Screens Pickin' & fightin'

Bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin couldn't rein it in, and that's what made him great

When Jimmy Martin was a young man, his factory boss fired him for singing too much on the job. Shortly afterward, Martin talked his way into a backstage audition for bluegrass giant Bill Monroe and got a gig with Monroe's Blue Grass Boys. How did Martin celebrate this accomplishment? He drove back to the factory, thanked his former employer for firing him, and let the man know that from now on he could hear Martin sing on the radio from the Grand Ole Opry.

Bluegrass virtuoso Jimmy Martin (left) serenades a Louisiana hayride with JD Crowe.

That sarcastic edge, that acute sensitivity to every slight, that burning need for validation, was a double-edged sword for Martin, who passed away on May 14 at age 77. It drove him to unparalleled heights as a bluegrass artist, but it eventually alienated enough people in the country-music establishment to deny him membership in the Grand Ole Opry.

Through much of George Goehl's revealing 2003 documentary, King of Bluegrass: The Life & Times of Jimmy Martin, we hear Martin return to the subject of his Opry snub. Over and over, he insists that he doesn't need the Opry, that he doesn't care to have anything to do with it. The more he tries to convince you it doesn't matter to him, the more obvious his obsession becomes. When he shares the stage with Opry member Ralph Stanley at a bluegrass festival, his prickly jokes barely conceal his bitterness.

A young Martin belts it out.

In a way, Martin's outsider status had to do with his chosen genre. For much of its history, bluegrass was looked upon as a vaguely embarrassing, backwoods cousin by the key movers in Nashville. But it also reflected his rebellious, unpredictable nature. As his friend and fan Marty Stuart says in one of the documentary's more revealing interviews: "When `Martin` hits the stage, it's like cannons going off. And I don't know that the Opry could handle that. I think he's uncontrollable."

King of Bluegrass
7:30pm Thu, Jul 7
Blue Star Brewing Co.
1414 S. Alamo
The Sundowners
will also screen
Following Martin on tour for two years, Goehl traces the singer from his Depression-era childhood in Eastern Tennessee through his career breakthrough with Monroe (succeeding the legendary Lester Flatt) to his succession of brilliant solo recordings with the Sunny Mountain Boys, and his later years as a revered figure on the bluegrass circuit. He follows his eccentric exploits as a squirrel and raccoon hunter. And he captures indelible moments such as the one in which Martin - one of the great, seminal figures in American music - goes through his mail and opens paltry royalty checks from Europe.

Filmmaker George Goehl documents Martin as he gets ready to feed his goats.

Through it all, Martin comes off as a complex man with simple tastes. A natural, gregarious showman, he could be mercilessly blunt offstage. A raw, unschooled musician, he nonetheless led his band with pinpoint precision, carefully instructing each of his players on how to approach their parts. Stuart is not alone in believing that Martin's clown persona obscured a genuine musical genius.

Backed by the power of his vintage records, King of Bluegrass will probably convince you that Martin deserved the film's title, a designation that he bestowed upon himself. If this documentary didn't succeed in winning Martin a spot on the Opry, at least it'll be around to shame those who kept him out.

By Gilbert Garcia

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