Tuesday, May 24, 2005
TALES FROM THE RED-HEADED STRANGER
FORKSCLOVETOFU SEZ: The Red Headed Stranger is the nom de plume of the Hut's country music scholar.
On receipt of today's piece, the RHS made me swear a solemn vow not to cut loose with any introductory monkeyshines.
"None o' yer tomfoolery this time, Mister Tutti-Frutti! We's praisin' th' dead an' this sumbitch deserves a lil' goddamn dignity."
I agree. Here's the Stranger.
Jimmy Martin - "Sophronie"
Jimmy Martin - "Rock Hearts"
I'm riding in the back seat of a 1970s-era limo and the King of Bluegrass, Jimmy Martin, is behind the wheel. He's attempting to navigate this land shark – his daily mode of transportation – out of the cramped driveway at his home in Hermitage, TN; just outside Nashville. He backs up, backs up ... until THUNK! The limo slams into a tree. I expect Martin to get out and inspect the damage, but he doesn't even blink. He knows the car can take it -- and besides, for him, banging into a tree was how you knew you'd gone far enough. He calmly points the limo toward the highway and we're off to Shoney's for a long interview over a longer breakfast.
Jimmy Martin was a man who pushed things to extremes. If Bill Monroe put a 16-horsepower engine into mountain music and created bluegrass, Jimmy Martin drove that sonofabitch harder than anyone. When he rocked, he rocked hard; when he sang a sad song, you believed he was miserable; when he delivered a gospel song you could imagine Heaven was near. If there's such a thing as emo bluegrass, Martin was it.
Martin traveled from his hometown of Sneedville, TN, to Nashville in 1946. He found his way to Monroe, his idol; he auditioned, impressed the great man with his harmonies and propulsive guitar playing and was made a Blue Grass Boy straightaway. During his tenure, Martin's high harmony singing pushed Monroe's lead into the stratosphere, effectively creating the "high lonesome sound" we now know (as Martin himself would tell you). But when Martin went solo a few years later, he began to suspect (with some justification) that Monroe wanted to sabotage his career -- including keeping him from his oft-stated greatest ambition, to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry. A half-century later, his eyes still welled with tears as he told me of both his affection for Monroe and his frustration at their estrangement.
The Opry didn't really need Monroe's disapproval to deny Martin entrée – he rubbed a lot of folks the wrong way. He did not suffer fools gladly and if he thought you a fool, he just couldn't stop himself from telling you. His standards were just as high for himself; he complained to me that he couldn't find pickers good enough to play in his band and that he didn't like any recording he had ever made. He was wrong on that last point: his records, especially the early ones, crackle with the same energy that he brought to his famously roof-raising live shows. He named himself "The King of Bluegrass," but anyone else would have been a fool to try and challenge him for the title. If Monroe could be the "Father of Bluegrass," Martin might as well be the King.
His recordings became more infrequent as he grew older and he was semi-retired by 1980. He continued to perform at bluegrass festivals from April to October every year and never gave less than his best. As late as a month ago, he was looking forward to playing at the Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival in June, but it wasn't to be. Just over a year ago, Martin was diagnosed with bladder cancer and it finally defeated him. He died on May 14, 2005 at Nashville's Alive Hospice and was buried four days later in Spring Hill Cemetery in Madison, TN; beneath a tall, elaborate tombstone extolling his accomplishments that, naturally, he designed himself. The King of Bluegrass was determined to have the last word.
Martin told me that his plot was close enough to that of Roy Acuff (whom he adored) that "I can reach out of my grave when I get buried and get me a flower or two." And if Jimmy Martin believed he could do that, then I do too.
Visit Martin's official website, and read his bio: "When he is at home, Jimmy enjoys taking care of his farm and watching boxing matches on television. He remembers listening to the great Joe Louis on the battery radio back in the hills of Sneedville as a young boy. Jimmy still thinks that Joe Louis is the best boxer in the world!" He loved his hunting dogs, too.
Buy the Country Music Hall of Fame's wonderful Martin compilationThe King of Bluegrass. Do NOT pay $50 for it, which is how much it's going for on Amazon.com.
Check out the critically acclaimed documentary on Martin, King of Bluegrass. It's okay to buy that from Amazon.
Visit the International Bluegrass Music Museum, which includes Martin in its Hall of Honor.
Learn about Hermitage's other most famous resident, President Andrew Jackson.
Perhaps it was inevitable: combine spinnas with fronts and your get sponts.
Wouldn't these rip the inside of your lip all to hell?
These handpainted reproductions of old Indian horror movies are pretty awesome; I'm seriously considering getting a T-shirt with this on it.
New singles reviews from yours truly over at Stylus.
Spoilers: I like Amerie and Gwen, Coldplay and My Chemical Romance not so much.
As long as you're sniffing about Stylus, there's an excellent essay on the state of the US Billboard charts that bears a read. Were you aware that Mario (the Chris Rock lookin' one, not the Italian plumber) was at number one for nine whole weeks this year? Can you name the song?
Shit be floatin' HIGH, ya'll.
It's rare that I care to indulge my taste for schadenfreude, but watching a flock of fainting goats going all "Pass-the-Pig" is just the thing to satisfy my dark side.
Mowses Hum Pij
I'm a sucker for "Archy and Mehitabel" style animal diaries.