Don’t Give Your Heart to a Rambler: My Life with Jimmy Martin, the King of Bluegrass

Jimmy Martin is one of the few bluegrass artists who was probably known as much for his personality as he was for his music. His stubborn, no-holds-barred attitude and tendency to speak his mind – loudly – to whoever would listen were captured in plenty of videos and bluegrass documentaries, and anyone who wants can visit YouTube and listen to him rhapsodize about coon dogs and what makes a good musician. However, with the exception of True Adventures with the King of Bluegrass, a magazine article-turned-short book from 1999 that focuses on Martin near the end of his life, there has never been an in-depth, biographical examination of his life and career. Barbara Martin Stephens hopes to change that with the upcoming release of Don’t Give Your Heart to a Rambler: My Life with Jimmy Martin, the King of Bluegrass.

In Don’t Give Your Heart to a Rambler, Stephens, who was married to Martin during much of the heyday of his career, offers personal insights into the King of Bluegrass from her years spent not only as his wife and mother of his children, but also as his booking agent throughout the late 1950s and 1960s. She reveals both emotional and physical abuse that she endured while married to Martin, but also celebrates how the marriage led to her success as one of the first female booking agents working in Nashville. She tells not only Martin’s story – much of it behind-the-scenes tales not often revealed to the public – but also the inside story of the bluegrass and country music world of the fifties and sixties as seen by a woman who lived it.

In the book’s foreword, Murphy Hicks Henry writes that, “Fans and friends of Jimmy Martin may find this a difficult book to accept… it is certainly not the bluegrass way to air dirty laundry in public.” Indeed, the legendary Bill Anderson, in a pre-release review, remarked that, having met Jimmy early in his career, “I thought I knew him fairly well. After reading Barbara’s painfully honest portrayal, however, I realize I hardly knew him at all.” However, for anyone who has ever yearned to know more about the man behind the boisterous King of Bluegrass personality, Don’t Give Your Heart to a Rambler should certainly offer an intriguing perspective.

The book will be available from the University of Illinois Press on July 15, and can currently be pre-ordered from Amazon. We’ll have a full review of the book after its release.

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About the Author

John Curtis Goad

John Goad is a graduate of the East Tennessee State University Bluegrass, Old Time & Country Music program, with a Masters degree in both History and Appalachian Studies from ETSU.

  • John fargnoli

    Living and working on the road is a trying lifestyle that will best and worst of anyone. A marriage that can survive that would be something strong.

  • Lynwood Lunsford

    In no way do I want to diminish the authenticity of this book, but I can say with a great deal of certainty that Barbara and Jimmy were never married. They did live together. Barbara was the mother of Jimmy’s four children, but she was never legally “Mrs. Martin”. In fact, when they split, she sued Jimmy for divorce……but lost. The state of Tennessee does not recognize common law marriages. Again, my only intention is to point out the truth.

  • Arkansas Red-Ozark Troubadour

    I’ll get a copy of this book for the simple reason to find out if some of the stories I heard about Jimmy Martin down through the decades were true, or just rants by bluegrass pickers, girl friends, or those who got crossways with him. I’m sure Ms. Barbara has quite a tale to tell. And Ms. Henry can hide and watch because more and more “dirty laundry” will probably be released in books about the “stars” we thought we knew in both country and bluegrass. The door is open.