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Benny Edward Martin, Sr.

(May 8, 1928 - March 13, 2001)

by MaryE Yoemans
(reprinted by permission)

Benny Edward Martin, Sr. (May 8, 1928 - March 13, 2001) was interred today in the Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens on Dickerson Road in Goodlettsville, Tennessee. A few paces away rests his successor in the FMB, the late great Paul Warren -- a fact brought to our attention by WSM's Eddie Stubbs after we solemnly watched his vault disappear below the muddy surface.

A few minutes before the 10 a.m. celebration of Benny's life at the Forest Lawn Chapel, Sonny and Bobby Osborne, Buck and Sharon White, the McCourys, Casey Henry, Red Roberts, Jimmy Martin and Mary Anne, Hugh Moore, Josh Graves, and many other folks were packed into the small chapel. Imagine walking into the funeral home spilling over with some of the greatest fiddlers, singers, guitar players, bass players, banjo pickers, and mandolin players in bluegrass, all standing up in front around Benny's casket among bright floral sprays picking and singing their best for their dear buddy. Not all eyes were dry. Not all faces were beaming. But somehow it made it just a little easier to say goodbye to Benny, thinking he would have wanted it that way.

I know I'll forget some of the folks, and I couldn't see who some of them were (around the corner) but Jason Carter, Stuart Duncan, Matt Combs, Hunter Berry, Shad Cobb, Jim Wood, and Laura (Weber) Cash were playing fiddle; Ronnie McCoury was on mandolin, Mike Bub on bass, Terry Eldredge, Chris Sharp and Mike Armistead on guitars, and Rob McCoury on banjo. I think Superman was up there playing too, and a few I've missed. They played "If I Should Wander Back Tonight", "Me and My Fiddle" and some of Benny's favorite instrumentals as folks filed in to pay their respects to one of the greatest bluegrass has ever known.

One of his daughters, Regina Marston, a very attractive woman, got up and thanked everyone for making her dad's life so special. "Today is a little unusual, I know, but my dad was a little unusual. And he wanted to celebrate life and he came here to this earth and he gave a lot of joy to people. All he really wanted was for them to enjoy his music. So that's what this is all about today -- it's a celebration of my father's life because he will always be remembered because he gave us that music to remember him by. I just want to thank every single one of you for coming here today. It's a special feeling to know that my dad was as loved by people that I don't know as he was by me." Very emotionally she continued, "One thing I do know is that each and every one of us has been touched by my father in some way, and that's a gift that death can never take."

She then introduced John Hartford as her dad's "best and truest friend."

Hartford got up and, as he has done all too many times in recent years, delivered a very heartfelt tribute to his great friend Benny Martin. We laughed and we cried. It was like that. Hartford is a wizard of words and he waved his wand over us as he took us from tears to laughter and back again.

Hartford got up and said people have been asking him the last couple of days if he's okay and he said, "hell no, I'm not okay. Not with this happening."

He told of first hearing Benny with Flatt and Scruggs back in the early 50's. "His playing opened up for me a whole new world of how the fiddle should go." He told of being about 14 and listening to the radio and hearing F&S on "Dear Ole Dixie" and Earl's break and "whoever was playing the fiddle played these beautiful lush chords and slides that just hugged and danced and got up all around me and before the music was over I just started bouncing off all the walls when I was supposed to be getting ready for school." He talked about daydreaming in school and he could hear the wind in the trees sounding like fiddles and banjos ringing in the distance somewhere. He heard on the radio that F&S were coming to his area on the banks of the Mississippi River (Missouri). He told of hearing Benny play "Flint Hill Special," on the radio show that day, the original recording of which John adamantly proclaimed as "to this day, the best phonograph record that was ever made by anybody anywhere."

He claimed that, at that point, he tried to climb inside the radio.

"They [Foggy Mtn Boys] were stabbing me with brilliant white streaks, spikes of light perfectly connected with one another. The fiddle was answering with long screams of brilliant brownish-red tones that ran all up and down my spine. It was like bein' in a Model A Ford truck goin' hell-bent for leather down a crooked mountain road with no brakes whatsoever on a beautiful sunny day while nobody gives a damn for nothin'....the free-est, most excitin' music I ever heard in my life." He told of talking his mother into taking him and a friend to hear the band at their live appearance the following day.

"When that band walked out on stage with those two-tone shoes and the hats and the short ties and Benny cut down on 'Grey Eagle' I know right now that that's what changed my life forever."

Hartford recollected that the first time he saw Benny he thought he looked like some kind of a gangster.

"His fiddle was like an extension of his arms. He played with his whole body. I was thunderstruck. There was so much going on that I've been the rest of my life grasping it all. It was the beginning of a hopeless addiction. I was caught up in the passion of the moment...how many times I've wished I could go back to that moment knowing what I know now. It was the combination of Earl and Benny together in the off-handed, casual way that they approached the music.

He told of seeing Earl's banjo case laid out flat on the ground under a tree and asking Earl what he had on his fingers (picks). "In the weeks and months and years that followed I experienced a hero worship much like the way young boys emulate baseball players, and a disproportionate amount of my time was spent trying to pick banjo like Earl, but mostly trying to imitate Benny when I played my fiddle."

"All I could think about was music."

He told about Benny leaving Lester and Earl to go with Johnny and Jack, then going out on his own and being a member of the Grand Ole Opry. He told of following him whenever and wherever he could, collecting his records, and trying to play like him.

He told about learning from Benny in later years first hand.

"He told me many times that fiddling is ALL in the bow...he'd rather have a great bow and a mediocre fiddle than the other way around...his bow licks, his timing, and his syncopation are the key to what he's doing. I think he underestimates what he does with his left hand. His selection of notes that describe the melodies he's playing is totally his own, and it's hard to hear them any other way once you've heard his setting. His accenting and his slides are very important." He mentioned he sometimes used a sort of rhumba beat.

"Benny was the first I ever knew to put 8 strings on a fiddle" (used on "Me and My Fiddle," among others). He told how Benny was a studio-quality guitar picker as well, and how his influence was felt in both country and bluegrass music, as it still is today. "He's been imitated by many, many artists."

He went on to tell about his great song-writing ability, too, and how most of the artists in the business are either a great fiddler, or a great guitar player or a great singer or a great songwriter, but Benny was great at each. He was a "world-class storyteller, too."

He told of going to Lester's funeral in Sparta, Tennessee. He said he and Benny walked up to Lester's casket and Benny laid his hand on Lester and said, "Son, we were there. We played it." Hartford said that was the message right there. Hartford said "everything else that was said that day at Flatt's funeral was anti-climactic."

He said "Benny had an incredible sense of style...no matter where he went he looked just right." In later years, when he wore a bandana to ease the pressure on his head [from a neurolgical condition], it was always impeccably neat. "He had an incredible sense of how he should look."

Hartford told how Benny could pick up a fiddle and hear what key it was in [like an E flat.] He told about how Benny didn't like to use his pinky finger -- would play with his 3rd finger..."power notes"...get that rich thick sound.

"There are two kinds of artists in this business. There are those who get famous in their lifetime and there are those whose fame doesn't come till after they've passed away...Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Charlie Parker...and Benny's also in that class. We're gonna hear a lot about him in the time to come -- this is his time."

"For those who were lucky enough...no video or tape recorder or record could do justice to hear him play -- in person -- sitting in your living room or on stage -- to hear him play -- there's no way that could have ever been captured. It was like sitting on the head of a locomotive...it was the most powerful thing you ever heard."

He told how Benny was the dearest, closest friend he ever had. Benny would call him 2 or 3 times a day to check on him, and Hartford called Benny, too. "I just can't tell you how I'm going to miss him."

He told of being down one day because he couldn't get tone like Benny. Benny said, "well, loosen your bow and hold the notes longer." The crowd laughed heartily.

"Benny was a great rubber band man. His filing system consisted of rubber bands and plastic grocery bags." He told of Benny driving around in his old Cadillac. If there was a traffic jam, Benny would get out and pull out this old ukelele he carried around with him, and he'd start playing it. "And he played a roll on the ukelele that sounded like Earl Scruggs."

Benny coined the phrase "Music City, USA" for Nashville, according to Hartford.

At Hartford's house, he was "Uncle Benny," and he came there on holidays to share those meals with the Hartford family. John said his wife Marie informed him that Benny's place would always be set. This brought tears to many eyes.

Hartford said, "I'd like to close...I'm sure this is not possible, but he did tell me this....He said that when he passed away, he wanted to be buried with a little tiny air conditioner, a guitar capo, and a set of jumper cables."

Benny's picking buddies got up and did some sacred numbers. There were many sad faces and tears shed as these friends did their best to make it through songs Benny loved, like "Just A Closer Walk With Thee."

The preacher, from Benny's sister's Methodist church in Sparta, preached a message on salvation, and after the prayer, the sobbing family, followed by Benny's friends and fellow musicians, quietly followed. The spring-like morning had taken a turn for the cold, and the wind cut through the sad crowd standing in the morning's cloudy chill, watching as Benny took his final road trip....a few small turns in a long white limousine, down to the grassy field where he will keep company with Paul Warren and other Music City greats.

After the service, many of us braved the biting winds and drizzle to watch as Benny disappeared from sight below the sod. He will long remain in our hearts, and his music, no doubt, will keep him fresh in our memories.

Some of us weren't ready to leave the comfort of friends, and found ourselves sharing Benny stories over lunch at local meat and threes like Mason's Motel and Baker's Diner in Goodlettsville. I ran into Superman and Matt Combs there as they left, and enjoyed a nice down home lunch with buddies Leroy Troy and Shad Cobb. After lunch, Shad and I drove over to Troy's and spent a leisurely couple of hours looking through all his great Opry memorabilia.....and listening to some rare Benny Martin recordings, laughing at his unique style, remembering the love he had for his friends and for his music. Hartford is right....nothing could ever really capture the essence of first-hand, in-your-face, locomotive Benny.....he was one of a kind. I'm so glad I was blessed to enjoy him, close-up, in my living room and those of Nashville friends, on numerous occasions. I wouldn't trade those memories for anything!

It was a sad day in Nashville, but it must have been a great homecoming up in heaven. Bow hairs a-flyin', hats off to Benny. Many say "the greatest bluegrass fiddler ever"....He sure was one of 'em, and we were lucky to live in the days of Benny Martin!

- MaryE

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