CMA Hall of Fame tabs Marshall County's Grady Martin
By Larry Taft
The late Grady Martin left Marshall County at a very early age.
But, the county nor the country ever left him.
"This was always home to him," Julie Ezell of Chapel Hill, Martin's daughter and one of his 10 children, said this week.
There is renewed interest in the life and career of Martin, the Marshall County native who was the quintessential studio musician in Nashville when country music became mainstream across America. On March 25, he was named as one of the 2015 inductees to the Country Music Hall of Fame -- a thrilling and rewarding epitaph for their father for Ezell and her siblings.
"It's about time. We knew it would happen eventually, but we just didn't know when," said son Grady Martin, Jr., of Laws Hill.
In the Country Music Association's press release on Martin's selection, it states that his may not be a name well known to the casual music fan, but that many of his guitar licks are instantly recognizable, some of them more than 50 years after he recorded them. In part, it said:
"Martin is perhaps best known for his work as part of The Nashville A-Team, a group of studio musicians who helped define Country Music during the Nashville Sound era. He worked with almost every major Country star of the 1950s and '60s, including future fellow Hall of Fame members Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Merle Hagggard, Waylor Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Ray Price and Ernest Tubb.
"Martin's list of session credits spans all genres, however, and includes a who's who of legends such as Joan Baez, JJ Cale, Bing Crosby, Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly, Burl Ives, Elvis Presley and Doc Watson, among countless others. Martin is the only person besides Chet Atkins to record with both Elvis Presley and Hank Williams, and he served a short tenure in Williams' Drifting Cowboys as a fiddle player in the early '50s."
Martin was born on Jan. 17, 1929, near Chapel Hill. He died in Lewisburg on Dec. 3, 2001 and is buried in the Hopper Cemetery in Marshall County.
Martin departed Marshall County and headed to Nashville as a Forrest School sophomore at age 15. He'd auditioned for a barnstorming band, and band members offered him the opportunity to go to Nashville where he quickly became a radio studio musician. It wasn't too long after arriving in Nashville that he became a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry house band. From that point, he became a tour band member, and most notable, studio musician and played on approximately 18,000 studio recordings.
"I didn't realize the magnitude of what of I was doing when I went with him to recording studios when they were cutting records," Ezell said.
"I don't know how many times I sat in studios, experiencing history. I remember once being there when Conway Twitty and his daughter Joni recorded. I was experiencing history, but I didn't know it. For me, it was just a chance to be with my father, and I loved it."
Martin was something of a self-taught musician. Growing up in the Laws Hill community, but he did come from a musical family. His mother had taught him to play the piano, but it was his work with a fiddle that got him his big break to Nashville, and he eventually became nationally renown as a guitarist with his cantering Spanish guitar work on Robbins' El Paso his signature work.
A side note to that, Ezell said, is that the entire song was remarkably recorded with just one cut, a remarkable achievement considering it was atop the country charts a record 26 weeks.
As studio work faded from Nashville -- moving to New York and California -- late in his career, Martin went on the road with for a short time with Jerry Reed. But when old friend Willie Nelson summoned him for assistance with a motion picture, Martin answered the call.
"Willie wanted him to go to California and work with actress Amy Irving, teaching her how to position her hands and give the impression she was playing the music in Honeysuckle Rose," Ezell said.
"He actually appeared in the movie."
That working relationship with Nelson led to the final stage of his career. He joined Nelson's band in 1979 and toured with him for 16 years until he retired from the road in 1995.
By that time, "home" was calling. He'd bought a farm on Anes Station Road, near the home place where he had grown up, and he retired to live the remainder of his life in Marshall County.
But even after such a stellar career, he, in so many ways, was never anyone but the simple farm boy who had gone away decades earlier.
"He liked kicking back," Grady Martin, Jr., said. "He was ready to get back here as soon as he retired. He was ready to get back home. He'd get on his tractor and ride it until 8 or 9 o'clock at night -- until we'd make him come in."
Several of Martin's children continue to carry on the family's music legacy, or have in the past, as members of country music bands.
"I can't even play the radio, but some of my siblings can, and they're good -- about as good as anyone," Martin, Jr., said.
"But the thing that separated our father was that the he understood the theory. He knew why you played certain licks when you played them, and he could blend it so well that it all came together."
But being the front man was not his thing. Following his death, the children found some of the BMI awards and other accolades he'd received, still boxed and wrapped in plastic, the way they were the night he picked them up at the black-tie dinners during the CMA awards week.
"For me and my brothers and sisters, my father's induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame is much more important to us that it would have been to him," Ezell said. "It was very emotional. There was a lot of crying going on the day that we went to Nashville for the announcement.
"But Daddy was happy to be a behind-the-scenes guy. He was content to be in the background, making someone else sound good."