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Wednesday, 12/05/01
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Grady Martin, guitarist who did it all, dies at 72

Staff Writer

Grady Martin, the guitar wizard who helped fashion the sounds of such stars as Willie Nelson, Joan Baez, Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash, died Monday.

One of the most renowned, inventive and historically significant session musicians in country music history suffered an apparent heart attack at his Lewisburg, Tenn., home. He was 72.

Mr. Martin, like his cohorts in Nashville's famed A-Team of studio musicians, remains unclaimed by the Country Music Hall of Fame. But many of country's most legendary artists point to Mr. Martin's contributions as invaluable and unprecedented.

''Grady realized, though he never bragged about it, that he was special,'' said Merle Haggard, who grew up idolizing Mr. Martin and came to use his guitar work on songs including What Am I Gonna Do (With The Rest Of My Life), A Place To Fall Apart and No Reason To Quit. ''He understood some things about music that nobody else understood. And when he'd put that down on your record, it was like a gift.''

''He was my friend, he was one of the greatest guitar players ever, and I will miss him,'' Nelson said on learning of Mr. Martin's death.

In surveying Mr. Martin's career, his peers remain incredulous that one man could envision let alone execute the stylistically disparate guitar parts for which he is known.

''He didn't use one recognizable sound,'' said Bob Moore, a lifelong friend of Mr. Martin's who played bass with him on thousands of recording sessions. ''What he did was so varied, but the things he came up with were always outstanding, no matter the style. I think he's the single greatest guitar player we've had here in Nashville.''

Mr. Martin's delicate, nylon-string guitar graces Marty Robbins' El Paso, and his thrusting, fuzz-toned guitar solo churns through Robbins' Don't Worry (the latter probably was the first of its kind, influencing generations of distortion-happy guitarists). His fiery rockabilly solos helped bring Johnny Horton songs, including Honky Tonk Man and Cherokee Boogie, into popular favor. And his melodic leads may be heard on recordings by Nelson, Cline, Orbison, Baez, Jim Reeves, Carl Smith, Elvis Presley, Loretta Lynn, Brenda Lee and numerous others.

''I'm broken-hearted today,'' said Lee, who was a child when she and producer Owen Bradley began using Mr. Martin on sessions for songs including I'm Sorry and Break It To Me Gently. ''I first met Grady when I was about 9 years old, and he was such a bear of a man and so stoic that he scared me to death. Later on, I learned what a big teddy bear he was.

''I wouldn't do a session without him. Owen knew not to even call a session if Grady couldn't do it. Grady could switch gears so quickly. He could play something that'd make you weep, and then the next minute play something that'd make you jump for joy.''

In addition to his guitar prowess, Mr. Martin was proficient on bass and fiddle. He grew up in Lewisburg and began playing recording sessions when he was 15. In 1946, he made his Grand Ole Opry debut, performing with the Bailes Brothers Band. His late 1940s and early 1950s work included backing Little Jimmy Dickens hits such as Country Boy and Hillbilly Fever, recordings that featured innovative twin-guitar lines he constructed with fellow guitar wizard Jabbo Arrington.

While most of his legacy was built as a sideman, Mr. Martin recorded instrumental singles and LPs for Decca Records and Monument Records, and he participated in several Decca albums as a member of Nashville pop band Slew Foot Five.

Throughout the 1960s, Mr. Martin reigned as a Nashville guitar virtuoso with an irascible, no-nonsense attitude. Producers often designated him the ''session leader,'' meaning that he oversaw the musicians and directed the instrumental arrangements for many songs.

''He had a big reputation to live up to,'' Haggard said of Mr. Martin's role on Music Row. ''He was like Wyatt Earp down there, man. He was everybody's hero.''

Having worked on sessions with everyone from Red Foley to Kris Kristofferson, Mr. Martin eventually returned to live performance. After a stint with Jerry Reed, he began what would become a 16-year-long string with Willie Nelson, recording Always On My Mind and On the Road Again. Mr. Martin was reportedly the model for the character played by Slim Pickens in the movie Honeysuckle Rose, starring Nelson and loosely based on his career.

In 1983, Nelson played host to a Grady Martin tribute, and he also performed in Mr. Martin's honor in April 2000 at Ryman Auditorium, when Mr. Martin was given a Chetty award for significant instrumental achievement. The award was given during Chet Atkins' Musician Days, which celebrated musicians of importance.

Monday evening, Mr. Martin suffered what family members think was a heart attack. He was taken by ambulance to Marshall Medical Center and was pronounced dead on arrival.

''I think Grady never got his due, maybe because he was a bit of an outlaw,'' Haggard said. ''He drank a little of this, did a little of this and that, and could be cantankerous. But he was one of the greatest guitar players that ever lived. He'd lay out something that you'd wish you'd thought of, and people would copy him later.

''I remember when Grady played a guitar part on a song of mine called A Place To Fall Apart. He took one whack at it, and (acclaimed guitarist Roy Nichols) was there with me at the soundboard. We knew what he played was great, but I looked at Roy and said, 'Roy, I believe me or you might could have played that?' Roy said, 'Maybe now we could, but not until after that (guy) played it. 'Cause he just showed us how.' ''

Lawrence Funeral Home and Cremation Services in Chapel Hill is in charge of the funeral. Arrangements for a memorial service have not been completed.

Survivors include 10 children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Noted works of Grady Martin


Peter Cooper writes about music for The Tennessean. He can be reached at 259-8220 or at


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Nashville Musicians Celebrate Grady Martin at Memorial

by Michael Gray

Friends and fans of Grady Martin celebrated the legendary guitarist's life and music at a small, informal memorial Monday afternoon (Dec. 10) at Nashville's Belcourt Theater, home of the Grand Ole Opry in the mid-1930s.

Bassist Bob Moore and his wife, Kittra, organized and hosted the tribute, held one week after Martin's death on Dec. 3 of heart failure at age 72. Formal services were conducted Thursday (Dec. 6) in Martin's hometown of Chapel Hill, Tenn.

Martin played on countless country and rockabilly classics, including Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman," Marty Robbins' "El Paso" and Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter." Original A-Team Nashville studio musicians, Martin and Moore played on hundreds of sessions together in the '50s, '60s and '70s.

"Grady was like my big brother," Moore recalled. "I was 16 when I met him. He had a car and I didn't. He'd come by and pick me up, along with my bass, and carry me wherever we were working. At that point, we became almost brothers. He'd get a flattop, and then I'd have to go get me a flattop. He'd get a pair of black-and-white shoes; I'd go and get some black-and-white shoes. He was my best friend and we stayed close all our lives."

Fellow A-Team members Harold Bradley, Buddy Harman and Ray Walker and Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires turned out to pay their respects. Vintage photos of Martin with Bradley, Moore and others were displayed at the theater ticket booth. A pair of wreaths were hung in Martin's honor on each side of the theater stage, where musicians jammed together in loose, mixed-and-matched groupings throughout the afternoon.

As is often the case in Music City, pickers and singers paid tribute through songs as much as stories and speeches.

Grand Ole Opry star Billy Walker performed "Funny How Time Slips Away" and "Charlie's Shoes," which he recorded with Martin in the early '60s.

Martin played on nearly every session Walker recorded during the first 15 years of his career. Walker recalled Martin's musical mastery and joked about how terse the guitarist could be in the studio. "When Grady played on 'El Paso' it changed western music," Walker said. "I came along and cut 'Cross the Brazos at Waco.' At the session that day, ol' Grady said, 'How do you want this damn thing played. anyway?' You know he could be belligerent at times. I said, 'Well, Grady, just play it like you feel it.' He said, 'I don't feel the damn thing!' But it turned out to be a smash anyway."

Country star Gail Davies, who spent time with Martin in the late '70s when they were both on the road with Jerry Reed, performed three songs: Johnnie & Jack's "Poison Love," Webb Pierce's "Back Street Affair" and the Karl Davis-penned country standard, "Kentucky." Chris Scruggs - Davies' son - performed Johnny Horton's "I'm a One-Woman Man" backed by Moore and others. Scruggs emulated Martin's guitar licks featured on the 1956 hit recording of the song.

The jazzy, Django Reinhardt-inspired Hot Club of Nashville - featuring dazzling guitarists Bryan Sutton and Richard Smith - opened the tribute with "Sweet Georgia Brown."

Country-gospel star Martha Carson, who turned 80 in May, delivered Merle Travis' "That's All" and her signature song, "Satisfied." Martin's son, Tal, was called upon to back Carson on guitar.

Meeting Tal for the first time on stage, Carson told him how much his father's guitar playing meant to her. "I had never before been brave enough to sing a real slow tempo song until I recorded 'Just Around the Bend,'" she remembered.

"I was scared to death to sing it until Grady's guitar introduction set me in the mood to sing it. What beautiful guitar work; he just set the stage so much. I just [felt] every lyric in that song - my bass voice doing the best it could with a slow song. I couldn't have done that song without the Grady Martin touch."