DECEMBER 3, 2001 – Session and touring guitarist GRADY MARTIN (b. January 17, 1929 in Chapel Hill, Tennessee) died in Lewisburg, Tennessee at age 72 from congestive heart failure. He was a member of the legendary Nashville A-Team, playing guitar on hits ranging from Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman”, Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” and Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” with late guitarists Chet Atkins and Hank Garland, late pianist Floyd Cramer, and drummer Buddy Harman.
Martin’s studio work included hundreds of sessions; he backed artists ranging from Hank Williams to Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley. On many sessions, he served as bandleader and de facto producer, meaning he led the musicians and directed the impromptu arrangements that became a trademark of Nashville sessions. During his 50-year career, Martin backed such names as Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Joan Baez, and J. J. Cale. Known for his versatility, Martin also played on pioneering rockabilly recordings by the Johnny Burnette Trio, Janis Martin, Buddy Holly and others.
Martin grew up on a farm with his oldest sister, Lois, his older brothers, June and Bill, and his parents, Claude and Bessey; and had a horse he named Trigger. His mother played the piano and encouraged his musical talent.
At age 15, Martin was invited to perform regularly on WLAC-AM in Nashville, Tennessee, and made his recording debut two years later on February 15, 1946 with Curly Fox and Texas Ruby in Chicago, Illinois.
That same year, he joined Paul Howard’s Western swing-oriented Arkansas Cotton Pickers as half of Howard’s twin guitar ensemble with Robert “Jabbo” Arrington and performed on the Grand Ole Opry. When Howard left, Opry newcomer Little Jimmy Dickens hired several former Cotton Pickers, including Martin, as his original Country Boys road band. He later joined Big Jeff Bess and the Radio Playboys followed by a stint with the Bailes Brothers Band.
By 1950, Martin was a part of the rising Nashville recording scene as a studio guitarist and fiddler, and his guitar hooks propelled Red Foley’s “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy” and “Birmingham Bounce”. In 1951, he signed with Decca Records with own country-jazz band, Grady Martin and the Slew Foot Five. In addition to backing mainstream acts like Bing Crosby and Burl Ives, they began to record in their own right, with later sessions under the name Grady Martin and his Winging Strings. when he introduced his twin-neck Bigsby guitar. The band, with Hank Garland, Bob Moore, Tommy Jackson and Bud Isaacs made regular appearances on ABC-TV’s Ozark Jubilee in the mid-1950s.
Martin signed to Decca as a solo artist and cut over 170 titles through the 1950s and the first half of the ’60s. However, the guitarist preferred to stay in the background and was most active as a sideman. It was as a session musician starting in the late 1950s that Martin made his greatest mark on country and rockabilly music.
As a guitarist with The Nashville A-Team, he provided the guitar on the Marty Robbins hits “El Paso” (1959) and “Don’t Worry” (1961), on Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” (1964) and Lefty Frizzell’s “Saginaw, Michigan” (1964). His guitar work was also displayed in Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans” (1959) and “Honky Tonk Man” (1956), and especially his pure rockabilly sound on “I’m Coming Home” (1957). He shaped countless other classics, Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again”, Ray Price’s “For the Good Times” and Jeanne Pruett’s “Satin Sheets.”
Martin is credited with accidentally stumbling onto the electric guitar “fuzz” effect during a recording session with Robbins; his guitar was run through a faulty channel in a mixing console, generating the fuzz sound on “Don’t Worry”.
In the 1960s, he played on sessions with Joan Baez, J. J. Cale and others; and played on Sammi Smith’s 1971 hit, “Help Me Make it Through the Night”, among the most successful country singles of all time. In the early 1970s, Martin played on many records by Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, worked with Kris Kristofferson and produced the country-rock band Brush Arbor.
By the late ’70s, Martin had become somewhat disillusioned with the methods and fads he believed had come to dominate the session scene. with his studio career over, he cut down drastically on his work but still played sessions for friends like Conway Twitty and Nelson. Martin returned to the life of a touring musician in 1978 briefly joining Jerry Reed’s band, making a living on the road for the first time in many years before beginning a 14-year tenure with Willie Nelson’s “Family” band and appearing in Nelson’s 1980 film “Honeysuckle Rose”. In 1994, deteriorating health forced him to retire, but he produced Nelson’s 1995 honky tonk album, “Just One Love”.
The Nashville Entertainment Association gave him its first Master Award in 1983, and he was the 83rd inductee into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. On April 5, 2000, he received a Chetty award for significant instrumental achievement at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium during the Chet Atkins Musician Days festival. Health problems prevented Martin from attending; Nelson, Vince Gill and Marty Stuart presented the award—named after Atkins, who attended—to Martin’s son, Joshua. Grady Martin was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in 2007.
He was married three times and had three daughters, Alisa, Angie and Julie; and seven sons, Grady Jr., Joe, Tal, Jason, Joshua, Justin and Steve.
Martin was interred at Hopper Cemetery in Marshall County, Tennessee. “Grady had a natural talent for guitar, a natural feel for it,” Harman said. “He invented many great sounds on record – intros and all kinds of things –- he was heads and shoulders above most of the other players. He’s going to be sorely missed.”
Martin was honored April 5, 2000, at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium during “Witness History III: The Twang Years,” the keynote event of Chet Atkins’ Musician Days. Health problems prevented Martin from attending the tribute concert. Nelson, Vince Gill and Marty Stuart presented the “Chetty” award (named after Atkins) to Martin’s son, Joshua. Atkins, Duane Eddy, John Fogerty and others also were on hand to honor Martin.
Martin had a considerable influence on Nelson’s use of the nylon-string guitar and his playing technique. “Grady’s an old friend, and I’m probably his biggest fan,” Nelson told country.com at the tribute concert. “Grady has a touch on the guitar that you really don’t hear from any other guitar player. It’s a very distinctive tone. Players like Chet Atkins and Django Reinhardt have their own tones and sounds, and Grady Martin has his. It’s a sweet tone; the notes are huge. I’ve tried to rip him off and I never could,” Nelson joked, acknowledging that the subtleties of Martin’s playing are hard to reproduce.