Jimmy Martin is bluegrass' proverbial loose cannon, an eccentric and unpredictable rebel working in a genre famous for preserving its conventions, and while he has undoubtedly made as many enemies as friends in the bluegrass community, no one can deny that he has been instrumental in shaping the very heart of the music. From his days as guitarist and lead singer for Bill Monroe in the mid-'50s (when Martin's high tenor pushed Monroe's own tenor into the rarefied mountain atmosphere that came to be known as "that high lonesome sound") through the ever-changing excellence of his Sunny Mountain Boys (J.D. Crowe, Paul Williams, Bill Emerson, and Doyle Lawson are among the bluegrass stars who cut their teeth in the SMB), Martin has made his recalcitrant mark on the music. Don't Cry to Me is a soundtrack of sorts to a feature-length documentary on Martin called King of Bluegrass, and it may well be the single best album in Martin's long career, due in no small part to the inclusion of ten previously unreleased live recordings from different stages of the journey. Opening with a quartet of archival radio performances from the Louisiana Hayride on KWKH circa 1958, including a smooth, perfect version of "Ocean of Diamonds" and a blazing instrumental charge through the folk nugget "John Henry," the disc offers continual support for the notion that bluegrass owes its soul to this man. Martin always favored vocals over instrumental flash, and while the playing on these tracks is often incendiary, it always serves the song, giving each tune an emotional integrity and weight, due in no small part to Martin's control of his soaring, keening, and passionate singing. Martin's version here of the wry "Hit Parade of Love," recorded live in 1960 by Mike Seeger, is sleek, balanced, and perfect, while the Appalachian murder ballad "Poor Ellen Smith," recorded by folklorist Ralph Rinzler, creates a wonderful tension between its modal kinetics (the song always feels like it's about to break loose and fly wildly around the room) and its own chilling story, which demands that things stay reined in out of respect for the dead. The studio take of "Don't Cry to Me" shows how much honky tonk attitude Martin brought to bluegrass, as does a brilliant live take of "You Don't Know My Mind," recorded at the 2000 Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival. This fine disc closes with a brief a cappella fragment of "Time Has Made a Change," recorded in Martin's living room on November 10, 2000. Why Jimmy Martin hasn't been asked to become a permanent member of the Grand Ole Opry is a scandal of sorts (and the defining plot point of the King of Bluegrass documentary), but a good guess might be that knocking the edges off this bluegrass iconoclast in order to make him fit the Opry code of conduct is an impossibility. He's the bad boy of bluegrass, after all, and we're lucky to have him.
AllMusic Review by Steve Leggett
feat: Bill Monroe