The chances are pretty good that if a country record had some distinctive guitar licks on it, anytime from the early '50s through the 1970s, they were played by Grady Martin. Along with Hank Garland and Chet Atkins — who, as a producer, regularly used Martin — he was one of the most prominent session guitarists in Nashville for 30 years. Thomas Grady Martin was born in Chapel Hill, TN, in early 1929, to a poor farming family living outside the tiny town of Lewisburg — the youngest of four children, he was taught the piano by his mother and took up guitar with help from his older brother, and also became proficient on the fiddle at an early age. When Martin was 15, his fiddle playing got him a gig playing in the band of Nashville radio personality Big Jeff Bess. Two years later, he joined the Bailes Brothers, with whom he played guitar as well as fiddle. He was 17 when he appeared on his first recording, at a session for Curly Fox & Texas Ruby, and during this period Martin started working regularly with fellow guitarist Jabbo Arrington.
By the end of the 1940s, he and Arrington had become a double-guitar act as part of Little Jimmy Dickens' Country Boys, and it was there — after Arrington's departure — that Martin teamed up with steel guitar player Thumbs Carllile. Martin first emerged as a star before the public on his instrument in 1950 with the release of Red Foley's hit "Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy"; he later took up Foley's offer to lead his band. Martin spent the next few years playing with Foley's band, in appearances on Ozark Jubilee as well as on the road and all of his sessions, and on dozens of other artists' recordings as well. By 1952, he was working almost exclusively on guitar — his fiddle playing was confined primarily to recording sessions, the last in 1955, in conjunction with star instrumentalists Tommy Jackson and Hank Garland; indeed, the last time Martin played fiddle in front of an audience was in 1952, accompanying Hank Williams in the latter's appearance on the Kate Smith show, one of the most watched country music clips in television history.
Martin also led his own band, the Slew Foot Five, starting in 1951. Their history was a bit uneven — working on records by Burl Ives ("Wild Side of Life") and Bing Crosby ("Till the End of the World"), they rode to the upper reaches of the country and pop charts. But their own recordings, done for Decca, fared a lot less well, failing to chart despite numerous attempts across the decade on singles and LPs. Meanwhile, Martin continued playing on hundreds of recordings by other artists, including a ton of music cut by the likes of Jim Ed Brown and the Browns, Patsy Cline, and Hank Locklin.
The second half of the 1950s, however, saw Martin significantly expand the range of music on which he was playing, in a new direction — the advent of the rock & roll boom may have taken many of the youngest listeners (and much of the wind out of the sails) of country music, but as a session player Martin only saw his session assignments expand to include figures such as Buddy Holly, Johnny Horton, the Collins Kids, Brenda Lee, and Ronnie Self. His best-known (or most widely heard) rock & roll sides were those cut in 1956 with Holly during the latter's ill-fated Nashville sessions, produced by Owen Bradley and later issued under various guises, including That'll Be the Day, The Great Buddy Holly, and The Nashville Sessions — they don't sound a lot like the Holly of later years, but the guitar playing by all is impeccable.
One of Martin's transcendent moments on record came in yet another related field — "Western" music as distinct from country — in 1959, when he played on Marty Robbins' renowned single "El Paso." The Spanish-style nylon guitar was all Grady Martin, and it was a stunning showcase for his virtuosity, that guitar part identifying not only the song itself but Robbins' new Western sound. He was all over the album that followed, which has proved to be one of the perennially best-selling albums in the whole Columbia catalog. In addition to his work with Robbins, he also played on the rather different cowboy songs of Montana Slim.
The 1960s saw Martin move to the forefront of session guitarists and also issue a pair of rock & roll instrumental singles, "The Fuzz"/"Tippin' In" and "Big Bad Guitar." He also found success as a songwriter with "Snap Your Fingers," which was recorded in hit versions by Joe Henderson and Barbara Lewis and later covered by Ronnie Milsap, among others. Most of his activity, however, was still devoted to playing on other peoples' records, including Roy Orbison's chart-topping "Oh, Pretty Woman," Lefty Frizzell's "Saginaw, Michigan," Little Jimmy Dickens' novelty tune "May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose" (also a number one single), and a ton of sides by Tommy Collins, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb, and much of the rest of Nashville. He even managed, by accident and improbably, to introduce the distorted amplified instrument sound referred to as "fuzz" on a finished record, in the years before any producer or artist recognized its value. And when folksinger Joan Baez decided to try assimilating the Nashville sound on her Any Day Now album, Martin was the guitar player at her sessions, on such records as "Poor Wayfaring Stranger," etc.
For a Tennessean and a Nashville resident, Martin was amazingly amenable to working with some of the most left-leaning rock artists of the era, hewing even further over with his work on a pair of Country Joe McDonald LPs. He remained busy, if not quite as much, into the 1970s, working on records by Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, and Kris Kristofferson, among others, and he also joined Monument Records as a producer. Finally, in 1978, with his joining Jerry Reed's band, he returned to live performance on a regular basis for the first time since the early '50s. He also played on the soundtrack to the movie Honeysuckle Rose, starring his old friend Willie Nelson, and joined his band. Martin enjoyed some successful years in that capacity, until his health began declining in the early '90s. He died on December 3, 2001, at the Marshall Medical Center in his hometown of Lewisburg, TN. ~ Bruce Eder