Hillbilly Rock


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All Music Guide

Hillbilly Rock is the epitome of what the adult Marty Stuart is all about. With a new groove that runs just left of center, while still retaining a classic country & western-bluegrass flair, Hillbilly Rock is a wild ride to what surely must be honky tonk heaven. On par with Dwight Yoakam's debut, Hillbilly Rock sets the tone for a whole new faction of neo-traditionalists. Opening with the title cut, an infectious romp that demands your attention, and ending on a high note with a love song, "Since I Don't Have You," crafted by Stuart and another tragically overlooked supernova, Mark Collie, this is one heck of an album. "Western Girls," a favorite of the numerous cowgirls who follow his career, and the Merle Kilgore-Tillman Franks tune "The Wild One" all demonstrate how effective Marty Stuart is. "Cry, Cry, Cry," a Johnny Cash hit, is made new again. While this release displays more of Stuart's own songwriting skills, it also displays how deeply involved he is with the music he plays.

By Jana Pendragon


October 28, 1989
This album is Stuart's best album to date, even though some of the cuts are formulaic rockabilly at its ho-hummiest. Stuart sings well and his vocals are buoyed immensely by first-rate picking. Best cuts: "Cry, Cry, Cry," "When The Sun Goes Down," "Since I Don't Have You."

Country America

March 1990
As somewhat of a musical child prodigy, Marty Stuart quickly earned his stripes--first as a teenage member of legendary bluegrass titan Lester Flatt's Nashville Grass band and later as a sideman for Johnny Cash. Hillbilly Rock finds Marty now defining his own space, drawing respectfully from his rich musical heritage but at the same time restlessly revving his engines.

Marty is a capable vocalist and a dynamite guitar and mandolin picker with a load of young-buck enthusiasm. He especially shines on such tracks as "Don't Leave Her Lonely Too Long," "The Coal Mine Blues," and "Easy To Love )Hard To Hold)," all of which he co-wrote.

He also gives a rousing once-over--and renewed musical life--to "Cry, Cry, Cry," one of Johnny Cash's first hits. He then saddles up Texas rocker Joe Ely's "Me And Billy The Kid" and an old Merle Kilgore/Tillman Franks tune, "The Wild One," making each one sound as though it were written just for him.

Pulsating with raw, rootsy adrenaline, the mood is slick but never overly polished, with Marty balancing anxiously between rock and country--and, possibly, on the edge of major stardom.

Country Music

January/February 1990
It is ironic that in the country music field, as in other professions, there are always a select few who seem to be held back, not by their lack of talent, but by their abundance of it--artists who are capable of growing in so many directions at once that the question of focus can become a difficult one.

I'm thinking of Rodney Crowell, whose prodigious talents and unlooked-for success as a songwriter and producer got in the way of his solo recording career for years. And I'm also thinking of his ex-brother-in-law, Marty Stuart, a creative dynamo; a singer/songwriter/mandolinist - guitarist/producer par excellence, not to mention a fine journalist and photographer whose work has been in these pages.

I mean, what a portfolio this guy has! Joined Lester Flatt's band at age 13, then graduated to touring and recording with Johnny Cash a few years later. Produced his own first album, Busy Bee Cafe on Sugar Hill in 1982, which featured a "who's who" cast of supporting musicians, artists like Stuart's ex-father-in-law Johnny Cash, Doc and Merle Watson, and Jerry Douglas.

So maybe the world wasn't quite ready when Stuart made his major label debut on CBS in 1986. The album, Marty Stuart, may have been a little too energetic and wide-ranging and (with songs by Steve Forbert, Robbie Robertson, and the late Steve Goodman) a little too neo-rockabilly-folkish to pierce the iron curtain of country radio. Suffice to say, not enough of us in this business (present company included) really noticed at the time what a fine record it was.

But Stuart's latest, Hillbilly Rock, is such a powerful, confident and finely-tuned musical statement that I predict it will be impossible for anyone with an iota of musical taste to overlook it for long. With this one shining effort, the culmination of, among other things, three years spent between albums honing his songwriting talents, Stuart puts himself into the front ranks of modern country music where he's belonged all along.

In fact, this album is not just an album. Like Rodney Crowell's Diamonds & Dirt or Steve Earle's Guitar Town, this set of tracks is an event--one which marks the offical kickoff of what promises to be a brilliant "major league" recording career.

Having gotten burned with the "rockabilly" tag last time around, Stuart now prefers to call his music "hillbilly rock" (hence the title song, written by Paul Kennerley). But a name is just a name as long as you don't go throwing the baby out with the bath water. With cuts like the title song or Stuart's own swaggering "The Coal Mine Blues," or his faithfully inspired version of John R. Cash's rockabilly classic, "Cry, Cry, Cry," Stuart sounds like some long-legged, revved-up, tight-pants, long-haired version of 1950's heroes like Cash or Carl Perkins, reincarnated in 1980's disguise. He's done more than get the quintessential attitude, swagger and pose of rockabilly down pat; he's got the spirit as well.

But even so, that's merely one side of the immense talent he shows us here. For the making of Hillbilly Rock, Stuart teamed with producers Tony Brown and Richard Bennett, the same pair who did such a great job on Steve Earle's Guitar Town a few years back. Bennett's distinctive, vibrato-laden, low-string, neo-Duane Eddyish guitar signature is an essential stylistic ingredient here, just as it was on Earle's debut album.

Though Stuart and Earle are miles apart stylistically, Hillbilly Rock also bristles with the same sort of gutsy, imaginative, guitar-gramed arrangements and stormy sensuality that made the Earle album such a milestone.

Stuart, for his part, has given Bennett and Brown a hell of a lot to work with. His singing has always been something to hear and now he's raised his songwriting to an extraordinary new level. His six originals here (some of them collaborations with writers like Paul Kennerley and Mark Collie) run the gamut from heartsore country ballads ("Since I Don't Have You"), to revved-up, neo-hillbilly barn burners ("The Coal Mine Blues") and strutting country-macho, "Easy To Love (Hard To Hold)." For good measure, he even throws in "The Wild One," an obscure road warrior/motor-psycho anthem of yesteryear written by Merle Kilgore and Tillman Franks.

The strongest cut of all, though, is Stuart's cover of Joe Ely's tongue-in-cheek, low-life gunfighter ballad, "Me And Billy The Kid." Stuart not only manages to capture the devil-may-care spirit of Ely's unforgettable story/song, he's also (wisely) copped the relentlessly compelling guitar arrangement of Ely's original version. Ely never got the hit he deserved with "Me And Billy The Kid"; maybe Stuart can get some mileage out of it now.

It would be easy for me to go on, since it's just as hard to stop raving about an album this good as it is to stop listening to it. Marty Stuart has finally hit the bull's eye.

By Bob Allen

Country Music USA

September 1990

"I knew when I heard "Hillbilly Rock," I wanted some type of street dance," Marty Stuart says about his latest Top 10 Hit, "Hillbilly Rock." We had talked about bringing in a choreographer from New York, but I wanted something children, adults and honky tonkers could all do," he explains. Video producer Joann Gardner then suggested they try Jean Whitaker at Opryland Talent. "She came in one day and showed me the step," Marty says, "and it was exactly what I wanted." And so began the "Hillbilly Rock."

Following the success of "Hillbilly Rock," the third single, "Western Girls," has been released. "Paul Kennerley (co-writer) and I were talking about there are just as many cowgirls as cowboys out there. So this song is dedicated to all the cowgirls," he says. Marty will also be touring extensively in support of the Hillbilly Rock LP. "I'll be working tours, fairs, honky tonks, everywhere until the end of December," Marty states, "and then we'll be releasing my new album in February." Marty described the new album as true hillbilly music--possibly the best work he's ever done.

Although "Hillbilly Rock" was Stuart's first Top 10 hit, Marty spent much of his young life on stage. It was at the age of 13 that Marty joined the Lester Flatt show playing guitar and mandolin. "Lester taught me the basic rules of show business--how to endure. If it hadn't been for Lester, I probably wouldn't be here today," Marty states. From Lester, Marty learned to build slow and build a foundation. "Lester always said, 'Marty, there will be a time when things are going to cool off. You need to wait for your time to come around'." And that's exactly what Marty did. After Flatt's death in 1979, Stuart branched out musically, playing what he describes as sort of "bluegrass-fusion" style with fiddle player Vassar Clements and also working with acoustic guitar virtuoso Doc Watson. It was also during this time that Marty began his six-year stint touring with Johnny Cash.

Stuart produced his first solo album in 1982, Busy Bee Cafe, on the independent Sugar Hill label. In 1986, Stuart made his major label debut on CBS Records with Marty Stuart. Marty Stuart was his first attempt as a lead singer and the beginning of a style that would be all his own. Stuart would spend the next two years working on his songwriting and polishing his trademark around which Marty describes as "hillbilly music with a thump." Stuart eventually landed a label deal with MCA Records. His debut LP Hillbilly Rock has produced two hit singles, "Cry, Cry, Cry" and his first Top 10 hit "Hillbilly Rock."

Marty Stuart is a complete artist--singer, songwriter and expert picker. Lester Flatt would be proud to see his advice pay off.

By Jody Konkle

Music City News

October 1989
Few people are born with such an abundance of raw talent as was Marty Stuart. And that rawness, that vitality comes bubbling up on Hillbilly Rock. The title, indeed, gives the musical theme and Stuart delivers with punch. It is ironic that on the first few songs, it seems as if Stuart is holding in his reins, but on Coal Mine Blues, he breaks loose. Produced by Richard Bennett and Tony Brown, the album features some hot picking and a good mixture of old and new. The energy here should push Stuart to the forefront and away from the sidelines in country music.

By Dixon Harden

Music Row

November 8, 1989
Just when traditional country music started to seem a bit too safe--admit it, today's honky tonk hitmakers are an awfully polite and clean bunch--here comes a gang of rowdy, long-haired guys trying to kick open the door with their cowboy boots.

As the Paul Kennerley-penned song that opens Marty Stuart's album aptly puts it, these hillbilly rockers present a sound pushed by a strong backbeat and energized by "playing the guitars like shooting from a gun."

Some may argue it isn't country at all. But the Kentucky Headhunters rework songs by Bill Monroe, Don Gibson and Henson Cargill, while Stuart puts a new shine on works drawn from the legacy of Johnny Cash and Johnny Horton

And, as Stuart's title cut points out, rock grew out of hillbilly soil. To prove it, the song offers a travelogue of various Southern regions where the music started.

Besides, even with the tempos and the edgy guitars, The Headhunters and Stuart have much more in common with songs like Hank Williams, Sr.'s "Move It On Over," George Jones' "The Race Is On" and Hank Thompson's "Six Pack To Go" than with rockers like Bon Jovi or Motley Crue or pop chart toppers like New Kids On The Block, Tone Loc or Paula Abdul.

The hillbillies may be doing the wild thing--straight up--but it's got an unmistakable twang. And this high, hard and lonesome sound belongs on country radio. In fact, country radio needs it.

That said, it's time to point out how differently these two groups use their backbeats. Stuart is a Nashville veteran immersed in Music Row. He's logged numerous years as a mandolin player for Lester Flatt and a guitarist for Johnny Cash. He's made a previous album for CBS Records that shortchanged his talents and a great follow-up that the company refused to release.

This time, he lines up some likeminded compadres. Producers Richard Bennett and Tony Brown previously teamed up in the studio on Steve Earle's first two albums and they understand Brown's mission of tight and hard rhythms and fleet, fancy picking. Stuart sticks to the themes of a renegade with a kinship to wild times and bright lights and a bad reputation when it comes to reliability and faithfulness.

His best originals--"When The Sun Goes Down," "Easy To Love (But Hard To Hold)" and "Don't Leave Her Lonely Too Long"--help define this attitude and his mission.

But the best songs concern the dark-suited legends of Johnny Cash and Billy The Kid. Stuart updates Cash's classic "Cry, Cry, Cry" with perfection, replacing Luther Perkins' sparse guitar style with fleet-fingered runs and substituting a brash vocal snarl for Cash's somber tones.

In covering Joe Ely's sly tale about a competitor's outfoxing of a famous outlaw in "Me And Billy The Kid," Stuart sticks closer to the original. He puts a rollicking mandolin where a crunching guitar once stood, but otherwise leaves a great song along. With any luck, both versions will now become better know.

My Kind Of Country

May 14, 2012

The major label phase of Marty Stuart’s career is considered to have begun in earnest with the release of 1989's Hillbilly Rock, following a brief and somewhat inauspicious stint with Columbia. Now signed to MCA, Marty finally began to enjoy some commercial success, primarily thanks to the album’s catchy but lyrically light Paul Kennerley-penned title track, which would become his first Top 10 hit.

Produced by Richard Bennett and Tony Brown, Hillbilly Rock, as its title suggests, has got a distinct rockabilly flavor and the influence of Marty’s mentor Johnny Cash is readily apparent. In fact, Marty’s first single release for MCA was a cover of Cash’s 1955 hit “Cry! Cry! Cry!” It was an odd choice to launch the career of a relatively unknown artist, especially since it occurred during a period when Johnny Cash was decidedly out of vogue in Nashville. Not surprisingly, Marty’s faithful-to-the-original version was not a huge hit, though it did crack the Top 40, making it his highest charting single (at #32) since 1985's “Arlene”, which was his only Top 20 hit up to that time. The next single, “Don’t Leave Her Lonely Too Long”, is my favorite track on the album. It was written by Marty and Kostas and sounds a lot like the music The Mavericks were doing around that time. Unfortunately, it was met by a big yawn at country radio and it stalled at #42. The tune was revived by Gary Allan almost a decade later when he included it on his It Would Be You album.

Marty’s commercial fortunes began to change with the release of the album’s title track as the third single. Fueled by a video that was in heavy rotation on TNN and CMT, “Hillbilly Rock” allowed Marty to crack the Top 10 for the first time. Peaking at #8, it was not a smash hit, but it was a significant and hard fought milestone for an artist who had enjoyed a fair share of critical acclaim but seemed to be in danger of failing to catch on in the marketplace.

Mainstream country music in the early 1990s was obsessed with “hat acts”. Marty didn’t fit the mold and that may have made his music more difficult to market, though he eventually turned this to his advantage a few years later when he teamed up with Travis Tritt for the highly successful “No Hats” tour. It became apparent that he still faced an uphill climb at country radio when Hillbilly Rock’s fourth and final single, “Western Girls” disappointingly peaked at #20, though it deserved to chart much higher.

I was somewhat surprised at the time to learn of Marty’s bluegrass background and his vast knowledge and devotion to traditional country music because his music that was getting radio airplay at the time was anything but traditional. But after looking past the radio hits and delving more deeply into the album cuts, another side of his musical personality can be heard. “When The Sun Goes Down” is the album’s most traditional cut, sounding a lot like the Merle Haggard classic “The Bottle Let Me Down,” and the beautiful and understated closing track “Since I Don’t Have You” would be right at home on Ghost Train or Marty’s most recent album. Both tunes were written by Marty and Mark Collie.

Although Hillbilly Rock was only moderately successful, it earned a lot of critical acclaim and introduced Marty Stuart to mainstream audiences. It also stands as an example of how much more diversity was on country radio twenty years ago, before things became too homogenized, as it is quite different from most of the music on the charts at the time. It was a particular favorite of then-President George H.W. Bush, who requested and received a copy of Hillbilly Rock to listen to on Air Force One. It is still easy to find and is worth seeking out.

Grade: A-

By Razor X

New Country

April 1994
Joined by Tony Brown and Richard Bennett, Stuart began finding onramps to country radio, most notably with the infectious "Hillbilly Rock," by merging old country with contemporary radio values. The marriage wasn't seamless,but when it worked, it was cool. Case in point: "Western Girls," an ode to frosted eye shadow and sky high hair that made big friends in trailer parks. Also, Joe Ely's "Me And Billy The Kid" had a weathered fierceness that was as authentic as nearly two decades on the road could make it. [Four stars]

The Tennesean

October 22, 1989
May be the most fun-sounding record Nashville has released all year. Marty's got an itchy-pants approach to the genre that's at once a nod to the past and a wink at the future.

He stirs up a steaming rockabilly stew here, dipping deep into the style for revved-up renditions of Johnny Cash's "Cry, Cry, Cry" and Johnny Horton's "The Wild One" and adding his own spice on top with his own "Easy To Love," "Don't Leave Her Lonely Too Long" and "Western Girls" any one of which would make a dandy hit single.

He's got zip, flash, humor, looks, personality, talent, style and substance.

Somebody make this man a star.

By Robert K. Oermann


Hillbilly Rock--the title says it all! Marty Stuart brings back the sound with uptempo cuts such as "The Wild One, " written by Merle Kilgore and Tillman Franks; the love-me-but-I'm-a-gypsy tune "Easy To Love (Hard To Hold)" that Stuart co-wrote with Paul Kennerley, and Stuart's current single, "Cry, Cry, Cry," written by none other than John R. Cash. Brilliant production by Richard Bennett and Tony Brown, especially on the only ballad, "Since I Don't Have You," shows us two sides of Marty Stuart, and a talent that is sure to garner much airplay from radio and some serious chart action.

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