Marty Stuart Finds Himself Knee-Deep in Country Music

This appeared on - June 25, 2003

Following the triumph of his 1999 masterpiece, The Pilgrim, Marty Stuart took a four-year retreat, laboring at lower-profile endeavors. Now he's back with a blistering set of hillbilly rock and country twang titled simply Country Music. The new album opens with a pounding cover of Porter Wagoner's monument, "A Satisfied Mind," and closes with a moving rendition of Johnny Cash's "Walls of a Prison" (from Cash's 1968 album, From Sea to Shining Sea); but in between those bookends, Stuart and various writers have come up with a batch of gutbucket barn burners and tender-hearted love songs played with an edge honed on the Bakersfield sound. During a stopover in New York to preview the album at a local club, Stuart held forth to Barnes &'s David McGee on the intense personal odyssey that led him to Country Music.

Barnes & After The Pilgrim, which was certainly a critical and aesthetic triumph for you, you more or less dropped out. You were doing soundtracks and producing, but not cutting your own music. What instigated Country Music?

Marty Stuart: At the end of The Pilgrim, I just didn't have much to say for a while. That's why my songs didn't have any words to 'em -- they were all film scores. I left home when I was 12, and I hadn't had any time off in 27 years. I thought it was time for intermission, for lack of a better term. Connie [Smith, Stuart's wife] hadn't taken a vacation since 1964, so we were a couple of toasty hillbillies. We took a month off, and when I came back I didn't have a recording deal; I didn't have a band. I just pretty much had leveled the playing field by design. It was like, well, where do we go from here? Connie was out in California doing a lot of work on those scores, and she sent me the Wynn Stewart box set. And I love Wynn Stewart. So when I'd get up in the morning and get ready to go to the scoring stage, I'd listen to Wynn Stewart and Ralph Mooney. Then one day I felt my heart tug at me. I thought, Uh-oh, I know what that's about. It must be getting time to go play. And I said, "That's it. I gotta go home." And I don't mean to Nashville; I mean to Mississippi. Just really go back to the beginning of the trail.

Not long after I got home [Johnny] Cash called, and I went over to play guitar with him one day. I said, "J.R., I'm having trouble finding a getting-on place. The Pilgrim was a pretty lofty statement. How do you follow records like that? You've done a bunch of 'em." He says, "Well, I don't know, but you can't go back. You gotta keep moving. You'll find it."

B& You've always spoken about the roots of country music, and this album is bookended by great songs originally cut by Porter Wagoner and Johnny Cash. You're pretty true to Cash's version of "Walls of a Prison," but though "A Satisfied Mind" starts in Porter territory, it takes off and winds up in your territory.

MS: First of all, "A Satisfied Mind" is unbeatable the way Porter did it. It's textbook, archival, bedrock, holy spirit, Country Music 101. So it was one of those that did not bear repeating. The words worked for me, for my context, more than the music did, because I don't have a steel guitar in the band -- mine is more of a guitar band and a rhythm band. I wanted to keep the trio element of Porter's recording, but it was about air. It was simply about letting the truth of the words of that song float up in the air and not be cluttered up by too much music. I don't know why it ended up the way it did, but it feels right to me.

B& Is it significant that songs by Porter Wagoner and Johnny Cash open and close an album titled Country Music?

MS: As for "The Walls of a Prison," you and I know that prison ain't always about being in a room with bars on the windows. We cage ourselves in, in so many ways. You know, I've drug a lot of demons around with me from the time I was 13. You can't hang out with Gram Parsons and tour with the Texas Troubadours and not learn how to do it, too. It rubs off! Last time I went drinkin', I saw blue lights in my mirror and I got to go to jail. And I walked in front of the mirror and went, Dude, you're 44 years old. That is unacceptable. That's a bad mistake. It had turned into a little prison for me, but I had never confessed it or asked for help, so that was my jail. I've been locked down in my mind in a lot of ways, but it was a freeing thing to end the record with "the walls of a prison could never hold me." It goes back to fessin' up, steppin' out, and movin' on, offering hope to myself. That was more important to me than ending with a Johnny Cash song.

B& Some might interpret "Sundown in Nashville," a song originally cut in the mid-'60s, as being critical of modern-day Nashville, but I hear it as the timeless story of Music City. Sweeping broken dreams off the sidewalk has been going on forever in that town.

MS: It's not a criticism of Nashville; it's the absolute truth. Trust me, I made every mistake in the book. I've seen every level that town has to offer over the past 30 years. And at its best times, or at its worst times, I'm telling you, it's one of the loneliest places on earth when that sun starts going down. That song is sung by the voice of experience. It can be danced to and not paid attention to, or it can be listened to and heeded -- listener's call.

B& You and Connie wrote "Farmer's Blues," then you brought Merle Haggard in to sing on the cut. Was that a song that came out of your travels across the country when you were figuring out what to do next?

MS: Yeah. Connie and I had written the song last year, around Labor Day. I thought it was a neat song; it touched me. Then when we got a tour together with Merle Haggard for this summer, I put the word out on the street in Nashville that we were looking for a song for me and Merle to record. And the songs that came back, I couldn't see myself playing them for Merle. I tried writing things myself and I never could nail it. And one day Connie said, "Why don't you take 'Farmer's Blues' back?" And I said, "No, you keep it," and she said, "I think you need it." It was a great gift.

And here's Haggard. I called him and told him I'd found him a song that Connie and I had written called "Farmer's Blues." He says, "Yeah, tell me about it." So I said, "Who'll buy my wheat / Who'll buy my corn / To feed my babies when they're born / Seeds and dirt / A prayer for rain that I could use / I walk the land / I touch the sky / I talk to God / And wonder why / It's the only life I know / These farmer's blues." Haggard says, "Change one word for me. Change 'walk' to 'work.' " I said, " 'I work the land...' -- that's why you're Merle Haggard." One word made an entire song come to life. I'm really proud of that song. That's one, if I never cut another hillbilly song, that's a good one.

It's the same with music. Every time I make a record, I see it as a crop. What will it yield? I'm not talking about money or success or fame. The Pilgrim, although it didn't yield a money crop, yielded the most fruitful and rewarding crop I've ever had out of a record. It just keeps on and keeps on. On a daily basis I hear something about The Pilgrim. This record was like, here I go again: my stepping-off place in the 21st century with my music and the gifts that God gave me. It's a hard thing to be so passionate about it and to live to a point where it's worth talking about it, but handing it over to the money changers at the temples is a hard thing. So hopefully the crop will come back in a fruitful way.

B& Clearly you've been doing a lot of soul searching, and it sounds like you've now got priorities and a plan for making your statement.

MS: It feels like Mississippi. I feel like I just want to go sit in the middle of Stovall Plantation, where there ain't nothin' but wind and cotton, and just sit there and wait on the answer. I find myself running the rails out there and getting away with this, getting away with that from time to time. But when it's time to talk about the truth I have to go back to my mama's advice, to go back to the beginning, to the source. It's an everlasting, timeless piece of advice.

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