The King of Bluegrass, Jimmy Martin died today.
I met him once, and he was something, dressed from top to bottom in deep red with sequins on all the seams and a big old cowboy hat with beautiful plumage. He was drunk, I think, at least his eyes were shiny and dangerous.
It doesn’t matter why he called me a motherfucker, but he did, and in a way that felt like I’d lucked out, because something a lot uglier could have happened. But instead, he threw his arm around my waist and pulled me right up next to him and took me around the room and asked people if they’d “met this here motherfucker?”
That’s how it was with him, you just never knew if it was going to be okay or if he’d be mean, at least when he’d been drinking.
But for every story I heard about what a mean cuss he was, I heard another story about how he’d go so far out of his way to help people that you almost couldn’t believe it was the same person.
He really, really wanted to be a member of the Grand Ole Opry, in a way that nobody feels anymore. I mean, people want to be member, but not enough to fulfill their commitments to the Opry once they get in. But Jimmy was of that generation to whom the Grand Ole Opry was the pinnacle of achievement. Being a member of the Opry meant that you’d made it.
They never let him in.
And now he’s dead.
Long before he died, he put up his tombstone right across the drive from Roy Acuff’s. See? So, if you’re on a tour and you’re on the left side of the bus, you can get a good look at Acuff’s grave, but if you’re on the right and you get bored of staring at other tourists’ butts, you can look out your window and see Jimmy’s gravestone. And just when you think “What the hell kind of jackass puts up his gravestone years too early, just to enjoy seeing people stare at it*?” you learn that he put his housekeeper in that grave when her family didn’t have enough money to bury her.
The ego and the big heart, and the talent, oh god, the talent. As Tom Piazza says, bluegrass is country’s jazz. To do it well, you have to be a virtuoso, and to do it like Jimmy Martin… well, who could compare?
I hope he rests in peace, but I bet there’s some folks sweating out to the Grand Ole Opry house right now, because you can keep a man off the stage when he has a body to escort off the premises, but what can you do when he’s dead and ornery?
*Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn come the closest, I guess. Speaking of Huck, Eric Lott brings up the interesting point that there is still debate over this book. What the fuck? America, yes, Mark Twain uses “the n-word,” and, yes, he characterizes Jim as superstitious and, yes, Twain’s a man of his times in ways that don’t sit so comfortably now days. But the central conceit of the book is that of everyone Huck encounters on his trip down the Mississippi, hell, in his whole life, the only one who never tries to hurt him or constrain him or change him, is Jim. The big joke at the center of the book is that the only real man in the book is the man who’s not legally a man at all.
See why it pissed folks off when it came out? See why it still pisses folks off?