The last time I talked to Kip Martin on the phone, we were trying to figure out how to get an Epiphone upright bass from my music room in the DC suburbs into his hands near Nashville.
Kip was feeling good, starting to play a bit after an extended illness, and was eager to get what he called a “real” bass in his hands again.
The exchange never happened. I couldn’t get to Nashville. He couldn’t borrow a vehicle to pick it up. Then Kip got sick again. And now it’s too late.
Kip Martin, bass player, founder of the DC Bluegrass Union, songwriter, journalist, and friend, died earlier this morning (1/29/14) after a lengthy illness. He passed peacefully around 11:00 a.m. (CST) surrounded by family.
A benefit concert held last weekend in Maryland had raised roughly $8,000 towards his remaining medical expenses, and gave his DC area friends a chance to say their farewell in song.
Kip’s biggest gig was with Jimmy Martin, whom he called a “cranky old genius.” That was Kip, honest to a fault. But the truth is, Kip played with many talented folks over the years and considered many of them heroes: Darren Beachley, Mike Auldridge, Wayne Taylor, Norman Wright, Kevin Church, John Miller, and many more. During a 2005 tour, he found himself on stage with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It was, he recalled, one of those “pinch-me moments.”
He also composed music for the soundtrack of Sandra Bullock’s film, A Fool and His Money.
Kip learned about bluegrass from some of his dad’s philosophy students. “I gravitated toward rock music as a teenager, but somehow still managed to stumble upon John Hartford, the Dillards, the Earl Scruggs Revue, Old and In the Way, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band,” he once wrote.
In addition to DC and Nashville, he was active in Boston’s music scene when he lived and worked there. He founded the DC Bluegrass Union in 2003. Randy Barrett, the group’s current president, won’t ever forget the first board meeting he attended after Kip invited him to join. “Kip turned to me and said, ‘I’m quitting. You’re in charge.'”
“Kip was an outstanding musician and an energetic booster of bluegrass music,” Barrett said. “He performed with some big fish but never lost his sense of place – or humor. I will miss him greatly.”
Kip had liver disease for a number of years and moved to the Nashville area a while back in anticipation of receiving a liver transplant. He gave up drinking but couldn’t work for a while because he was so sick. He sold most of his instruments to pay the bills. The transplant never came.
But he never stopped smiling, never stopped helping other musicians in person or on line, and never stopped telling it like he thought it was, on Facebook, on the phone, or in his occasional musings in various music forums (including the Bluegrass Blog, forerunner of Bluegrass Today.) Whether it was music, politics, or something else, you always knew where Kip stood.
He didn’t dwell on his illness or his bad luck, just as he didn’t brag about his Harvard education or the big names he shared the stage with. But he didn’t shy away from talking about those things either. Kip was an open book.
He had only one secret. His real name. He begged me – literally begged me – one time to never reveal it. And so I won’t. Friends who grew up with him in Erie, PA, know it. So do his relatives and anyone who wrote him a check or received one from him. But to them, and to the rest of us, he’ll always be Kip or Kipster.
Tonight, I’ll tune up the old Epiphone – the bass that never found its way into his hands – and play one for Kip Martin. It’ll have to do until some day, somewhere, I get to play one with him.
“In the sky, Lord, in the sky.”
Safe passage, my friend.