A member of The Nashville A-Team, he played guitar on hits such as Marty Robbins' "El Paso", Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter" and Sammi Smith's "Help Me Make It Through the Night". During a nearly 50-year career, Martin backed such names as Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Johnny Burnette, Don Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Bing Crosby. He is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, March 2015
Grady Martin was born on January 17, 1929 in Chapel Hill, Tennessee. He grew up on a farm with his oldest sister, Lois, his older brothers, June and Bill, and his parents, Claude and Bessey; and had a horse he named Trigger. His mother played the piano and encouraged his musical talent.
At age 15, Martin was invited to perform regularly on WLAC-AM in Nashville, Tennessee, and made his recording debut two years later on February 15, 1946 with Curly Fox and Texas Ruby in Chicago, Illinois.
That same year, he joined Paul Howard's Western swing-oriented Arkansas Cotton Pickers as half of Howard's twin guitar ensemble with Robert "Jabbo" Arrington and performed on the Grand Ole Opry. When Howard left, Opry newcomer Little Jimmy Dickens hired several former Cotton Pickers, including Martin, as his original Country Boys road band. He later joined Big Jeff Bess and the Radio Playboys followed by a stint with the Bailes Brothers Band.
By 1950, Martin was a part of the rising Nashville recording scene as a studio guitarist and fiddler, and his guitar hooks propelled Red Foley's "Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy" and "Birmingham Bounce". In 1951, he signed with Decca Records with own country-jazz band, Grady Martin and the Slew Foot Five. In addition to backing mainstream acts like Bing Crosby and Burl Ives, they began to record in their own right, with later sessions under the name Grady Martin and his Winging Strings when he introduced his twin-neck Bigsby guitar. The band, with Hank Garland, Bob Moore, Tommy Jackson and Bud Isaacs made regular appearances on ABC-TV's Ozark Jubilee in the mid-1950s.
It was as a session musician starting in the late 1950s that Martin made his greatest mark on country and rockabilly music.
As a guitarist with The Nashville A-Team, he provided the guitar on the Marty Robbins hits "El Paso" (1959) and "Don't Worry" (1961), on Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman" (1964) and Lefty Frizzell's "Saginaw, Michigan" (1964). His guitar work was also displayed in Johnny Horton's "The Battle of New Orleans" (1959) and "Honky Tonk Man" (1956), and especially his pure rockabilly sound on "I'm Coming Home" (1957). He shaped countless other classics, Brenda Lee's "I'm Sorry" and "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree", Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again", Ray Price's "For the Good Times" and Jeanne Pruett's "Satin Sheets".
Martin is credited with accidentally stumbling onto the electric guitar "fuzz" effect during a recording session with Robbins; his guitar was run through a faulty channel in a mixing console, generating the fuzz sound on "Don't Worry".
In the 1960s, he played on sessions with Joan Baez, J. J. Cale and others, and played on Sammi Smith's 1971 hit, "Help Me Make it Through the Night", among the most successful country singles of all time. In the early 1970s, Martin played on many records by Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, worked with Kris Kristofferson and produced the country-rock band Brush Arbor.
In 1978, with his studio career over, Martin returned to the life of a touring musician, first with Jerry Reed and then as lead guitarist for Willie Nelson's band, appearing in Nelson's 1980 film Honeysuckle Rose. In 1994, deteriorating health forced him to retire, but he produced Nelson's 1995 honky tonk album, Just One Love.
The Nashville Entertainment Association gave him its first Master Award in 1983, and he was the 83rd inductee into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. On April 5, 2000, he received a Chetty award for significant instrumental achievement at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium during the Chet Atkins Musician Days festival. Health problems prevented Martin from attending; Nelson, Vince Gill and Marty Stuart presented the award—named after Atkins, who attended—to Martin's son, Joshua. Grady Martin was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in 2007.
He was married three times and had three daughters, Alisa, Angie and Julie; and seven sons, Grady Jr., Joe, Tal, Jason, Joshua, Justin and Steve.
Martin died from a heart attack on December 3, 2001 in Lewisburg, Tennessee, and was interred at Hopper Cemetery in Marshall County, Tennessee.Instrumentally Yours (Decca, 1965)
With Kai WindingModern Country (Verve, 1964)