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Remembering Bluegrass Great Jimmy Martin

Jimmy Martin, the self-proclaimed "King of Bluegrass" music, died May 14, 2005 of cancer at the age of 77. The singer and songwriter's musical ability and hillbilly persona endeared him to fans for more than 50 years.

Born in a small Tennessee town, Jimmy Martin grew up poor on his parents' hog farm. He purchased his first guitar when he was just 10-years-old, paying for the musical instrument with money earned by hunting and selling possum skins.

Jimmy Martin was first exposed to music at a young age, and grew up singing traditional American folk ballads. As a teenager he first heard Bill Monroe's mix of mandolin, fiddle, and guitar music that we now know as bluegrass. In an interview several years ago, he said that as a young boy, he knew he wanted to play that music, too.

"As you know, I was born a country boy way up in the hills of east Tennessee, in a little town called Sneedville," he said. "I always wanted to be an entertainer, and a bluegrass and country music singer. I want to thank all of my fans for making my dreams come true."

In 1948, Jimmy Martin traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, and managed to talk his way backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. His goal was to play his guitar and sing for Bill Monroe. The impromptu audition worked, and Monroe offered Jimmy Martin a job as one of his "Bluegrass Boys."

Jimmy Martin played with Bill Monroe until 1954, recording 46 songs with his group including the now-classic bluegrass songs "Uncle Pen," and "Walking in Jerusalem."

In 1956, he set off on a solo career with his band, The Sunny Mountain Boys. They recorded for Decca Records for the next 18 years, helping to bring bluegrass into the mainstream. His style of music differed from Bill Monroe's in that Jimmy Martin's style focused on the vocals, not instrumentals.

Over the years, Martin's Sunny Mountain Boys became a training ground for a string of now-familiar bluegrass names, including J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, Alan Munde and Paul Williams.

"Freeborn Man" was one of Jimmy Martin's hits during the Decca years.

Despite his string of hits, Jimmy Martin was denied his lifelong dream of becoming a member of the Grand Ole Opry. His temperament clashed with Opry management, and he was denied membership into that exclusive club. That part of his life is at the heart of a book called True Adventures With the King of Bluegrass.

But Jimmy Martin was not denied many honors. He was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association's Hall of Honor in 1995, and was even the subject of a documentary film, King of Bluegrass: The Life and Times of Jimmy Martin. The movie was released in 2003, and has a wonderful soundtrack made up of Jimmy Martin's hits, including "Hit Parade of Love."