Top dog

[Editor’s Note: Due to predicted bad weather for the weekend, The Eighth-Annual Great Smokies Craft Brewers Brewgrass Festival has been rescheduled for Oct 30. See or call 255-0504 for more information.]

“It’s awesome,” declares Jimmy Martin, bluegrass music’s original rebel.

Martin then immediately clarifies his word choice in describing the public reception to his new compilation CD, Don’t Cry to Me (on the typically alt-rock Thrill Jockey Records), underscoring that he’s not exactly an expert on the latest slang. But he is enthusiastic about brushing up, he says.

“I usually say ‘great’ or ‘good’ or ‘you’re OK,'” Martin reports. “But my son, Buddy Lee, he’s always sayin’ ‘awesome,’ and I hear a lot of people sayin’ it, so I’m just gonna start sayin’ it.”

Martin, 77, a monumental figure in bluegrass for more than 50 years now, is entitled to say pretty much anything he wants. And he is indeed riding high on his recent spate of success, which was sparked in large part by the new biographical film King of Bluegrass (currently available via mail-order on DVD and VHS). The new album, including 10 previously unreleased tracks, was compiled as a companion to the film.

Martin says King of Bluegrass director George Goehl had been tugging at his sleeve for three years before the music legend agreed to let Goehl follow him around with a camera.

“Sometimes he wants to try to be close to a hippie,” Martin says of Goehl, before letting loose a hearty cackle. “But he’s still a nice-lookin’ guy.”

The first-time director, who temporarily quit his day job to make the movie, culled the final cut from 70 hours’ worth of footage, Martin reveals. Goehl even plans to put together a second volume out of what’s left; thus far, success has kept him too busy.

“Everybody loved each other … not like today”

Goehl himself has boasted that King of Bluegrass “will make you laugh, cringe and cry.” The film documents Martin’s flamboyant, eccentric (some say difficult) personality — on the road, on hunting trips near Hermitage, his Nashville-area home of 40 years, and during a visit to his birthplace of Sneedville.

The latter town lies “up in the hills” in eastern Tennessee, near the borders of Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina. Martin recalls a “hard life” there farming corn, tobacco and wheat. His father died when he was only 4, and though his mother eventually remarried, their early loss seriously strained the family, requiring them to become increasingly self-sufficient.

“We never had no cars and no trucks,” Martin explains. “Just had two horses, a sled and a wagon, and a saw and an axe.”

Despite his family’s modest — even meager — means, Martin describes his upbringing as a happy time.

“In our home, we had three good meals a day, and everybody loved each other,” he says. “And we always had a big meal at Christmas and July 4th and New Year’s. It’s not like it is today, where you don’t hardly ever see your kids and hardly get to be around with ’em none.

“On my birthday, none of my kids eat with me. They call me on the phone, but they never eat Christmas dinner with me.”

On this last point, Martin — who can be prickly, but is not without his own brusque charm — becomes downcast. He sadly recounts his rejected offer to his three children that they move into adjacent homes, so that the entire extended family could live close together.

“They didn’t understand that,” he says.

Martin had even offered to pay for all the properties up front, so his children wouldn’t have to worry about house payments. But if he ever had trouble understanding why a family would choose distance over the closeness he knew growing up, he now sounds resigned to it, observing more generally that “people has got f-a-a-a-a-r away from each other.” (However, he adds that “knockin’ that big building over got ’em to thinking a little closer,” apparently referring to 9/11.)

Still, Martin is hardly alone these days. His current roommates include none other than Dolly Parton and Patty Loveless — two members of his group of … hunting dogs.

Martin, who rises before 8 a.m. daily and hunts about three times a week, is obviously proud of his animals — six beagles, two coon-hounds, a squirreling dog, and a “fetch dog,” at last count.

Besides Dolly and Patty, his other hounds — and he is adamant about pointing them all out — are named after such country-music icons as George and Mona Jones, Loretta Lynn, Tater “Little” Jimmy Dickens, Mel Tillis and Tom T. Hall. More contemporary artists — country star Marty Stuart and hot bluegrass singer Rhonda Vincent — also have canine counterparts.

Martin enthusiastically reports that the dog name after Vincent favors her as well.

“Her face looks like [Vincent’s] and everything,” he elaborates. “And my little dog looks exactly like Little Jimmy Dickens. He’s little, just like him.”

Martin explains that he chose the name Dolly Parton because both his coon dog and the bodacious singer share the same pretty eyes. He’s also had dogs named Merle Haggard, Hank Jr. and Willie Nelson. Which naturally raises the question: Do the dogs’ namesakes know about the “honor” that’s been bestowed upon them?

More to the point, do they mind?

Apparently not. “Everybody I’ve named a dog after’s gonna record with me,” Martin quips. “The title of the album is supposed to be Jimmy Martin and His Hunting Dogs and Country Music Friends.”

Fight for the throne

Despite Martin’s formative role in bluegrass and his undeniable contribution to the country-music canon, induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame still eludes him. He’s also never became a regular cast member of the Grand Ole Opry, in large part due to efforts by no less than the late Bill Monroe, the undisputed father of bluegrass, to prevent his joining.

“He said if I moved to Nashville to make it my home, he was gonna do everything in his power against me,” reveals Martin. “I don’t know why. It got to where he wouldn’t speak to me.” (However, in talking of his own solo records becoming popular, Martin seems to suggest that jealousy may have been an issue.)

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