I am very proud of my family’s musical heritage spanning 3 generations. We have all made our living in the Nashville Music Industry. Pioneers, Musicians, Singers, Songwriters, Actors and Producers are among some of the roles we’ve played. My friends lovingly call me Music City Royalty. LOL But, I reserve that title for my dear friends The Carter Family who truly pioneered country music, along with the father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers. But, I hope that my family has also helped to shape Nashville, since it is my beloved hometown. So…maybe…Unicorn might be a more appropriate title for me? After all, it is the latest trend when referring to those of us who are true natives of Nashville, and that means Metro Davidson County. (I have always loved unicorns, so I’ll answer to that. LOL)
Big Jeff Bess-Maternal Grandfather
- Early Nashville Music City History
- Big Jeff Bess was the Owner of Nashville’s World Famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge
- Rare photos of Big Jeff, Radio Playboys, Hillous Butrum, Jerry “Lucky” Stricker and Tommy Vaden. All who played on the Grand Ole Opry.
(Click on the picture below to hear more from Big Jeff and his Radio Playboys)
My maternal grandfather was Big Jeff Bess, an early pioneer in the Nashville music industry who helped us earn the name Music City USA. He had a popular show on WLAC Radio for 16 years where he introduced icons like Grady Martin, Benny Martin, Roger Smith (momma’s first guitar picking husband who passed much too young. He was my older brother, Dale’s, daddy) and Buddy Killen to Nashville for the very first time as they made their big debuts. He gave many (now famous) musicians their big breaks.
Big Jeff met and married a woman named Hattie who had been a singer and comedienne on his WLAC radio show. They helped young, up and coming players get established in town and fed many a musician and singer in their day. They purchased a bar on Lower Broadway together and created the World Famous Honkytonk known as Tootsie’s in Downtown Nashville. It also quickly became known as the green room for 100’s of hungry and thirsty Opry musicians who would hang out at Tootsie’s in between playing Opry Shows. Why? Because there simply wasn’t enough room in the backstage area of the Ryman Auditorium (Home to the Grand Ole Opry) for that many musicians to congregate.
My grandaddy Big Jeff also became a Hollywood actor and had roles in 2 movies directed by Elia Kazan. The first was “A Face In The Crowd” where Andy Griffith made his film debut and what a big break it was for him. “Sheriff Big Jeff Bess” played himself and had quite the role alongside Andy Griffith and Patricia Neal.
(That’s grandaddy standing directly behind Andy Griffith and Patricia Neal looking angry in his plaid shirt with his hands on his hips.)
The second movie was called “Wild River” Starring Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick. My grandaddy played the son of an old stubborn woman who refused to move off her land when the TVA was going to be running water over it. Grandaddy’s character (he played the old lady’s son and Lee Remick’s brother) threw Montgomery Clift into the river. He was quite the character both on screen and in real life. A BIG guy, thus the name.
FYI – Grandaddy Big Jeff outlived his ex wife (Tootsie) by 20 years. I only say that because she took all of the credit for the Famous Honkytonk that MY Grandaddy bought her and got started. I grow weary of reading history blurbs about Tootsie’s and seeing mostly her name associated with it and his name rarely mentioned. Big Jeff not only made Tootsie what SHE was, he made Tootsie’s what IT was and still is today, as well. He is the one who brought all the pickers in and made it successful. He also brought in the STARS, because he was one of them.)
Ellis Martin – Paternal Granny
She was a pioneering Kentucky Thumbpicker who is in the KY Thumbpickers Hall of Fame along with Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, Merle Travis, Mose Rager and my daddy, O’Dell Martin, along with many others. She was a Godly woman who lived to be 93 and never drove a day in her life. She chewed and spit tobacco and always stayed very close to home, which was a 200 acre tobacco farm in Allegre, KY, just 90 minutes from Nashville.) I only got to see her a few times a year when daddy would be in off the road from touring and take us up to KY to see all of our Martin kinfolk. They would come from miles around when daddy came to town because they knew there was going to be some great picking going on at the Martin Homeplace. It was always so special. I can still hear the crackling of the coal in the fireplace that we kids loved to poke and play in. They kept the front of the house (kitchen, bath and living room) heated with the fireplace and the back of the house was always closed off until bedtime. They would then put the coal in a big stove to keep them warm at night while they slept. We always thought the back of the house was spooky because it had a skinny little staircase in one of the back bedrooms that squeaked when you crept up to the attic (I never did) and we always thought ghosts lived up there. LOL
I blame daddy for always scaring us to death by telling us spooky stories about The Bell Witch (her place is in Adams, TN, close to where he grew up. Oh, and of course there was Rawhide and Bloody Bones who used to haunt everyone as they rolled through the hollar. I have chills right now just thinking about how that felt as a child.
O’Dell Martin – Father
Well, it didn’t take my daddy long to figure out that farming tobacco for the rest of his life was not going to be his cup of tea. So, my granny Ellis gave him a Sears & Roebuck Silvertone guitar when he was 13. She taught him the Wildwood Flower just like The Carter Family picked it and he learned the rest by listening to albums of his hero,
Chet Atkins – Daddy’s Hero
The link I just shared is a song Chet recorded in 1976 that daddy wrote called David’s Dance for Chet’s Me and My Guitar album. Daddy wrote it immediately after waking from a dream he had of David in the Bible dancing around with his harp and floating about, whimsically. He woke me as soon as he finished it to see what I thought and I told him it was incredible, of course, because it was. Still is. Weeks later, Chet cut it. Dad’s dream had come true.
Speaking of dreams coming true, by the time daddy turned 16, he was playing on the stage of The Grand Ole Opry, It got him out of suckering tobacco and he spent the next 30 years traveling the world touring with many of Nashville’s greatest, including the actual Queen of Country Music, Kitty Wells, and also Faron Young, Donna Fargo, Mel Tillis and other great Opry Stars.
Judy Bess Martin – Momma
So, that brings us up to momma. Momma met an incredible guitarist that played in Big Jeff’s band named Roger Smith. They married when mom was 15 and she gave birth to my big brother Dale at 16. Roger died when Dale was still a young child. Then, she met another great guitar picker from KY named O’Dell Martin, who was hanging out at Tootsie’s in between Opry shows. They soon married and had 4 more kids named Sharon, Renee, Tina and Odie (James O’Dell Martin, Jr.)
My sweet mother, Judy Bess Martin, gave up her singing career to raise us 5 kids. Patsy Cline was her ‘shero’ and also one of her closest friends. Patsy told mom that if she ever got after her career she was going to give her a run for her money. When Patsy died, a part of momma died too, and she just gave up on singing. Momma did cut a record that Ralph Emery wore out (both sides) telling his listeners that Judy Martin was the next big thing.
Mom sang backup with Ray Price, worked many shows with the Carter Family, and traveled singing with the Cherokee Cowboys, (seen in the photo below.)
Renee Martin – 3rd generation
So, this is where I come in. I’m the middle of 5 kids and never dreamed of being anything other than a singer. Mom said I was humming and singing before I talked. I was so proud of my daddy playing guitar on those big stages with all of those STARS and I wanted to do the same! I wanted to sing backup for them. So, I continued the family legacy when I followed in my daddy’s footsteps. (Truth be told, I just wanted to get on that big ole bus and go with daddy when he left town.)
I started out playing in cover bands at night clubs. I was underage (17) with a fake ID. The first song I got paid to play was Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” I made $100 a week, playing 7 nights a week, 5 sets a night, from 9 p.m.-2:30 a.m. I drank a Long Island Iced Tea before and in between each set. I floated home each night for 30 minutes through country 2 lane roads. I’m sure I jumped a few ditches and barely made it home alive for years.
Long Island Tea was a very popular drink in 1982. We all drank them. BUT, they’re dangerous. Glad I lived to tell the rest of this saga. Many car wrecks and close calls in my life. Thankful to still be alive. (Just to clarify, to this day, I still do not like alcohol. I only drink it socially, and then only one or two, never more than three. LOL I stick to Vodka, Wine and the occasional Martini.) Did y’all really need to read those last few sentences? Haha!
So, for a little while, I had my dream come true of going on the road with my dad and having him play guitar in my band. Well, almost. Daddy discovered a young artist named Harold Dean and I got to be in the band as a duet partner with him, while daddy played in our band. LOL That artist ended up changing his name to Billy Dean when he got his record deal. I thought that was a great idea and I will always be so proud to know that we played a role in helping to launch his artistry. He was like a big brother to me. Billy, his sweet wife, Stephanie, and I got to catch up with each other a couple of years ago. Good times!
(Pictured below: Me, Daddy and Billy Dean)
After touring with Billy and daddy, I spent one more year singing in a cover band. I was over it and ready to pursue my own artistry. As soon as I decided to stay in town and write I received the worst news of my life. My hero, my mentor, my daddy left this world at the much too young age of 46. He had been in a one car accident that took his precious life. Obviously, our lives stopped to process and grieve this tragedy. It was the single most painful thing I had ever endured in my life up until the tender young age of 20. I spent the whole next year soul searching, trying to figure out how I go on, and keep singing. Almost exactly a year after his death, I got radically saved and dedicated the next 30 years of my life to ministry 100%. Unfortunately, that meant giving up on my dream to sing country music like my family had always done. I had the wrong mentors and some very strict fundamentalist teachings that pretty much screwed up my thinking for the next 3 decades. I’ll leave it at that, but I will give you one reason why I deeply regret that decision. My religious mentor told me I could no longer sing secular music or perform in honkytonks. WRONG!!!!! Took me 30 years to deal with that heartache and the loss of what could have been a very big career. Near miss.
After dedicating those first 15 years of my 30 years in ministry, my mentor died. I no longer felt as restricted and decided to try and audition to sing backup and live my dream. In 1997, I toured with Patty Loveless. In 1999, I toured with Faith Hill and then Tim McGraw when they did their first soul2soul tour. I also toured a bit with Jessica Andrews and I’ve played the Grand Ole Opry several times with Pam Tillis and Gary Mule Deer.
Today, I still record lead/backup vocals from my home Protools studio that I send all around the world, thanks to technology. I also still record in studios around Nashville.
(Pictured below: Faith Hill Band meets Ringo Starr.)
From Left to Right: Steve Hornbeak, Dan Kelly (RIP), Moi, Ringo Starr, Mica Roberts, Lisa Gregg, John Howard and Trey Gray.
(Below: Performing during the first Soul2Soul Tour in 2000 w/Tim and Faith. Left to Right: Me, bandleader Gary Carter, and my fellow soul sangin’ sista Lisa Gregg.)
(Pictured below with a BEATLE!!!!!! Yes! Ringo Starr was one cool dude, as you might imagine, and was very sweet to take pics with us. He came to Faith’s Casino show in Canada during the grand opening. He was performing near us and had the night off. He sat in the 2nd row, dead center. It was so surreal and, yes, a dream come true!)
(An old promo pic that I never shared very much and felt like it just now. LOL)