King of Bluegrass: The Life and Times of Jimmy Martin, produced and directed by George Goehl, portrays its subject as gifted, a bluegrass stylist and innovator, highly energetic (one might describe Martin as hyper-energetic), well-loved by many, extremely sensitive (hypersensitive?), and even a tad pathetic. The combination of these qualities, as one would imagine, makes for quite an interesting 66 minutes of footage and music. Which is, by the way, the perfect length for a documentary of this sort.
Jimmy Martin, high lonesome vocalist and guitar player, left Sneedville, Tennessee as a young man with ten bucks and a guitar and got factory work from which he was soon fired. He then went on to audition for Bill Monroe and took Mac Wiseman’s position as vocalist and guitarist in the Bluegrass Boys. This was 1949, and his career was launched. In the early ’50s, Martin went out on his own, ultimately joining forces with the Osborne Brothers, with whom he enjoyed a good deal of success. When that came to an end, he formed his band the Sunny Mountain Boys, comprised of J.D. Crowe on banjo and Paul Williams, also a writer, whose songs Martin often sang. They also wrote together. Some of his hits included “Rock Hearts” and “Windowmaker”, with which he scored big after finally moving to Nashville in hopes of becoming a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Unfortunately for Jimmy Martin, that dream never materialized, and he’s not happy about it. That’s pretty much the crux of the story told on this DVD.
Is it injustice that Martin was never invited to become a member? Quite frankly, the DVD doesn¹t come close to answering that question. There’s some speculation during the interviews with former band members and Marty Stuart. But all they ever say is that Jimmy Martin is his own worst enemy, that sort of thing. Stuart, a huge fan of Martin, says of his failure to make the Opry that “[Martin] dared to be different and paid the price for it”. Well, okay. I mean, I know stylistically he kind of had his own thing going on. But different? Sounds like good bluegrass to me. It’s not that different. The reason why Martin never made the Opry is never really approached in any kind of candid or honest way on this DVD. What we get are one too many moments where Martin protests a little too much about how he doesn’t need the Opry to be happy or a success. The truth is, as Stuart says, and this is the pathetic part of the story, Martin doesn’t see himself as a success precisely because he was never a member of the Grand Ole Opry. And that’s sad, because he’s one talented guy filled with the life and love of bluegrass. What would have made this DVD a little more compelling, a little less safe, would have been interviews with folks from the Opry and their own justifications for passing Jimmy Martin over. But then maybe Goehl, the producer/director, just couldn’t make that happen. Maybe no one would talk.
Regardless, Goehl takes us on a quirky and pleasant journey through the life and times of Jimmy Martin and bluegrass in general. The interviews, while not completely forthcoming, are interesting and cool, particularly the ones with former Sunny Mountain Boys band members and Marty Stuart. Also, Martin’s passion for raccoon and squirrel hunting, and hunting dogs, is weird and well documented — animal lovers be forewarned. And the music is spectacular. Songs included in the soundtrack are “I’ve Got My Future on Ice”, “Brakeman Blues”, “Don’t Cry to Me”, “Lonesome Prison Blues”, and “Ocean of Diamonds”. There are twenty in all.
Perhaps, the greatest moment captured here is when Martin sings an a cappella version of “Wabash Cannonball” on his tour bus while a fan, standing inside the doorway, makes a really bizarre train whistle sound. Martin is truly tickled by the sound and tells the fan he wants to record the song with him. Martin laughs maniacally afterwards. His laughter and joy are infectious. A true character. More than likely too much character for something as staid and sober as the Grand Ole Opry.