Reviews

Jimmy Martin: King of Bluegrass: The Life and Times of Jimmy Martin [DVD]

Chip O'Brien

Jimmy Martin

King of Bluegrass: the Life and Times of Jimmy Martin [DVD]

Label: Thrill Jockey
US Release Date: 2004-01-20
Amazon
iTunes

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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

9
Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.