King of Bluegrass: The Life & Times of Jimmy Martin Movie Review
Jimmy Martin isn't dead yet, but his tombstone - a large one - is already in place in eastern Tennessee. It's inscribed with a lengthy and somewhat boastful list of accomplishments in the world of bluegrass music, where he's nearly as famous as the Stanley Brothers or Bill Monroe, who gave Martin his first break in the late 1940s. But the appeal of King of Bluegrass, George Goehl's documentary on Martin, ought to extend well beyond the realm of hardcore bluegrass fans. Any man who's so eager to get the last word in about his life that he's built a tombstone with his life story on it is going to have his quirks, and Martin has more than a few.
Goehl has captured Martin in his mid-'70s, though Martin's energy level is much higher than his age would suggest. A deeply intelligent and skilled musician, he's captured browbeating his backup musicians, some of them looking half his age. His intensity garnered him a handful of country hits in the early '60s and a lead role on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1971 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, but his life has been more down than up. As the movie goes forward, the stories of divorce and heartbreak and how much they affected him slowly grows. His long-time girlfriend points out that he spent the late '60s and most of the '70s and '80s in depression and decline. Which means that King isn't capturing an old musician in decline; it's covering him as he scrambles to climb his way back up.
Plenty of musicians weigh in on Martin's pivotal role in country music, including Ralph Stanley, Tom T. Hall, and Marty Stuart. But for his own part, Martin seems split between enjoying his esteem and new lease on life - we see him having a good ol' time going raccoon hunting - or bemoaning his fate, cynically chortling at the paltry royalty checks that come his way. He seems to live with a perpetual heartsickness that comes with almost - but not quite - hitting the big time. Nearly every other sentence he utters expresses contempt towards the Grand Ole Opry for not hiring him as a regular performer in the '50s and '60s. Stubbornly, but compellingly, Martin refuses to let go of past injustices.
Goehl was clearly working on the cheap, capturing the acerbic Martin whenever he could, be it in his home or at bluegrass festivals in places like Bean Blossom, Indiana. A broader swath of interviews certainly would have given a clearer picture of Martin's personality - and some word one way or another from an Opry historian would help put Martin's bellyaching about it into some sort of context. But getting the story from Martin alone does tell us something, in the way it reveals what drives his personality; a man who's driven by a decades-old perceived slight isn't necessarily a likeable person, but he's an appealing documentary subject. Goehl's film is solid proof that your favorite musician needn't be - and perhaps shouldn't be - your favorite person.