Grady Martin ranks among the most talented musicians ever to work in Nashville, but his substantial gifts pale in comparison to what he did with them.
What Martin did, time and again, was to survey a musical landscape and make it more emotionally appealing by adding grace and beauty, or blues and snarl, or twang and fuzz, or some rare combination of influence and ingenuity.
“Grady realized, though he never bragged about it, that he was special,” Merle Haggard once said. “He understood some things about music that nobody else understood. When he’d put that down on your record, it was like a gift.”
On Nashville’s Music Row, Haggard observed, Martin was “everybody’s hero.” He was, in fact, a hero to heroes.
Session great Bob Moore, who played alongside Martin on thousands of recordings, calls Martin “Nashville’s greatest guitar player,” an assessment echoed by the late guitar legend Jerry Reed. Country Music Hall of Fame instrumentalist Harold Bradley regards Martin as Nashville’s “greatest studio musician” and “greatest improviser.”
Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson hold Martin in the highest regard—Kristofferson called him “a samurai guitar player,” for whom music was as natural as breathing. Another Country Music Hall of Famer, Porter Wagoner, referred to Grady as “a creative genius.”
There is no single, recognizable Grady Martin sound. His style and his note choices on guitar and on fiddle varied enormously, based on what he heard in a song and on what he felt could and should be added to it. Brenda Lee said, “He could play something that’d make you weep, and then the next minute play something that’d make you jump for joy.” Those who worked with him, and those who hear his recordings today, marvel that one person could play in so many disparate and brilliant styles, voicings, tones, and timings.
Martin played the delicate, Spanish-style acoustic guitar on Marty Robbins’s “El Paso” and the churning, fuzz-toned solo on Robbins’s “Don’t Worry.” It was Martin who played fiery rockabilly with Johnny Horton and Johnny Burnette, who added elegance to the music of Patsy Cline, playfulness to Brenda Lee’s, and resonance to the pioneering sounds of Conway Twitty and Elvis Presley. Martin was among the only musicians to have worked with rock & roll king Presley and country’s “Hillbilly Shakespeare,” Hank Williams.
Born January 17, 1929, in Marshall County, Tennessee, Martin listened as a boy to the Grand Ole Opry—at first on a homemade radio that his cousin built from a cigar box and some coils scavenged from an old car. The virtuoso harmonica of DeFord Bailey and the fiddle playing and strong singing of Roy Acuff captivated Grady. Upon hearing those men, he later told writer Rich Kienzle, “I decided right then and there that I didn’t want to milk any more cows.”
In 1944, at age fifteen, Martin left the family farm to play fiddle with WLAC-Nashville radio star Big Jim Bess. Two years later, Grady began playing the Opry with the Bailes Brothers, and in 1946 he recorded for the first time, playing guitar with Curly Fox and Texas Ruby Owens. Martin and adventurous guitarist Jabbo Arrington joined Little Jimmy Dickens’s newly formed backing band, the Country Boys, in 1949, playing propulsive, twin guitar parts that predated by twenty years similar flights from the Allman Brothers.
Martin’s reputation grew just as Nashville’s recording business expanded. At Castle Recording Studio, in 1949, Grady played a raw and bluesy guitar solo on “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy,” which became a thirteen-week #1 country single that also spent eight weeks as a #1 pop hit. Foley invited Martin to join his band, and Martin played fiddle and guitar for Foley for eight years. Then, with Owen and Harold Bradley’s newly constructed Quonset hut studio and RCA’s brand new studio hosting myriad country, pop, and rock & roll sessions, Martin became a full-time studio musician. He often served as bandleader for a group of significant session players that included Moore; guitarists Harold Bradley, Hank Garland, and Ray Edenton; pianists Floyd Cramer and Pig Robbins; drummer Buddy Harman; and others. Many times, Martin recorded into the wee hours, sometimes sleeping at the studio, underneath a piano bench, to grab a few hours of rest before the next morning’s session.
During a Marty Robbins session in 1960, a preamp in the Quonset hut mixing board malfunctioned, changing Martin’s guitar tone from clean beauty to distorted fuzz. Rather than wait for a repair, Martin assessed the situation and played a solo that left other guitarists seeking “fuzz tone.” Five years later, Keith Richards used a Gibson Maestro Fuzz-Tone pedal to achieve the same effect on rock hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
“(Martin) didn’t use one recognizable sound,” Moore said. “What he did was so varied, but the things he came up with were always outstanding, no matter the style.”
Martin was a mainstay in Nashville studios into the late 1970s, contributing to hits including Ray Price’s “For the Good Times,” Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me,” and Jeanne Pruett’s “Satin Sheets.”
In 1978, Martin went back on the road, performing with Jerry Reed. The following year, he joined Willie Nelson’s band, remaining there until his retirement in the mid-nineties. In 1983, he received the Nashville Entertainment Association’s Master’s Award, in honor of his important contributions to the Nashville music industry. Martin died December 3, 2001, but his unbounded musicality remains an inspiration to generations of players.