Picture of a Tricky Picker

George Goehl was nervous when he called Mary Ann Garrison, the president of Jimmy Martin’s fan club, in November 1999. A neighborhood organizer who’d never made a film, Goehl had recently been inspired by a couple of Martin performances in Bean Blossom, Indiana, and thought he might like to make a documentary about the bluegrass legend. Calling Garrison, whose name he’d found on a Web site, was to be his first baby step toward actually doing it.

“The phone rang like 20 times,” says Goehl, 31. “Finally some old guy answers, and I asked if Mary Ann was there. He says, ‘Nope. Who the hell is this?'”

Goehl thought he recognized the man’s voice, and his heart began to pound.

“My name is George Goehl and I’m calling from Chicago,” he said. “Is this Jimmy Martin?”

“Who the hell you think it is?” Martin asked.

Martin’s number one fan, it turned out, was also his live-in girlfriend. Goehl explained to Martin that he was interested in making a movie about him. Martin didn’t say much, but after trying several different approaches Goehl was finally able to get him to agree to an interview…sometime. “I’m kind of busy–it’s coon hunting season,” said Martin. “Call me after the New Year.”

“I kept pressing him to get a real commitment, to let me spend a year of his life with him, asking him for some clarity about our plans,” says Goehl. “Finally he said, ‘Boy, I don’t know what in the hell this clarity is you keep talking about. You just need to get your mind wrapped around this thing and get to it. Do it and let’s make some money.'”

The conversation convinced Goehl to go for it. He gave notice to his employers of five years at the National Training and Information Center. Then he spent several thousand dollars on pro sound-recording equipment. He’d edited some video footage for work purposes in the past, and had already bought an expensive digital video camera with the vague intention of making a documentary on gentrification in Ukrainian Village, where he lives. But that idea faded after Goehl saw Martin play. “I don’t remember the music so much as the way he controlled the stage,” he says. “There were all of these stars up there and all of this ego, but anytime someone would try to edge in, he always won out, and they would kind of back away. I was completely wowed.”

Goehl obediently called Martin back after the first of the year, but it took ten messages and a couple months for Martin to get back to him. When Goehl asked him if he remembered the conversation they’d had in November, Martin brusquely replied, “Can’t say that I do.” Goehl refreshed Martin’s memory, but sensed that his subject was holding out on him.

“I asked him if he thought it was a good idea to make a film about his life, and he asked, ‘Do you?’ I said, ‘I think it’s a great idea.’ He said, ‘Well, goddamn, come on down this weekend!’ He’s got this whole testing thing that he really does with everyone in his life–he kind of pushes and sees how you come back.”

Martin is often referred to as the King of Bluegrass. In 1949, when he was 22, he joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, playing guitar and singing with Monroe in vocal harmonies that are the epitome of what’s known as the “high lonesome” sound–a sparse, piercing wail as biting as moonshine and sorrowful enough to make you reach for the bottle. Martin’s a key presence on some of Monroe’s most important recordings, like “Uncle Pen,” “In the Pines,” and “The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake.” He also worked in the earliest version of the Osborne Brothers. But by 1956 he’d formed his own band, the Sunny Mountain Boys, which is still around today and over the years has introduced major figures like J.D. Crowe and Doyle Lawson to the bluegrass faithful. While his music has always featured bluegrass’s distinctive harmonies and prodigious picking, his repertoire and arrangement style have a distinctly modern country flavor.

Martin has led a distinguished career in every way, but he remains obsessed with the one great honor he’s failed to attain: though he’s performed on Grand Ole Opry countless times as a guest, he’s never been invited to become a cast member. “It’s kind of the glue of the story,” says Goehl. “The Opry thing is huge for him and his life has revolved around it.” At the age of six he fashioned a miniature guitar out of an old Prince Albert tobacco can, figuring that if the Opry heard about him he might be invited down to sing with his hero Roy Acuff. It’s a dream he’s never been able to let go.

Martin’s love-hate relationship with the Opry is also the glue of Tom Piazza’s book True Adventures With the King of Bluegrass, published in 1999 by Vanderbilt University Press and the Country Music Foundation. At one point Martin takes Piazza backstage at the Opry House, where his brash personality leads to near-explosive encounters with country stars–and cast members–Ricky Skaggs and Bill Anderson. Goehl thinks that Martin has been trying to accept what he can’t change, but says his bitterness still comes through.

Over the last nine months Goehl has shot some 70 hours of footage, including interviews with country stars like Ralph Stanley, Marty Stuart, Tom T. Hall, and Crowe. He has hunted raccoons with Martin and his pals, shot scenes on the Sunny Mountain Boys’ tour bus–including a fascinating one where Martin painstakingly labors over a tempo shift with his fiddler, revealing a fastidiousness on par with a classical musician’s–and taped nine performances. He’s also been trying to track down vintage footage (he recently scored 22 soundless seconds of Martin performing on Louisiana Hayride, a popular country radio program from the 50s) and memorabilia. He’s especially proud of a 78 of the first single Martin made for Decca, which he recently bought on eBay.

Having depleted $10,000 in savings and racked up more than $12,000 in debt, Goehl returned to his job on a part-time basis in November. He’s benefited from the support and technical assistance of a handful of close friends, but he’s done almost everything on his own–and unless someone offers financial sponsorship, he’ll edit his movie by himself too. Nonetheless, he hopes to have it finished by fall. “I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants,” he says. “A lot of people suggested that I try something short first, but I had to do something I really believed in. I’ve never awoken with regret for doing this.”

Goehl will screen a ten-minute collection of clips from the movie on Wednesday at the Hideout. Admission is free.

Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at postnobills@chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.