Country music personalities used to come with stories. In the day, larger-than-life characters like Grandpa Jones, Mel Tillis, and George Jones left a wake of hilarious, poignant and bawdy tales that Music Row insiders passed around like baseball cards. Of these, none were more often repeated than those involving self-proclaimed “King of Bluegrass” Jimmy Martin, a notorious loose canon. In 1998 music writer Tom Piazza followed Martin on a harrowing visit to the Grand Ole Opry, during which the inebriated singer came close to fisticuffs with at least two members of that venerable institution. Ten years after appearing in The Oxford American, the resulting article, “True Adventures with the King of Bluegrass,” is now available in paperback.
A gifted tenor and guitarist, Martin first gained attention during the early 50s as a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. Later, as leader of Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys, he nurtured a who’s-who of bluegrass talent that included Paul Williams, J.D. Crowe, and the Osborne Brothers. During the late 50s and early 60s, Martin recorded a string of hits. His “Sunny Side of the Mountain,” “River of Death” and “You Don’t Know My Mind” are considered country classics. You might think this resume would make him a shoe-in for Opry membership, but then, unlike Piazza, you’ve never spent an evening prowling with Jimmy Martin when he was deep in his cups. True Adventures describes an evening that’s consistent with the darker side of Martin’s legacy. Baffled by his relative obscurity in the worlds of country and bluegrass, Piazza intends only to interview the shadowy legend, and maybe explore Martin’s unrequited dream of Opry membership. Then as now, that honor is tangible proof of ascendance to the top of the country music pile. When Martin suggests that he and Piazza attend the following evening’s Opry performance together, the writer is chuffed to say the least.
But things begin to unravel as the pair negotiates the driveway from Martin’s Hermitage, Tennessee, home. Martin, who is by now officially shit-faced, insists that Piazza drive the ancient, midnight blue limousine that is the singer’s primary mode of transport. It stalls. Soon Martin, dressed to the nines in cowboy finery, is under the hood hooking up the battery charger that eventually brings the limo back to life. “Me and you are goin’ to the Opry,” Martin exults. “And your name is what?”
Backstage at the Opry, things don’t go much better. Despite being treated reverently by those hanging in the wings, Martin can’t help but pick fights with two members who he feels have particularly disrespected him: Ricky Scaggs and “Whispering” Bill Anderson. Piazza does a Ghandi-like job of keeping things from erupting into actual violence, but by then the damage is done.
True Adventures argues that Martin’s obscurity is a result of his complete inability to be anything but himself—cantankerous, intoxicated, egotistical, and generally impossible to manage. “Martin represents a reality that the New Nashville has tried to sanitize out of the picture,” writes Piazza. “And yet he refuses to go away, in any sense.” Piazza concludes that spending time with Martin is a test. “How willing are you to get your hands dirty?” he asks. Sadly, the Opry’s answer is not at all.
Tom Piazza is the author of several books, including the award-winning Why New Orleans Matters, a testament to the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, Jimmy Martin died of bladder cancer and heart disease, his dream of Opry membership unrealized.