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Jimmy Martin - Don't Cry To Me

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Artist: Jimmy Martin

Album: Don't Cry To Me

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Jun. 3, 2004

Jimmy Martin was the man whose driving guitar and soaring voice re-energized Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys after the departure of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, which should give some idea of his ability and his importance to the history of bluegrass. Don’t Cry To Me is the soundtrack to a documentary film about Martin, and the disc does a fine job of tracing Martin’s career, through live recordings, radio broadcasts, and a handful of classic studio sessions.

It’s fitting that the collection should start with a historical peak, the 1954 Bill Monroe recording of “On and On.” It’s a record that defines the hard driving, “high lonesome” vocal sound that Jimmy Martin perfected with Monroe, then carried on with him through a long and storied career.

By the late ’50s, Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys were tearing up the bluegrass and country music scenes with a high-octane, stripped-down style that knocked on the doors of rock n’ roll and honky tonk. Martin’s originality and invention really come through here, on a batch of archival live radio and concert broadcasts from the late-’50s and early-’60s. The classic line-up of the Sunny Mountain Boys performs in all their glory; Martin cracks jokes and works the crowd masterfully, delivering soulful and thrilling lead vocals and forceful bass-string runs. When the harmonies slide together, that deep-rooted Appalachian mountain sound can raise goose bumps. Paul William’s throbbing mandolin locks into the rhythm, while then-young banjo player J.D. Crowe is a marvel, with his super-charged Scruggs-style picking and innovative choked-string work. Martin’s singing on his signature song “Sophronie” captures the unique blend of swagger and heartbreak that made him a legend, and, by some accounts, a difficult man to deal with.

A few samples of Martin’s amazing Decca records are provided, including the title song. “Don’t Cry To Me” is exemplary in its perfection of vocal and instrumental blend, the just-right ghostly studio echo on the vocals; it’s the sound of mountain music hot-rodded, chopped, and channeled, hitting the highway for new places while keeping a rear-view eye on what’s back home.

The later live sessions reveal an aging Jimmy Martin, pushing all the harder, higher, and more lonesome, as if to fight the years away. Two highlights come from Bill Monroe’s legendary Bean Blossom festival: a stark, spine-chilling version of the old mountain murder ballad “Poor Ellen Smith” (the very song that, at a backstage Grand Ole Opry audition, got Martin his job with Monroe); a fierce, howling version of “You Don’t Know My Mind” shows what an incredibly hot and inspired singer Martin was, and feeds the flames with some wild, slippery, and bluesy Dobro licks.

Also included on the disc is an enhanced portion that offers a few very tantalizing short clips from the movie; they show Jimmy Martin as a man who, despite his reputation as a difficult and thorny character, seems quite willing to wear his heart on his sleeve.

Don’t Cry To Me falls just short of being a perfect introduction to Jimmy Martin’s work; at the very least, it would need to include the ’grassabilly masterpiece “Hold What You Got” and the tragic trucker’s tale “Widow Maker.” But what this collection does quite well is trace the development of Martin’s music, while letting his dynamic personality shine through. It may well be time for Jimmy Martin’s reputation as a bluegrass bad boy to fade away, eclipsed by some over-due appreciation for the brilliant innovation and passionate power he has brought to his art.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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