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Martin puts on his tough, rebel-without-a-care attitude early in the film, declaring that he is ambivalent to the Grand Ole Opry's longstanding exclusion of him. He goes so far as to say that if the Opry came calling now, he'd turn them down. It is a tense, conflicted moment in the film, and King of Bluegrass goes on to paint a portrait of Jimmy Martin's conflicted life and its central battle with the Opry. Is Martin being blackballed or is he a loose cannon too rowdy for the antique institution?
The cold war between Martin and the Opry is a documentary in itself, and beyond the confrontation Martin proves to be a deeply interesting character that begs for deeper analysis on a number of levels.
Having grown up with a single mother and been put to work at a young age, Martin seems remarkably friendly and well-adjusted 75 years later. But the casual aloofness with which Martin faces the world belies the restless soul within, an identity always at the mercy of its own ghost.
Whether at a squirrel-meat barbecue or a bluegrass festival, Martin is at ease in any setting and is quick to break the ice, embracing strangers and old friends alike with a warm, accommodating glow. But in the quieter moments when visiting his grandfather's home or addressing his highly-visible animosity with the Opry, Martin is a man haunted by a legacy he is not sure he has.
Martin's personal struggles and his internal need to quantify his life and career in a way that might fulfill his eternal longing for acceptance and acknowledgement play out beautifully between the historical background of his career and the ongoing tumultuousness in his life. The casual cool with which Martin commands the spotlight in any room sharply accentuates his paranoia about his mortality, and it is no surprise even early on when we learn that Martin erected his own tombstone (headed with the inscription "NOW SINGS IN HEAVEN") years ago.
Growing up in the northeastern spear of Tennessee in the hills around the small town of Sneedville, Jimmy Martin was turned on to music by WSM's Grand Ole Opry program, broadcast through the airwaves east from Nashville. His first instrument, at the age of five, was a three-string hand-held contraption made from a Prince Albert tobacco can, and Martin learned the basics of the guitar from a neighbor who lived 3 miles through the woods. It wasn't long before Martin met up with some like-minded local boys and soon took up playing relaxing sets under the shade of a roadside apple tree. After borrowing $10 from his grandfather, Martin struck out to Morristown further east and the money a factory job promised. With an irony that epitomizes Martin's career, his urban-labor career was brief. Within a short time, Martin was fired ("for singing") from his job and on his way to Nashville, where he hooked up with a backing gig for Bill Munroe on the Grand Ole Opry. An early indicator of the sarcastic integrity that would color Martin's career, he returned to the office of the factory manager that had fired him for singing and thanked him, telling the pencil pusher that he could listen in and hear Jimmy on Saturday nights, playing the Grand Ole Opry.
After watching his first show at the Grand Ole Opry Martin approached his idol, bluegrass pioneer Bill Munroe, and convinced him to play a few songs together. The performance was enough to further convince Munroe, who hired Martin on the spot. From his career with Munroe, who showed him the ropes of traveling show-business and made a profound impression on his career, Martin bounced around as a leading man from Detroit to Shreveport, Louisiana, building a name for himself with his Sunny Mountain Boys and earning member spots with the Louisiana Hayride and the Wheeling (WV) Jamboree, two stops on the Grand Ole Opry's minor-league circuit. The Opry remained the elusive prize, however, never asking Martin to become a member.
Colorful is a term that wouldn't do Martin justice as a stage performer. From his comedic side banter to his animated demeanor, the charismatic front man always captivates the audience; one minute he's rebuking a heckler, telling him "one jackass at a time, buddy, and I'm him right now" and the next he's wriggling in a twitchy, backwoods geriatric Elvis kind of dance. Martin's outlandish rock-star moments are juxtaposed with intimate, at-home interviews that often show him cashing royalty checks of modest amounts, paying household bills, or cutting up pumpkins for his goat Vernon's dinner. Martin illustrates that there is no distinction between the oddities of his stage performance and his daily life, a sentiment that is epitomized by his asking Vernon to join him on stage as a guest fiddler.
Martin's reputation as the class clown of Bluegrass' legendary alumni is well deserved, but his career is anything but a novelty act. King of Bluegrass does an excellent job of simultaneously developing the multitude of facets that make up Martin's persona, sharply contrasting the divergent tales within the larger story and keeping it interesting from all angles.
The DVD version of Straightsix Films' King of Bluegrass is one of the better documentaries that I have seen in the past year and includes a number of interesting and informative interactive features about Martin, bluegrass music and the making of the film.
SEE ALSO > www.kingofbluegrass.com
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.
See other articles by Eric J Herboth.
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