Marty Stuart

From Bluegrass Sideman To Country Stardom

First & Foremost a Musician

This article appeared on Acoustic Musician - December 1994

The Man

Most of Marty Stuart's modern fans are probably aware that he played for Johnny Cash, and a smaller number know about the years he put in as a sideman for Lester Flatt, starting as a teenager. As a popular commercial country music star (nominated or three CMA awards this year), Stuart has emerged as a highly visible, intelligent, and articulate spokesperson for roots music of all kinds. He always mentions Bill Monroe and other bluegrass heroes, as well as his peers in modern country who also have bluegrass backgrounds. He makes time in his schedule to perform acoustic sets--sometimes with supergroups that he assembles and sometimes with Jerry and Tammy Sullivan--and for his occasional bluegrass gigs, for example, a well-received show at Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium.

This year, Stuart delivered a keynote address at the IBMA World of Bluegrass Trade Show. It was an impressive performance, as he spoke for about 15 minutes without notes of any kind, delivered his points effectively, and stirred the audience with a thoughtful, passionate message. Among the important points he made were: "I believe this with all my heart, that the only thing holding country music together as it moves toward the 21st century is that thread of a root that it has between the invention of country music (the present), and it's called bluegrass music.

"Bluegrass, in fact, is like blues and jazz. It is not for everybody. It's an acquired taste. But once somebody catches the fever, it gets inside your heart. I caught it when I was 12 years old. I had a Bill Monroe pick I took home from Bean Blossom and, when I went to school in Philadelphia, Mississippi, I had something that nobody else had, and nobody else spoke that language. But I knew I had a piece of fire in my pocket.

"We've had to fight--and I say 'we' because I still consider myself part of the family--we've had to fight for every inch gained for bluegrass music. It's been done on determination, integrity; without radio play, without corporate sponsorship; the major recording companies always, when they sign a bluegrass act, it's the thing that goes to the side."

During a telephone interview, Stuart elaborated on the theme of the position of acoustic sounds within the framework of today's electrified country music.

"Country music started out, basically, as string-band music. And, to this day, it all starts, to me, with either a piano and a song or a guitar and a song. Once you get a clear picture from that standpoint, when you can take a country song and do that with it (play it on acoustic instruments), I think then it's ready to inject into a band and put the rockets under it! Personally, unless I can do that, I really can't get a picture of the true melody and the true depth. [Country] basically is such a lyric-oriented music, and a melodic music, and I think it usually starts around a guitar or a couple of guitars, or a mandolin or a fiddle, rather than around a set of drums and a synthesizer."

Reflecting on his path from bluegrass sideman to country star, Stuart recalled, "When I first started makin' records, they didn't know exactly what to call me around here 'cause I didn't exactly fit into a crooner mold. They kept callin' me rockabilly. I said, 'I'm not a rockabilly. I'm a hillbilly.' They said, 'Where does all the energy (and harmony) come from?' I said, 'That's my bluegrass training.' 'Cause anybody that knows anything about the energy of bluegrass [knows that] there's just as much fire in that as there is in any Rolling Stones song!

"When MTV started doin' their Unplugged series, of course we [in Nashville] followed suit. Somebody called me and they said, 'Would you consider doing this particular TV spot unplugged?' I said, 'Hell, you mean play some bluegrass? Yeah, let's go!'

"I saw Nirvana on Unplugged and Kurt Cobain sang In The Pines. I hear Dylan goin' back these days and tracin' down his roots. A lot of us are doing that. A lot of us!"

The Musician

Stuart plays both electric and acoustic guitars in his road show. He used to play Lester Flatt's 1950 Martin D-28 in concert but, after it got scratched during travel, he obtained a 1952 D-28 (which once belonged to Edd Mayfield, a legendary member of Bill Monroe's band in the 1950s) from Marty Lanham, one of Nashville's most respected guitar repairmen and luthiers. He also keeps two small guitars around his house, bus, or hotel room: an Ernie Ball 1/2 Writer's Guitar and a Baby Martin.

According to tour manager Mike Copelin, Stuart's acoustic guitar is equipped with a Fishman system, installed by Marty Lanham, that consists of a pickup in the bridge and an internal microphone for stereo sound. The signal is run from the guitar to a Chard Stuff preamp and then to the board. The Chard Stuff was designed by Richard Battaglia, who was the sound technician for New Grass Revival and now handles that chore, and many others, for Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. The preamp has its own DI from which a line runs to the console.

"I think the whole key to any acoustic guitar these days is a Trace Elliot amp," Stuart said. "It's an English amplifier. I've tried many, many kinds of acoustic setups down through the years, but the purest thing to any acoustic guitar I've ever heard is this Trace Elliot amp." Stuart's mandolin is a 1972 Gibson F-5. Although he got his start as a mandolin player, Stuart doesn't play it much in concert at this time. "I've never found a suitable setup on the mandolin," he complained. "Everybody always says, 'Why don't you play the mandolin in the shows?' I've tried and I've tried. For a long time, I said, 'We're too loud,' so I actually took it out onstage and just tried to do it by myself. Even when we break it down and I've played the mandolin by myself (the sound isn't any good). So if anybody out there in 'acoustic land' has any information about how to make a mandolin sound great onstage, I'm wide open, 'cause I'm totally frustrated!"

Copelin said that the mandolin is equipped with a mike that clips around the F holes. The signal is then run to the preamp, just as with the guitars, and on to the board.

For bluegrass and acoustic gigs, Stuart doesn't usually use the pickups. According to Copelin, "Marty likes to do it the old-fashioned bluegrass way," and will play into whatever microphone is provided at the site.

Stuart says there is no difference in his technique between playing through a pickup and into a microphone. "If you can get your pickup and/or your microphone to work for you, you don't have to dig," he said. "[The] only thing you have to do is play. You don't have to really dig and cancel your tone out. You can just kind of flow and play soft and work with natural dynamics. And that's what I live for--one of those nights where everything's right. You just get out there and sail. And the guitar sustains by itself. It's amazing what good sound can do for you."

When playing into a mike, each guitar is handled differently. "Lester's guitar, the D-28, it's a very 'boomy' guitar, and so basically it's to the top of the hole, kinda toward the neck, to get the true sound," Stuart said. "The D-45, you can basically put a mike anywhere you want to on that guitar and it'll sound wonderful! Just cram that mike straight in front of the hole! That guitar is probably one of the greatest guitars I've ever played! And the D-28 that I bought off of Marty (Lanham), I've really not played that guitar (acoustically) that much, but I've found out that toward the bottom of the hole, a little toward the neck, seems to work. That's the sweet spot on that guitar. Any good guitar has its sweet spot. It's a lifetime chase to find it."

In the studio, Stuart has a vast array of guitars in his personal collection from which to choose. His favorite studio acoustics are a 1937 Martin D-45 that used to belong to Hank Williams Sr. and Johnny Cash, and the Lester Flatt D-28. Both of these precious guitars were completely restored by Marty Lanham.

Lanham recalled, "They were badly worn from years of hard playing. Also, some 'unenlightened' repair had been done to both over the years. They may be among the best Martins I've ever heard!" These vintage Martins and the mandolin are not equipped with pickups. Stuart prefers Shure microphones but will defer to the experience and recommendation of the producer and engineer for any given session.

As previously mentioned, Stuart is somewhat of an instrument collector. According to his publicist, he owns between 45 and 50 stringed instruments, including steel guitars, basses, and Gibson and Fender electric guitars.

Stuart's acoustic instruments include, in addition to the Martins already mentioned, a 1932 Martin I-17. Among his Gibsons are a 1990 J-180 and a 1987 J-200. He also has a couple of hollow-body electrics: a Switchmaster ES-511, which belonged to the Chuck Wagon Gang, a 1961 ES-355, and a 1956 ES-5N with gold hardware and Grover tuners. Another interesting acoustic is a Buck Owens American model!

Of the solid-body electric guitars, some of the interesting ones area 1983 Stratocaster previously owned by Carl Perkins and a Jazzmaster previously owned by Wayne Moss (the guitar on which Moss played the signature licks on Pretty Woman and other Roy Orbison classics). The electric guitar that is probably of most interest to acoustic players is Clarence White's 1954 Telecaster with the original B-string bender which Clarence designed and installed. The 'B-bender' resembles a steel guitar arm attached to the back of the guitar and hooked to the strap. To operate the unit, the player lifts his/her right shoulder while pushing the guitar down. The steel guitar arm moves the B string through the tailpiece.

Although he has several instruments of historical value, when purchasing guitars "I'm lookin' for tone," Stuart declared. "I don't care what they look like. I don't care what their pedigree is. I pick up the guitar and it says something' to me; I have to have it! Obviously, if you can grab an historical guitar, if it comes your way, go for it! Just for the sake of it. But for somethin' that I would really consider a workin' guitar tone is the first and foremost thing."

Most of Stuart's instruments never leave his house. "Even with the best of care (like) my Clarence White guitar, I take that guitar in a gig bag everywhere I go. I mean, it's had its own seat in Lear jets. But even with that much pamperin', they still get knocked around," he said. Stuart was asked what right-hand techniques he uses. "I basically just flatpick," he replied. "I'm startin' to get into acoustic slide guitar. The only person I ever really played with who did that was Merle Watson. Of course, Merle kept a roll going, so he used fingerpicks and a thumbpick. I basically don't use any picks and just use three fingers on the slide guitar. It's my latest hobby! I've gone to Uncle Josh's (Dobroist Buck Graves) house for a couple of lessons. I'm pretty inspired by John Hammond Jr. these days. He uses a 5/8-inch socket wrench as a slide!"

When switching from acoustic to electric guitar during a show, Stuart claims he makes no major adjustment in his playing. "I'm so used to both of my guitars," he stated. "I think you adjust around the song. And to me, it's pretty appealing to go from some loud, rockin' honky tonk song down to just you and the acoustic guitar singing' something' like Long, Black Veil, or some quiet song like that."

As for rehearsal and practice techniques, Stuart simply plays constantly. Mike Copelin said, "Marty sits on the bus and picks on into the night after shows. It's a hobby to him, and a life. He doesn't have to practice, it just comes naturally." However, when asked about how much he practices, Stuart exclaimed, "Not nearly enough! I'm not a formal practice person. It's hard for me to sit down and formally practice. But I've got a couple of small guitars and, if it's there, I find I keep it in my hands all the time, and I just subconsciously 'doodle.' Every now and then, you run into somethin' pretty cool that way." Rather than using a specific set of chord changes or scales to warm up, "I just kind of 'stream of consciousness' see what comes around," he said.

Are there any other musical challenges on guitar or mandolin that he's working on now? "Oh, all the time! All the time," he said. "Just findin' a new chord, findin' a new way to play the same old licks. And I think Bobby Thompson had a great line. He said, 'I'd kill for a new lick these days!' "

Copelin stated that Stuart's guitar tech puts D'Addario strings on his guitars and mandolin. Stuart prefers medium bronze for the guitars. He uses a Fender medium pick with a tortoiseshell pattern, and usually uses a Kyser capo, although, according to Copelin, "He'd use just about anything he could throw on there."

Near the end of the interview, Stuart reflected on some of the broader themes in his career. "Bein' creative is truly, I think, a lot like a well full of water. You fill your well up, and then you go spill it out all over everybody and everything. And once that's done, you just kinda 'run on empty' for a while, just run on 'professional fumes' if you will! And run on the soul of the matter, and adrenaline. That's about where you get this time of year (Author's note: early October, as the touring season begins to wind down). I actually look forward to coolin' down in the winter sometimes, to pick up some inspiration."

Article written by Dan Mazer

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