I first heard Benny Martin with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs in the early fifties and his playing opened up a whole new world to me of how the fiddle should go. I had grown up on regular old breakdown fiddling and had even played a dance or two at the tender age of fourteen or fifteen, but one morning, local St. Louis country music disc jockey Roy Queen played "Dear Old Dixie" on his radio show and when that banjo and fiddle came punching out of the radio speaker I had next to my bed, I literally fell out on the floor. The banjo sounded so clear and electric that at first I didn't realize that it was a banjo. But then in an instant it very much was, and more like the true meaning of a banjo. 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 was bouncing off the walls when I should have been getting ready for school. I couldn't get these sounds out of my mind and I'm sure I wasn't worth a flip for studying that day.
I was bad to sit and daydream in school anyway and many times when I could hear the wind in the trees outside the classroom window, it sounded like fiddles and banjos off in the distance somewhere, and I then couldn't even begin to be able to concentrate on what was happening up on the blackboard The next morning on the radio, Roy Queen announced that Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, the guys who had played "Dear Old Dixie," would be appearing at his Hillbilly Park at Chain of Rocks up on the banks of the Mississippi River that coming Sunday afternoon and then he proceeded to play the "Flint Hill Special" (the original of which, to this day, is my favorite phonograph record of all time) and this time I think I might have been actually trying to climb inside the radio. The banjo was stabbing me with brilliant bright spikes of light that perfectly connected with one another and the fiddle was answering in long screams of brilliant brownish-red tones that ran all up and down my spine and it was like being in a model A Ford truck going hell bent for leather down a crooked mountain road with no brakes whatsoever on a beautiful sunny day and nobody gives a damn for nothingthe freest, most exciting music I had ever heard.
I was not quite old enough to drive in June of 1953, so I conned my mother into taking Walter Metcalfe, a neighbor boy, and me up to Chain of Rocks, and when that band walked out on that stage with those two-tone shoes, hats, and short "saw blade" ties and Benny Martin cut down on "Gray Eagle," I know now, that right then my life changed forever. This is weird, but Earl reminded me of my Uncle Bill, and Benny, the first time I saw him, I thought he looked like some kind of a gangster. He was absolutely amazing; 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 have 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 and the offhanded casual way they approached the music. I remember Earl's banjo case laid out flat on the ground under a tree and I asked him what he had on his fingers and he showed me his finger picks. In the weeks, 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 a banjo like Earl and imitating Benny when I played my fiddle. In spite of having previously chosen a career working on the river, all else fell into second place.
As the years went by, Benny left Lester and Earl and was with Johnny and Jack and then on his own as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. I followed him wherever I could and listened to him as closely as I could. If I heard he was gonna play somewhere I tried to be there. I collected his records and tried to work out my imitations of his fiddling. I had met Gene Goforth, who was the main man around that part of the country in those days, and we had started playing together and I must give him credit for honing my taste and skills in old time fiddling more than anyone. Gene was like me he was a Benny Martin fanatic and so many a night, Gene and I would sit up working on and trying to get that Benny Martin sound and feeling. I always felt that Gene had more of a handle on it than I did, so I learned a lot about Benny from Gene.
By and by in later years, I found myself a full-time professional musician and I got to know Benny and Earl and was able to learn from them firsthand, things that had eluded me in years past. Benny is not a natural teacher in the way that we think of teachers. He's just too passionate and too busy doing it to be like that. So much of what he does comes so naturally. The way to learn from him directly is to just pay real close attention and try to imitate him. So much of what he does he does by instinct and a lot of learning how he does it is learning to do it by instinct. Benny plays hard with a tremendous amount of dynamics and phrasing and with as much emotion as I have ever heard any one human being put into music. Fiddle transcriptions don't do him justice, although we have done some here anyway. Lester Flatt told me one time that when Benny first got a fiddle and bow and started trying to play up there where he grew up in Craig Rock, you could hear him all over his hometown of Sparta, Tennessee. He had such a natural gift that when he was young and playing with all the local bands, people for miles around would try and keep track of where he was playing, and come and hear him.
It was natural that at a young age he would wind up in Nashville playing first with Big Jeff and his Radio Playboys for Hadachol over WLAC and then later with Curly Fox, Milton Estes, Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, and then Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Benny was able to play recording studio quality guitar as well as fiddle and had a singing style that was to be copied and recopied by lots of mainstream country music performers. He had a stage style that predated and predicted Rock and Roll and has been imitated by many who I will not name other than to admit myself as another imitator. He is one of the great country music songwriters: "If I Can Stay Away Long Enough" (Hank Cochran told us one night that after Benny wrote that, there was nothing left to write), "Ice Cold Love," "Me and My Fiddle," "I Can Read Between the Lines," "Where Is Your Heart Tonight," "The Story of My Life," and on and on. This is interesting in that there has been a lot bandied about lately about great artists who are overloaded in one particular area of talent seem to not be very well endowed in others, a note that seems not to be true in Benny's case.
A dark note here, Benny was on his way to being a household country music name like Hank Williams, who he was close to in those days, but like many geniuses he had his crazy streak and was prone to substance abuse, mostly alcohol. Somehow he lived through it but never got the fame he deserved. Maybe it worked out for the best, for if he had become more famous than he did he might not have survived as long as he has and kept working. He still writes and thinks and works on his art every day, and is now in his seventies. If you will excuse, me, I'm now very close to him so I can't really write objectively about this side of him (and don't really want to).
Benny holds the bow like many old time fiddlers, with his thumb under the frog, and plays with what looks like every inch of the bow, and when he's not bowing and if he's singing he'll be strumming the fiddle like a ukulele with his thumb and then right before he's gonna play again, he'll tweak the frog screw a little or knock the bow lightly against his pant's leg to adjust the amount of rosin powder before starting that mighty down bow he has.
He's told me many times that fiddling is all in the bow and that he'd rather have a great bow and a mediocre fiddle than the other way around. His bow licks, timing and syncopations are the key to what he's doing. I think he underestimates what he does with his left hand. His selection of notes to 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 slides are very important, his way of pushing the beat ever so slightly for energy (an old Foggy Mountain Boy trick), his bow sometimes almost playing (would you believe?) a rhumba beat. Benny was the first I ever knew to put eight strings on a fiddle and tune it like a steel guitar. You can hear this on some of his recordings like "Hobo" and "Me and My Fiddle."
[For the full text of this article, as well as transcriptions of "Flint Hill Special," "Money Up Front," "Someone Took My Place With You," and "If I Should Wander Back Tonight," transcribed by John Hartford as played by Benny Martin, purchase the Fall 1999 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Ed. note: Sadly, Benny Martin and John Hartford both died in 2001.]