hours on a 50,000-watt station, WJR. Then we had a TV show in Canada, the biggest local TV show, for an hour on Friday night. And, when me and the Osborne Brothers went up there, there were about a 150 people. We encored so big that they hired us, started us off at a hundred dollars a Saturday night. There were thirty dollars to spend between me and Bob and Sonny. We went up there a few nights and the crowds started getting so big that they raised us to seventy five dollars a piece for Saturday night. I made more than when Bill Monroe paid me when I worked with him at the Grand Ole Opry. It was one of the biggest TV shows up there. By the time me and the Osborne Brothers got ‘20/20 Vision’ and ‘Save It, Save It’ out on record the seats were a capacity of 2300. There were 2300 seats filled every Saturday night, and some were standing just to hear me and the Osborne Brothers. We were on every jukebox with the biggest selling record in Detroit. We were really hot. We were number five of the best selling country records. It wasn’t called bluegrass then. The number five selling country record for RCA Victor.
Did you enjoy playing the Louisiana Hayride a few years later?
Oh yeah. I enjoyed it very much. It got my name out because when I went down there they paid me more than anybody down there. I was paying JD Crowe or Paul Williams more than Johnny Horton or any of the other stars was a getting. We got a flat rate. They got only 18 dollars a show. That was staff pay. They paid me more than anyone had ever been paid down there. And, I don’t care to tell you what I paid Paul and JD. I raised them up to 25 dollars. That’s a little better than 18, ain’t it? It was the same way in Wheeling, at the Jamboree. They only paid eleven dollars for a man up there, and I paid them 25 up there, too. Louisiana Hayride, the reason that I got in the charts pretty high there was I was on a network show. You see, that show was on two 50,000-watt stations as big as the Grand Ole Opry. I was on both KTHS in Little Rock, Arkansas, and it was coming over KWKH in Shreveport, at one time. Then, they had thirty minutes of CBS network going all over the world. And, I got to play three songs on that, a trio, a duet, and an instrumental with JD Crowe on the banjo. You talk about mailbox, tubs full of it. In fact, Paul Williams, my tenor singer, George Jones would be on there and would ask Paul to go out there and sing harmony with him. "The Race Is On," that kind of stuff.
After your time in Louisiana you moved to Wheeling, West Virginia. The Wheeling Jamboree Show was broadcast on yet another 50,000-watt radio station, WWVA, and it was heard around the country. What was your time like there?
I moved to Wheeling and I had two thirty-minute shows on the Jamboree. And, when I first went to Wheeling, why me and Paul and JD looked at about 130, to 175 people. After we were there about two months, there were that many standing on the streets trying to get in, whether there was snow on the streets or whatever, the whole time we were there. Another mailing list, a tub full a week. We’d set up to about one o’clock every night with postcards trying to answer the mail. That was the best move I ever made. I didn’t have a home, always rented apartments and everything, but in nine months I paid for me a home up there because Gene Johnson was the manager of the WWVA Jamboree and he was my manager. So when I got there he had me 23 shows already booked. He told me my records were hotter than the dickens and he wanted me up there. I got in his office one day and sat there and cried, because he was the only friend I’ve ever had that was nice to me, and didn’t tell me lies. Me and him worked good together. I got out of debt, had a lot of money in the bank to do things with when I left there, and had my home paid for. He’s dead now. He passed away, but back then he bought him a radio station and quit the Jamboree. So Barbara, my gal at the time, took all of his phone calls, his addresses, and started booking me. I think I played 63 fairs that year.
And then, you made the move to Nashville…
I never did play that much in Nashville. I would have never moved down to Nashville. I would have still stayed on. I didn’t think I could make it there in Wheeling without Gene Johnson. But, I always wanted to move back to Tennessee. Bob McNeal and the Wilhelm Agency, and the Wilburn Brothers and people up in Wheeling, they found out that Barbara had booked a lot of dates for me and I was making as many dates or more as anybody on the Grand Ole Opry. I was doing good. So Bob McNeal and the Wilburn Brothers wanted me to move down here and join their office, and let Barbara go to work as a booker in their office. So, they promised me that if I would move, they would keep me booked out. They said, "When we don’t have you booked out, we’ll get you as a guest on the Grand Ole Opry." I thought that would do me good too, you see. Anyway, I decided I’d do that with them. If it hadn’t been for that, I was doing too good in Wheeling to move here.
One day I was talking to Ralph Emory on the radio from the Tulane Hotel, and said that I was going to move down here to Nashville. Well, Bill Monroe happened to be listening on the radio. He come in and he called Barbara off, and I seen them talking. Barbara came back and told me that Bill said, "Jimmy’s doing good in Wheeling. You better get him to stay up there. You let him move down here and I’ll do everything in my power I can against him." Now that made Barbara mad, and she said, "Well, you just a do everything that you can, boy, I’m a bookin’ him. I’ll book him out and get more booking that you’ll get, and make more money than you’ll make. You just try and hurt him all you can." That’s about as far as that went.
So, I moved. Every time I was down there at the Opry I encored on my own songs. The last time I was down there I encored on "Tennessee" and "Sunny Side Of The Mountain." Stringbean and Ira Louvin came up to me and told me how good I sounded. Stringbean said, ‘Boy, you went over big. You tore ‘em up. You probably went over just a little too big. It might be a while before you’re ever back down here again.’ He used to be on there too, you know, and he hardly couldn’t get back on the Opry after he worked for Bill. Nevertheless, I’m just a telling you a little story that you can put in there and it be a true story.
So, from then on Ott Devine was the manager of the Opry. Bob McNeal and the Wilhelm agency, The Wilburn Brothers, Doyle and Ted, all of them called up trying to get them to use me as a guest. Ott Devine said, "Don’t call my office and bother me. I don’t have time. We’re not a going to let Jimmy Martin do anymore guest spots on the Grand Ole Opry." So, I just closed it right out. They quit bothering them until Bud Wendell got on there and managed the Opry. Bud Wendell let me on there a few times. He used to go rabbit hunting with me. And I enjoyed it, and he’s even eat rabbit breakfast with me. He let me go on there and I encored so much then that he told me when I was over at Opryland that I would be a member of the Grand Ole Opry, that the Opry would just love the way I played and entertained bluegrass music. So, I asked him, when is he going to put me on there, and he said he had bluegrass running out of his nose. Earl Scruggs, Flatt and Scruggs, Jim and Jesse, and the Osborne Brothers, so I just let him go at that. He never did make me a member, so. I’m not going to raise no fuss about it. I think that I’ve done much better on account of not being a member of the Opry because the public aggravates me to death asking me "Why can’t I ever get to hear you on the Grand Ole Opry." All I say is, "I guess I never have got good enough." So, I feel like now, the Opry has helped me money wise. But, they’ve hurt my feelings for doing that. I think why they’ve done it, it is because of all kinds of jealousy of other musicians. So, I just feel proud that I bother them that much.
Are you surprised that the grudge has lasted as long as it has?
Well, the grudge has lasted because some of them down there is still grudged at me.
I’ve always heard that if Mr. Monroe wasn’t in the mood to speak to you he’d walk right by and....
Yeah he would, turn his head and let on like he was trying to ignore you. Thinking somebody was going to jerk him by the coattail and pull him around and say, "Here, speak to me." But I’m telling you, he ignored the best friend he ever had and ever would have. You’re talking to the best friend that Bill Monroe ever had. And, I loved him more than anything. Loved to stand and look at him. But he couldn’t stand for me being popular. That was it. I loved him. He just didn’t speak to his best friends. That’s it right there.
What do you think about Bill Monroe being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Let him get in all the hall of fame’s he can. Stand him right up there. Because I told him one time, I said, "Bill, you play rock and roll mandolin and you don’t know it." He said, "I don’t play that damn rock and roll." Be sure and put that in there, now. I said, "You don’t know that you play rock and roll mandolin? The way you chunka-chunk-chunka-chunka (making the sounds of a rocking mandolin rhythm)." I said, "Listen to rock and roll blues and then listen to ‘Brakemen’s Blues.' Why, you’re rocking on down the line, Bill. And when you kick off that ‘Muleskinner Blues,’ that’s a kick off of a rock and roll as I’ve ever heard." And he said, "I don’t play that damn rock and roll." I said, (laughing) "OK Bill." Yeah he did, and hooray for it. That’s the reason why he is different and nobody else can play it. He had it all. When they think they’re playing that mandolin like Bill Monroe they better let me get up there with my guitar and I’ll show them they're not. There ain’t nobody that can touch him. Just like there ain’t nobody that can touch the Osborne Brothers singing that harmony. Nobody can beat them because Bobby’s got that high tenor and Sonny’s got that good baritone. You won’t ever find a baritone singer any better than Sonny Osborne. And Bob can slur that tenor anyway you want him to.
Are you doing any fishing these days?
Oh yeah. I am getting over this cancer right now, trying to. Still, I go fishing. I’ve got two fishing friends, Jay Hunter, and one of the best that ever was; he’s a good fiddle player, good banjo player, good guitar player, he’s my friend Red Roberts. He lives about two miles from me here and I go out to see him very often. He taught me how to sit around and relax. I’m nervous, you know. He said, "Just come out and I’ll learn you how to sit here and take nap in a chair with me." We sit there and catfish and talk about bluegrass music more than anybody. He’s a retired electrician from Dupont. I’m semi-retired, I only work about 20 some dates a year. I like crappy fishing, but I like bream fishing better where you can catch you a great big bream. I also go to Richmond, Indiana, before it gets too cold, for about a week and take my squirrel dog and get about ten or fifteen squirrels every time we go. We rabbit hunt about one day, and coon hunt every night. I bought a coon dog up there called Tom T. Hall, and he barks about like ole Pete. My coon dogs are named Tom T. Hall, Patty Loveless, and Dolly Parton. I got one named George Jones, Little Tater Dickens, got one named Mel Tillis, a little bluetick, and I got one named Rhonda Vincent.
This new album, the soundtrack to the Life And Times Of Jimmy Martin movie, is great.
Oh yeah. It’s selling real good for me, too. That George (Goehl), that made that movie, he is doing a real good job on it. I believe he’s going to be a real good promoter, too. Promoting is fifty percent of it, you know.
Which song of yours do you consider to be the biggest one you ever recorded?
I’d say, "Sunny Side Of The Mountain," "Ocean Of Diamonds," "Freeborn Man," "This World’s Not My Home," they have all been pretty good. I couldn’t tell which one. I sell records in every country overseas, Sweden to Switzerland, Russia, Germany, Japan, Turkey, Czechoslovakia, all of them over there. My Decca records sell there, and some RCA Victor too. There was a feller that came over here from Switzerland and recorded a country album and wanted to me to sing "You Don’t Know My Mind" and "Sunny Side Of The Mountain," and we sung a duet on both of them. It was real popular.
Well, that first Will The Circle Be Unbroken album with the Nitty Gritty Dirt band is still popular thirty-plus year later. And, you appeared on the second and third versions of that project as well.
It was a biggun’. I had six songs on it, on the first one. They said I stole it. That’s what Jeff Hanna told me. That’s the reason why they wouldn’t let me do too many on the other one, they said I stole the first one. I recorded two on the third one.
What are you up to these days, Jimmy?
The biggest thing I’m into right now is the festival in Bean Blossom, Indiana. Bean Blossom is one of the prettiest places, its got shade, plenty of places to park. You can put tents under the trees, and everything. And so, we have a huge crowd over there. We have a festival in the middle of June every year, and one in the middle of September. And then you have other festivals beyond that, but the big ones are in June and September.
Is that where you have the big squirrel fry?
Yes, we have either a rabbit fry or a squirrel fry on Sunday morning. Some of them fries rabbits and brings them there on Saturday. We fry up a whole big platter of squirrels and make scrambled eggs and gravy, and biscuits and loaf bread, coffee and sweet milk, and have people gather around. They always film me when I’m there, and always gather around and eat that squirrel gravy. And if there are any pieces left I take it and put it in a little bowl and bring it home and warm it up. You tell the folks, I’d like to invite all the friends that love bluegrass music to make it a visit and come and see the Bill Monroe Park and Campground in Bean Blossom, Indiana. Dwight Dillman has put flowers all around, and has made it one of the prettiest festivals to look at in the world. We have good crowds, and it’s a good family crowd. I want everybody to make their vacation plans and come and see us at Bean Blossom because they’ll be treated right. Dwight Dillman does know how to run a festival. And, he is putting in a bunch more campground hookups.
Are there any new recordings on the horizon?
There is a company that is supposed to have me record an album with everybody that I named a dog after. Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson called up and said any time they wanted me to sing with them on a record, they would be ready to meet me anytime. They are trying to get George Jones and Hank Jr., and Merle Haggard. They are going to call it Jimmy Martin With His Hunting Dogs and Country Music Stars.
It is good to see you do a few dates a year after all of this time in the business.
Really, I don’t even have to work. But, I like to get out there and shake hands with all my friends. You’d think that you would shake hands with them all in 53 years, wouldn’t you? (laughs) They come right into Bean Blossom, and say, ‘We have always loved your albums, Jimmy. We think you’re really one of the best in bluegrass music. I’ve always wanted to meet you, I never have met you.’ I shake hands with them and I ask them, ‘Now that you have met me, what do you think about me? (laughing)
How many letters and cards have you received since you found out you were sick?
We get as high as a hundred or two hundred a day. There ain’t been nobody that ever loved their fans better than Jimmy Martin. I love my fans. I’m taking cancer treatment right now. Radiation and chemo. I take chemo once a week, and radiation five days a week. It makes me feel awful bad, but they say I’ll get over it. They say they can let me sing a little bit more at the bluegrass festivals. I told them I hope to. I told them I hope to sing a few good old gospel songs a few more times, anyway. But if the Lord wants me to go I got my tombstone built over here, and they can put me under the ground right next to Roy Acuff, a guy who loves good country music. And, he’s got one right over there beside him that likes good bluegrass and country music. I went over there and bought a plot close to Roy Acuff’s. It cost me 15,000 dollars. So, I already have my place dug, so if this cancer gets me down they’ll have a nice place to put me. My tombstone has been up for five or six years, I don’t know exactly. They say there are a lot of pictures taken of it, and a lot of talk of it. I wanted to be right in there beside old Roy Acuff, the King Of Country Music.