Author: Fox, Jon

Jimmy Martin’s Wedding
 
Jimmy Martin’s wedding was a dream come true. For me, I mean. I can’t speak for Jimmy or his lovely young bride Theresa, but I was beside myself with excitement, thrilled just to be invited. Well, not “invited” really, since the wedding was a scheduled on-stage event at the Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver Family Style Bluegrass Festival and everyone with a ticket was theoretically invited. Because I worked at Sugar Hill, Doyle Lawson’s record label, I had known about the wedding for a few weeks, but had been sworn to secrecy. I told only a few people.

On-stage weddings have long been a part of country music. A small and weird part, maybe, but the idea had always fascinated me and until this moment, I figured I’d never get to see one. Hank Williams had gotten married on stage, several times, and other lesser lights had done it, but by the late 1980s, it was a dormant tradition, a bit too outré for the times. But now Jimmy Martin was going to do it and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

The site of the festival, Denton, North Carolina, is known, with typical southern understatement, as “the hottest place on earth.” It was downright moderate that Saturday afternoon in Denton—only about 110 degrees by “show time.” The thing about the Denton festival is that most of the seating area is covered, and that would have been great if it rained, but it never rained there because it was just too hot. The covering was corrugated tin and while it undoubtedly offered some protection from the direct rays of the sun, the effect underneath was not unlike sitting on a folding chair in a giant oven. People would actually walk out into the glare and broiling heat for a few moments of relief.

Minutes before the ceremony was to begin, Milton Harkey, the festival’s promoter, frantically trotted over and asked if I knew any ministers there at the festival. Milton knew me pretty well and knew the absurdity of his question, but I took it as a sign of his desperation. It turns out that the cleric performing the wedding, Brother Larry Long, was not, technically speaking, able to do this legally in North Carolina. The powers vested in him were good, uh, somewhere else. I just shook my head and told Milton I thought this would be the least of his worries.

Suddenly, it was time. Brother Long started off strong, leading with an ace: “Satan is a roaring lion, seeking to devour whom he may.” It was a powerful opening line and he gave the audience a few moments to ponder its implications. I, for example, wondered if it was the strangest thing I’d ever heard at a wedding. Some wizened sage a couple rows back voiced what several of us must have been thinking—“Sounds like he’s talking about old Jimmy hisownself”—before he was shushed into silence.

The bride had one attendant, the maid of honor I guess, but Jimmy, being Jimmy, had nine best men. Nine. You know how it is; it’s so hard to choose just one person for such a special job. Especially when you’re the King of Bluegrass. So Jimmy had nine, including J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, Bill Emerson, Jimmy’s son Ray Martin and the current members of the Sunny Mountain Boys, of whom I remember only Audie Blaylock.

Except for a bit of music I’ll get to in a minute, the rest of the ceremony is a blur twenty years later, though, fortunately, I have a cassette recording of it somewhere. I remember only bits and pieces: Jimmy was wearing white shoes and a matching white belt—what we called the “full Cleveland” when I was growing up in Ohio; his white cowboy hat looked, well, not new, but freshly spray-painted, for sure; the new Mrs. Martin wore a full length, long sleeved wedding dress with a long white veil. She must have been dying in the heat.

The bride was quite a bit younger than Martin. She was quite a bit younger than some of Martin’s stage outfits, for that matter, including the green-and-gold brocade sport coat Jimmy wore for the event. The jacket reminded me of the hideous shag carpet glued to the roof and walls of a Ford van I once owned. But no matter. Love is a strange thing and it’s best sometimes not to think too much about it.

Every wedding needs music, and the Sunny Mountain Boys minus Jimmy did the honors. The song chosen for the occasion (picked perhaps by Brother Long?) was “I’ll Never Take No for An Answer,” one of Jimmy’s lesser classics. Now if you take just the title of that song and imagine it in the context of an ardent suitor and a marriage proposal, it makes a certain kind of sense. That’s not what this song is about, though.

The band was standing in a semi-circle around a microphone, with just guitar for accompaniment. The Sunny Mountain Boys launched into it, sang a chorus, and then stopped, unsure of what to do, looking around, helplessly, for some sort of direction. The chorus alone seemed too short, but going on seemed, what, wrong?

Maybe somebody signaled the band to keep playing, or maybe it was the momentum of the occasion, but they geared back up and into the verse: “You tell me sweetheart you found another/But somehow I can’t believe that it’s true/Are you doing this sweetheart to make me jealous/Is it true that you found somebody new?”

Perfect choice for a wedding: a song about cheating, jealousy and splitting up. Martin had taken Brother Long’s audacious opener, seen it, and raised the stakes to the limit. It was classic Jimmy Martin—nobody was going to top the King of Bluegrass, especially not at his own wedding. I laughed myself nearly sick and had to go stand in the sun for a while to get right, so I missed the end of the ceremony.

The wedding segued into a reunion performance of the Sunny Mountain Boys. Most of the best men took part in the show. I think Paul Williams, the great mandolinist and singer, also performed in the reunion, though he had the good sense to sit out the ceremony.

I barely heard the first “Bless her heart.” The second was a bit louder. The emanations came from my girlfriend Pat, seated to my left. A true daughter of the south, Pat could work wonders with “Bless her heart,” an all-purpose saying that meant any number of different things depending on context, tone of voice, facial expression and so on. With Pat, it was most often an expression of sympathy or empathy. In this case, the third “Bless her heart” was accompanied by a nudge and a nod at a sight that was, indeed, pitiful to behold.

As Jimmy Martin was performing on stage, there sat the brand-new missus, thirty yards from the nearest person, sitting alone at the record table, still in her wedding dress, with only the wedding cake to keep her company. The table was set up in a bunch of weeds, partially shaded by a scraggly pine. The maid of honor had disappeared. I assumed she was somewhere being treated for heatstroke.

“Do you think that’s how she dreamed of spending her wedding day,” Pat asked me. A million answers came instantly to mind, but all of them would have been wrong, so I remained silent. “I’ma go sit with her and keep her company.” So she did. They were quickly chattering like magpies, one Carolina girl to another. When Pat returned at the end of the set, she had a piece of the cake. Jimmy Martin’s wedding cake. And not just any piece, either. This one had a green flower made of icing and the “J” and the “i” from Jimmy. I wanted to eat it right then, but cooler heads prevailed.

On the ride home to Durham, we decided to give the piece of cake to a friend of ours who hosted a bluegrass radio show on a little country station south of Raleigh. He gave it away on his next show, as a prize in a call-in contest. I don’t know whether the lucky recipient ate the cake or froze it for posterity, but I do know this: I’ve thought about that piece of cake frequently over the past twenty years and I have but one regret. I should have eaten it, there at the festival. Bless its heart.

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Posted:  9/9/2007



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