Stuart Respects Traditions, Sets New Ones

This article appeared in American Songwriter Magazine - May/June 1995

Marty Stuart is not your typical songwriter--but then one look at the hillbilly singer from Philadelphia, Mississippi will tell you he's probably not typical about anything. In a day and age when rhinestones were out and long hair and cowboy hats were in on the streets of Nashville, Stuart breezed down Music Row with western-cut jackets studded with sparkle and shine from Manuel and the wildest collection of boots this side of wherever. He is further distinguished by a lanky frame topped with jet black hair that sets off eyes that are one moment twinkling, the next pensive while he's deep in thought.

His looks, combined with his genuine love for all kinds of country music and his charming personality, brought him several record deals. First with Sugar Hill, where he released the critically acclaimed Busy Bee Cafe album, and then a few years later with CBS. They didn't, however, bring him any hit records. So for a few years, Stuart took the time to figure out what sound he really wanted to have as a recording artist. In 1989, he released his first MCA album, Hillbilly Rock, and overnight (so it seemed), Marty Stuart had added the title songwriter to his other talents.

"The songs on this album (Hillbilly Rock) are a lot more focused," he told me in an interview in 1989. "I've had some time to figure out what I want to be and what I don't want to be, in the last three or four years. This album has a real tight focus to it ... if it don't twang, I don't sing."

With the release of that album, Stuart had found a focus, and that focus was on hillbilly. But since hillbilly wasn't cool, there weren't really a lot of new hillbilly songs around for him to cut, so he had to come up with a few of his own.

"I realize that when you get a record deal, it's good if you can do your own songs ... I'd much rather have a great Harlan Howard song or a good Max D. Barnes song, but if a good one happens to come through me, fine."

As is evidenced by his current The Marty Party Hit Pack, quite a few "good ones" have come through the pen of Marty and his co-writers, including "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'," written by Ronny Scaife; "Tempted," "Western Girls," and "Little Things," written with Paul Kennerley, and "This One's Gonna Hurt You (For A Long, Long Time)" and "Now That's Country," written solo by Marty.

Then there are the ones he wrote but didn't record--Wynonna's "A Little Bit Of Love," Travis Tritt's "A Hundred Years from Now" and "Hard Times & Misery." Rick Trevino's "Honky Tonk Crowd" and Buck Owens' "Twice The Speed Of Love." He also has cuts on the gospel album he produced on The Sullivans, and one of the songs he co-wrote with Jerry Sullivan, "When Jesus Passed By," is going to be published in a hymnal, something he's very proud of.

Marty didn't just wake up one day and decide to write songs. He looked for his material on the streets, but he wasn't finding what he felt was his own distinctive sound.

"I'd always relied on the publishing companies for material, but for the longest time, no one knew what to pitch to me," he says. "I'd get songs about fast cars, Saturday nights, girls, girls, girls ... songs with no meat to them. I realized that I was going to have to establish my own sound and would have to define what that sound was going to be."

The leader of hillbilly cool turned to Paul Kennerley for guidance in his music. "I credit Paul with bringing me a major breakthrough in my music," Stuart says. "We got together to write. I had a couple of pieces I showed him, we talked and tried to write a song or two and I left. A few days later, he called me and said he thought he'd written a song that I would like, and I listened while he played me "Hillbilly Rock." The title is a perfect description of my music ... and the song itself holds onto tradition while not ignoring the new sounds of country music today. I like a new song that sounds old! I'll always be grateful to Paul for letting me have that song--it really helped me establish a style for my music." Stuart admits that he seeks out songs with a real groove in them, even the ballads on his albums are required to have a groove.

His favorite song, "Tempted," was co-written with Kennerley. "It was a breakthrough song for me. It separated my sound from the pack. It was not just another radio record," Stuart emphasizes.

Yet radio records are important to a singer's career, and Stuart realizes that. "You have to listen to the reality of radio but, at the same time, listen to your heart and your gut," he says when asked how he manages to please radio, the record company and himself. "Being an individual may mean you get left behind, but it'll come back. Sometimes I do get left behind, but I understand that it will come back around again."

Whether he's writing what he calls the hard-edge band songs with heart or the traditional gospel songs with The Sullivans, Marty says the inspiration is the same. "Songs are a pure gift from God," he says. "Any true, pure songwriter will tell you, if you've got your vessel open, if the channel is open, God will send you the words and music. Whatever you write, you need to make it ring true. I love gospel, bluegrass, country, R&B. I just love writing. A good song can be cut a thousand ways."

Stuart's songs are not without stories behind them. "Now That's Country" was written in the back of the bus in Ohio when he couldn't get home for his grandmother's funeral. "I was on the road, scheduled to play this little honky tonk, when they called me," the singer says. "I just couldn't get out and get to Mississippi in time--there were no buses, no planes, no transportation. I was very sad, so I went to the back of the bus and, instead of crying, I sat down and started writing about the lifestyle at grandpa's farm, and the song came from all those memories. So I took a sad situation and turned it into a huge BMI royalty check and my grandmother would have loved it!"

Another song came to Marty after he heard someone say what became its title during a roast. He had been visiting with his friend, the late great songwriter Roger Miller, and was sitting in an airport when the lyrics started pouring out of him. In seven minutes, "This One's Gonna Hurt You (For A Long Long Time) was finished. "I was so excited, I called Roger and said, "I just wrote a song I'm not ashamed to sing to you," Marty recalls. "That was the first song of mine that went gold, and I was going to present him with the first gold copy, but he died two days before I was gonna give it to him."

As he studied the masters of country music to maintain its traditions, Stuart studies the great songwriters like Roger Miller, Harlan Howard, Eddie Dean, Max D. Barnes, Paul Kennerley, Kostas, Bob DiPiero and Steve Cropper, to name just a few. He likes to co-write, but he also realizes there are some songs you have to write alone.

"Some songs you have no choice. You have the vision or thought, and you are left on your own to finish it," he explains. "Some ideas you think well, so-and-so could write this with me, and it would be a great song. But some experiences are inside you, from your gut and from your heart, and you know without a doubt you are giving up a piece of your heart when you write the song, and you can't share that with anyone else.

"In order to co-write, you have to be interested in some common thing and have the same passions," Stuart continues. "The people I write with, I love what they've accomplished and I respect them. We have a lot of fun when we're writing. Like Paul Kennerley--I love White Mansions and Jessie James and then all his Emmylou Harris and The Judds songs. I feel that he has a grand overview. So I went to him and stuck out my hand for help.

"Tony Brown told me about Kostas. He told me he had heard about this guy in Montana who wrote songs. So Kostas came to town, we met and we talked, and then we started writing together. I was with Kostas in his truck the first time he ever heard a song of his on the radio. It was the Patty Loveless song "Timber." You can't buy moments like that!

"Max D. Barnes and Harlan have always opened up their treasure chest to me and gave me whatever was in it. And I've been writing some lately with Steve Cropper, some R&B things."

With The Marty Party Hit Pack being a collection of mostly previously recorded material (there are two new ones here), Marty says he's been given a reprieve to really have the time to write for his next album.

"The thing I've learned in the last couple of years is patience. I would rather write one incredible song a month than three good ones," he says. "I haven't been afforded the time to write too much lately, so this package has given me the extra months to write in a relaxed atmosphere, which is a real difference from writing under pressure. I find I'm writing deeper lyrics and more melodic. I had given it a break for several months, and it's just amazing what you come up with after a break from songwriting!!"

In offering advice to new songwriters, Stuart says, "Everybody thinks they can write a song. You should do it for your own enjoyment. If you have the calling, then you have to measure your songs against the classics. Sign on, be dedicated, and be relentless in your desire."

Stuart expounded on his thoughts about being a songwriter. "Songwriting is a treasure hunt and a journey. Songwriting is a great way to help life along. It will take you to some truly magnificent places. It is amazing the power that music and words have to change someone's life or inspire someone to keep on living. I have heard from people who actually wanted to die but said after they heard "When Jesus Passes By," it changed their life. There was this little girl in a coma and the only thing she'd respond to was my Hillbilly Rock tape. But I don't think about that when I write. When I sit down to write, it just comes out, I record it, and let it grow from there."

Stuart had one final twist before he closed the interview. "I just signed with Warner Chappell Publishing Company, and I was down at Tootsie's, which is a great shrine to a lot of incredible songwriters and songs, and we were filming there for a special that will be out this summer. My manager walked in with my Warner Chappell contracts; and I signed them right there, on the bar in Tootsie's!"

Without planning a thing, Nashville's most dedicated hillbilly singer managed to once again bring the past and present together. It was at Tootsie's where the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Bobby Bare and Tom T. Hall scribbled lyrics to some of their most famous hit tunes. These legendary songwriters had assembled to pay tribute to the owner of the famed club on film, and Stuart was there as an invited guest on The Nashville Network special. Where better to sign a songwriting contract about his future than in front of these songwriting greats at one of Nashville's most historic nightspots?

Article written by Vernell Hackett

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