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Don't Give Your Heart to a Rambler: My Life with Jimmy Martin, the King of Bluegrass

By Barbara Martin Stephens

University of Illinois Press, 240 pages, $15.53 (Amazon)

Reviewed by Fred Frawley, December 2017

Find it on Amazon

Bluegrass music fans are gently, but constantly, reminded that theirs is a niche interest. This, however, does not stop the devoted from mining the veins of bluegrass artists, old and new, to create a narrative for a style of music that started in the Appalachian and Mountain, but burst forward as a new genre in the 1940s, thanks to Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys.

Given the short time span of its existence, and the powerful personalities which formed the bluegrass tale, discussion of early bluegrass artists often falls into the arena of hagiography. Monroe was the founder; Flat and Scruggs expanded the sound, and others came along the muddy river of the bluegrass sound.

Jimmy Martin was there at the beginning, or close to it, and played with all of them. The King of Bluegrass (which was Martin's own name for himself) gets a casual mention here or there, but never gets his due. Nor did he during his lifetime. He never became part of the Grand Ole Opry (more about that in a bit) and bounced around drawing old-time crowds, but never gaining the revered status of Earl or Bill (or even Ricky or Sam). Martin died in 2005.

Along comes Barbara Martin Stephens, to write "Don't Give Your Heart To A Rambler." Keen-eyed readers will see that she must have been some sort of relation to Jimmy Martin, but even that is murky. Stephens is the mother of several, four by best count, of Jimmy Martin's children, but they never married. They lived as husband and wife, off and on, and generally disagreed. Or in Ms. Stephens' telling, she seldom agreed with Martin.

"Don't Give" can best be viewed as an exercise in score-settling, and Stephens has a few. In her telling, Jimmy Martin was a drunk, a womanizer, tight with money and generally a skunk. Her explanation for how or why she remained in his orbit may have as much to do with the times and their financial circumstance as it does with his personal gifts.

The danger in score-settling is that the score-settler has to explain why all these terrible things happened to her at Martin's hands (literally and figuratively). The sheer number of abusive or dismissive tales told by Stephens begs the question of how she let it all happen, repeated, over a decade or more. The retelling of these stories reflects as much on the teller, as it does on Martin.

Martin was a phlegmatic, paranoid womanizer who grew up dirt poor and never broke the cycle of ignorance. Stephens folded nicely into this world and lived to tell the story. Perhaps that's the lesson of a book like this: she who lives longer gets to torch memories of the past.

The story of Martin and the Grand Ole Opry encapsulates this distemperance. By all accounts, including Stephens', Martin coveted membership in The Grand Ole Opry above all else. Bill Monroe (who himself was a notorious scorekeeper and settler) was the gatekeeper at the Opry, and none could join without Monroe's blessing. The problem was that, early on, Martin took up with one of Monroe's daughters, and Monroe was not pleased. The relationship occurred in and around various other romantic entanglements featuring Martin (not the least of which was his continued and increasing role as the father of some of Stephens' children). Martin kept up with Monroe's daughter, even after Monroe had made his negative position on the matter quite clear. The result was that Martin never was asked to join the Opry, despite trying for decades.

Unlike many retrospectives of famous people by someone close to them, Stephens appears to have written "Don't Give Your Heart To A Rambler" without a ghost writer. The resulting prose is direct, but riddled with asides about how wonderfully one or another forgotten musician treated her. Special mention is made of Bobby Osborne, of The Osborne Brothers. The brothers roomed with Martin and Stephens in Detroit for a while and Bobby seems to have had a special interest in and from Stephens for some time.

In the end, there's no clear hero in "Don't Give Your Heart To A Rambler." And, there are villains, including the main subject of the book, Martin. Stephens is justifiably proud of being the first female booker of national bluegrass acts (Louise Scruggs is often held up as the exemplar in this category), and endless stories of good and bad gigs have some appeal. However, when they are wrapped up in an abusive cycle of misanthropy and acceptance, the tale may not be worth telling.