Emory Martin Biography

Billed as "The World's Only One-Armed Banjo Player," Emory Martin transcended novelty status to emerge as one of Nashville's most unique and inspirational musicians, backing country superstars including Kitty Wells and Uncle Dave Macon in addition to regularly appearing on radio's fabled Grand Ole Opry. Born August 26, 1916, in Bon Aqua, TN, Martin was born with a six-inch stump in place of a fully developed left arm. He learned to play banjo by mimicking his father, improvising a singular style that employed his teeth and toes to substitute for the missing appendage. Regardless of his physical limitations, Martin proved a born virtuoso, and by the age of seven he could play by ear. At 16 he won a talent contest at Nashville's Princess Theater and was hired on the spot by country pioneer Fiddlin' Sid Harkreader, soon after making his Opry debut. Martin always insisted that radio announcers introduce him as a performer with one arm, knowing his condition would pique the curiosity of audiences. When Harkreader dissolved his band to tour behind Macon, he brought Martin with him and the banjo prodigy quickly became a featured attraction until an emergency appendectomy forced him off the road in 1937. After recovering, Martin joined the staff of Nashville's fledging radio station WSIX, where he befriended Johnnie Wright (of Johnnie & Jack fame) and Wright's wife, the future Kitty Wells. He soon joined Wright's Tennessee Hillbillies full-time, touring the South and appearing regularly on WNOX's popular Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round broadcast. As World War II forced many of his bandmates into overseas duty, Martin bided his time working for his father's masonry business. In late 1943, he married fellow performer Wanda "Linda Lou" Arnold and settled in Rockcastle County, KY, operating an automotive service station and becoming a longtime fixture of WWLW's famed Saturday night broadcast Renfro Valley Barn Dance. Martin also recorded as a member of the gospel group the Holden Brothers, and in March of 1950 was summoned to Nashville to back Wells and Johnnie & Jack on respective RCA recording sessions. He nevertheless recorded infrequently and curtailed his musical pursuits in the years to follow, working for a carpeting installation company. In 1991 Martin and his wife published a memoir, One-Armed Banjo Player: The Early Years of Country Music with Emory Martin. He died April 17, 2006, at the age of 89. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi


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