Fiddler in the Cage – Zac Brown Band’s Jimmy De Martini
Jimmy De Martini is carrying the banner for fiddlers across the globe. The 36-year-old is an integral part of the Zac Brown Band, a platinum-selling country music group that has crossed over into the mainstream. The band won the Grammy Award for Best Country Album for Uncaged this past February.
When De Martini isn’t performing with his band mates, he is throwing down at KnuckleUp Fitness in Atlanta, Georgia. In fact, this fiddler can scrap with the best of them—despite being known for playing the least intimidating instrument on Earth.
“My coaches will joke about it,” says De Martini. “I’ll be in the ring sparring with some dude that I’ve never sparred with before, and my coach will throw some shit out like, ‘Hey, this guy’s a fiddle player. A fiddle player is beating you up. He’s a violinist! What are you doing?’ Yeah. I get that a lot.”
Although the musician often gets teased by his fellow gym rats for playing a pint-sized orchestral instrument, he has thick skin and possesses an extensive skill set he had once hoped to display before the band got its big break. Before De Martini was a rolling stone, he was preparing to be a cage fighter.
Growing up, De Martini was a fight fan. He loved kung fu flicks starring Bruce Lee, boxing matches featuring Mike Tyson, and some of the early UFC cards. “I had always questioned which martial arts would work well if you were actually in a real life situation,” he says. “The different fighting arts piqued my interest.”
In 2001, he decided to find out. The musician took up boxing, starting in his garage with a heavy bag and some instructional books on how to punch. From there, he went to the local LA Boxing gym and took private lessons with a trainer. While he enjoyed the Sweet Science, his skill set evolved by accident. The gym changed its brand to Velocity Kickboxing (later becoming KnuckleUp Fitness), and expanded its business by offering Muay Thai and aerobic kickboxing courses. Along with the name change came a different type of athlete, and De Martini was not impressed—at first, that is.
“I would see the Muay Thai guys going at it, and it seemed to me like none of them were very good boxers,” De Martini says. “They were concentrating on kicking too much, and I thought it wasn’t practical. But eventually, I became too curious. I wanted to try it, and I just got hooked.” He also tried the aerobic kickboxing and developed a soft spot for it. A focus on Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was soon to follow.
De Martini also cut his teeth with some of the gym’s mixed martial artists who are now emerging in the bigger fight promotions, including Dave Vitkay, who just won in his Bellator debut in March. Although the fiddler initially wanted to follow in his fighting brethren’s footsteps, he stepped aside as Zac Brown Band was stepping into the spotlight.
“It was kind of a no-brainer because we had already been doing really well,” De Martini says. “It’s tough seeing guys I trained with turn pro and just wondering what I could’ve done. But I think I definitely made the right decision.”
Just because De Martini’s main focus is on his music career, that doesn’t mean his love for MMA has subsided. He still trains, and it has given him and his band something to bond over. Front man Zac Brown used to participate in judo competitions and is a big MMA fan.
Besides the group’s shared passion for watching fights, they also try to keep fit while on the road. After they arrive at a venue, De Martini will set up a makeshift fitness room with 13 different stations, featuring dumbbells, mats, and benches.
“We spend one minute at each station and go four rounds, so it ends up being an hour, and we do anything from jump squats to push-ups to bench press to abs,” the fiddler says. “It’s a great workout, and we get a lot of the guys in the band in shape that way.” He also carries Muay Thai and boxing pads with him so he can sharpen his skills on the road.
Now, the chicken fried collective plans to take their fitness regimen to another level. After a recent outing, De Martini and company were impressed with how tour mates Dave Matthews Band kept in shape.
“Those guys have a complete tractor trailer workout gym, and that’s all it is. It goes from show to show, and it’s air conditioned, has a television, weights, treadmills, and ellipticals—basically, anything you need,” he says. “We’re in the process of designing one right now, and I think in a couple of months, we’re gonna have the final schematics and start building one.”
It sounds like De Martini will be utilizing his touring gym a lot more as the Zac Brown Band continues to grow in popularity.
Just as fighters add various disciplines into their MMA regimens, the Zac Brown Band tends to weave different elements—including bluegrass, reggae, southern rock, and pop—into their country music base. The latest style clash happens on their fifth studio album Uncaged, which was released in July 2012.
Although the album title further complements the group’s connection to the sport, the central theme of Uncaged is breaking down barriers. Some of the many highlights include the heartbreaking pop ballad “Goodbye In Her Eyes,” the enriching confessional “Day That I Die” featuring singer-songwriter Amos Lee, and the rocking title track, which Chael Sonnen contemplated using as his entrance theme at UFC 159.
The fusion comes naturally for the band. “We don’t really try to be diverse, we just come from different backgrounds,” De Martini says. “It comes out in the music, and I think that makes it a little different than everything else. It was pretty cool when we won the Best Country Album Grammy this year—and wow. That’s cool because we’re not totally country, but we still won the Best Country Album, so that was pretty exciting for us.”