Overdue reappraisal of bluegrass' wildest old buck

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This Month In Americana

Irascible, outspoken and prodigiously talented, Martin is the original ‘rebel rouser’ of bluegrass. Yet he remains puzzlingly under-celebrated. Released to coincide with George Goehl’s fascinating film documentary about Martin (The King Of Bluegrass), Don’t Cry To Me is a storming collection of live classics spanning 1954-2001, 10 of which are previously unreleased. Still gigging at 77, he’s considered by many to be the greatest lead singer/guitarist that Bill Monroe ever had (and undoubtedly the finest bluegrasser never to become member of the Grand Ole Opry) as well as a progressive musical pioneer.

Born in Sneedville, Tennessee, Martin collared Monroe backstage at the Opry in 1949, burst into a rendition of the murder ballad “Poor Ellen Smith” (an incredible 1965 version is included here) and landed the gig with the latter’s Bluegrass Boys right there. Together with Monroe for five years, Martin’s bullish fretwork injected an urgency that sharpened the band like an arrowhead, whilst his astonishing tenor?complementing Monroe’s lead?helped initiate the archetypal “High Lonesome Sound”. By the time he’d formed The Sunny Mountain Boys and signed to Decca, his radical style was well defined?impeccable harmonies, demanding musicianship (Martin only accepted the best from himself, and the same went for his sometimes exasperated charges) and the unheard-of use of snare drums.

These songs crackle with typical Martin static: abrasive, dextrous, wholehearted, but never indulgent. As a vocalist, he’s in the same bracket as his old friend and collaborator Ralph Stanley?a hint of fatalism, tough delivery. Cold comfort for the soul. The later recordings (“Free Born Man”, “Brakeman’s Blues”) are almost miraculous in their power and range. Frailty?even approaching the age of 80?was never in the Martin handbook. Sadly, he was recently diagnosed with bladder cancer and is currently recovering from chemotherapy. We wish him well. The legacy is immense.