Along with Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs, singer and guitarist Jimmy Martin is one of the few icons of early bluegrass still active today. These days Stanley keeps the highest profile of the bunch, contributing to the multiplatinum sound track of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and earning a spread in the New Yorker, but most of his performances seem as scripted as that movie: they're technically superb, but they lack spark. Scruggs, on the other hand, hardly performs at all, and his most recent recording was marred by crossover collaborations with the likes of Elton John, Billy Bob Thornton, Sting, and Paul fucking Shaffer. Like Stanley, Martin remains committed to straight-up bluegrass, but his act hasn't crystallized into routine. Rather, as seen in a trailer for the forthcoming documentary by Chicagoan George Goehl, he's a loose cannon, prone to intense displays of emotion and electrifying musical spontaneity. Martin joined his first musical hero, Bill Monroe, in 1949, when he was only 22, and went on to play on some of the pioneer's most enduring classics, including "Uncle Pen," "In the Pines," and "The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake," helping Monroe develop the singular brand of bluegrass harmony known as the high-lonesome sound. He eventually left Monroe, playing in an early version of the Osborne Brothers, and by 1956 he was leading his own group, the Sunny Mountain Boys. Over the next several decades he recorded a stunning body of work for Decca, giving high-velocity trad bluegrass and popular country songs the same bite. Martin's cry pierces the flexible mesh of banjo, fiddle, and mandolin like a bullet, but it never sounds strident. This music sounds as vital as ever on the recent The King of Bluegrass, an 18-track collection assembled by the Country Music Hall of Fame--an affordable alternative to the superb five-CD box set on Germany's Bear Family label. Martin's always surrounded himself with superb musicians--younger stars J.D. Crowe and Doyle Lawson got their start as Sunny Mountain Boys--and Goehl's trailer also testifies to his undiminished precision. Martin hasn't played in Chicago in a couple decades, and as he's 74 it might not be wise to wait for him to come back another time. Special Consensus opens; Goehl's trailer will be screened. Saturday, October 13, 7:30 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lance LeRoy.