The past year we all had something in common. Despite how loudly we voiced our opposing opinions and drew lines in the sand, we all, on some level, shared confusion, insecurity about the health of ourselves and our immediate loved ones, concerns for our country, and our world at large. There were many losses, not all of them directly related to Covid-19, but the existence of this invisible henchman made every loss feel heavier. Here in the desert communities, we lost many, none less painful than the others. One loss, however, shook not only the music community, but families and children who had found refuge and support in a gentle soul who found value in them, and who breathed hope into their fear on a regular basis.

Johnny Ray Martin was the white haired, bearded gentleman, standing stage left on the Pappy & Harriet’s stage as a member of the Shadow Mountain Band, most Saturdays. Led by Steven Lester, this special band of musicians regularly and expertly performed their bluegrass originals and covers to a room that was filled to capacity. People who came to Pioneertown from around the world enjoyed the multi-instrumentalist with the buttery vocals. But his family, fur babies, and friends enjoyed the very best of him.

From Steven Lester

“Around the mid-2000s, Johnny Ray Martin started showing up with his autoharp at our old-time music jam sessions we were having in the garden behind Pappy & Harriet’s on Saturdays. I had no idea there was an autoharp player in the desert, since I had not seen one since I left the Midwest, some years before. There he was, from Henry County, Virginia, the real deal,” shared Steven Lester, founder of the Shadow Mountain Band. “Johnny Ray knew a lot of old-time traditional songs and had a wonderful baritone voice. He just slid right into our jam group as a solid member. As the group got larger, the nucleus of the Shadow Mountain Band began to form. After a month or two, Robyn and Lynda (owners of Pappy & Harriet’s at the time) came out and asked us to play inside the room. It turns out there were more people out listening to us in the garden than there were in the place. That’s how it started, and Johnny Ray was right there at the foundation. We have depended on him for his extraordinary lead vocals, and also his harmony singing, carrying the low part in our five- part harmonies. His auto harp laid down a beautiful chordal sheen which gave us the foundation for our picking and prevented me from having to strum rhythm guitar. We could pick away, and he would provide the floor under us.”

“Johnny Ray was honest to a fault,” according to Lester. “He would give you a frank and honest opinion about anything, but as the gentleman he was, he would only offer his opinion if he was asked. That said, if you asked, you had better be prepared to hear the truth as he saw it. Despite his big voice, Johnny Ray seemed essentially modest and shy to me. His reliability and trustworthiness were gold to me as a bandleader.”

“One of the most obvious things about Johnny Ray,” Lester continued, “was his generous streak. He often helped homeless or semi-homeless kids. He made sure they got to class, and had enough to eat, got to their sports events and/or jobs. I think this was his fatherly/nurturing side coming out, since he never had kids of his own (other than his dogs). He was just constantly giving back to his friends and the community. As a true dog lover, he also adopted quite a few strays, and treated them as his children. He enjoyed them immensely and talked about them incessantly.”

“JR was a good man on many levels,” shared Lester. “He will be missed greatly. Although we will carry on, he is irreplaceable in the band. There is simply nobody like him. We wish him Godspeed into the next world and thank him for the time he gave us. We will not forget.”

From David Cohen

“Everybody loves a singer, and the sweeter they sing, the easier it is to love them. Johnny sang really, really sweet. He was easy to love,” David Cohen shares. “Everyone who ever walked into that bar, stopped, and listened when Johnny Ray stepped up to the mic, his Blue Ridge Mountain autoharp, slung on his busted shoulder, the same shoulder he tore up when he took his Fat Boy down on Pipes Canyon Road. Everybody stopped to listen and were touched by the beauty of that man’s singing and felt like they knew him. Around here, pretty much everybody did know him, and everybody that knew him liked him. I never heard anyone speak ill of him. In a small town that makes a pretty strong statement as to the character of that person.”

“What made Johnny easy to like was his authenticity. What you saw was what you got, every time. Even at his most irascible, Johnny remained true to the principles of kindness and generosity that everyone knew him by,” Cohen continued. “He had character – honest in his morality, as well as his dealings with people. And he was honest about his heart and his feelings, a welcome respite in a world of hype.”

“Johnny had integrity,” Cohen earnestly states. “There were no false words, except perhaps when he was talking story and spinning tales about his Aunt Biddy, his preacher grandpa, and life in the Martin family spanning generations. My personal favorite is the one about how his grandmother took to wearing pantyhose when they finally came to Henry County. One cold winter’s day she showed up at church on Sunday morning, apparently forgetting it was foot-washing day. But she refused to take off those hose.”

“And then there was Johnny’s dogs, the rescued and otherwise left behind, just like the kids he took into his home and provided for. There were big ones and small ones, smart ones and dumb ones, many great ones, but the star of that pack was always Elmer. He and Johnny had a special bond (that’s literally how he was named Elmer), because Elmer is one of those dogs who believes himself to be human and does a pretty good job convincing everyone else that it’s true. Two years ago, Elmer was bitten on the head by a green Mojave, the most neuro-toxic of the Crotalus species. Johnny rushed him down to the emergency room in Indio where they gave him the anti-venom and kept him for observation. On his way out, Johnny asked the doctor how many dogs survived bites from that side-winder.” None,” she answered. Yet here Elmer still is, still game, hobbling around, but still smiling,” Cohen shared.

“Like Elmer, Johnny was a survivor. In the years I knew him, he dodged many a health-related bullet. It’s hard to believe that he’s gone.”

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