When the roll is called of the all-time greatest fiddlers in bluegrass, the name of Benny Martin will always be included. He was a member of the Flatt & Scruggs show for several years in the early 1950s, and also worked briefly for Bill Monroe. He played on The Grand Ole Opry as a solo performer, and had stints with country artists Johnny and Jack, Roy Acuff and Kitty Wells.
He was a flamboyant performer, and a favorite with fans in the 50s and 60s for his singing and fiddling, plus his huge smile and larger-than-life persona on stage. Benny passed away in 2001, but had been in ill health since the mid-’80s, so a great many younger bluegrass fans and fiddlers have only a passing acquaintance with his brilliant playing.
Thanks to CMH Records, one of his classic recordings is set to be reissued on CD. The Fiddle Collection, originally released as a 2 LP set in 1977, is set to hit the street on October 9 in a special CD edition. The tracks from the original vinyl have been remastered, and a number of bonus tracks are included as well, all of which feature John Hartford on banjo.
Among the 28 tracks are such favorites as Lee Highway Blues, Fiddlers Dream, Back Up And Push and Ragtime Annie, as well as bluegrass numbers like Flint Hill Special, Footprints In The Snow and Foggy Mountain Breakdown.
To get a feel for just how influential Martin was on the next generation of fiddlers, we asked a few of the current nominees for the IBMA Fiddle Player Of The Year Award for comment.
First up is Mountain Heart’s Jim Van Cleve:
“Big Tige (Benny Martin) was the quintessential bluegrass fiddle player…Unbelievably rich tone, especially considering the recording technology of the time, an incredible awareness of the vocal and an inventiveness for where he needed be in context to it. It was so natural for him. Ultimately, he played a huge part in defining for a lot of players, myself included, what types of things were appropriate for the bluegrass fiddler. It’s not unlike what Tony Rice eventually did for bluegrass guitar. His signature fire and enthusiasm just underlined the fact that what he was playing and creating was perfect!”
Ron Stewart, fiddling with JD Crowe & The New South added these words:
“Benny Martin put the fiddle to a new level with tone, phrasing, and double stops!!! He played aggressive, got a huge tone, and slid double stops like no one has or ever will! His name was ‘Big Tiger,’ ‘Big’ for tone, and ‘Tiger’ for how he attacked! Anyone who plays fiddle, or aspires to play fiddle, should know Benny’s work.”
We also heard from Hunter Berry, from Rhonda Vincent & The Rage:
“Benny ‘Big Tige’ Martin is one of the greatest bluegrass fiddlers in history. His stint with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs gave his fiddling an opportunity to build himself a foundation for a prosperous career. Big Tige was one of the first fiddle players to play with the same authority as the lead vocal and with as much aggression as the banjo. Combined with incredibly well rounded vocals and swing-like rhythms, Benny created a category all of his own.”
Fellow fiddle legend Bobby Hicks also had a few words to share about Martin.
“Benny and I were good friends at the time I was working for Bill Monroe. I don’t know anything bad or funny about him, but God knows WHAT A FIDDLE PLAYER HE WAS!!!!”
You can hear several audio samples from The Fiddle Collection on the CMH web site.