Marty Stuart Keeps It Real

RFD-TV Show spotlights Bluegrass and Classic Country Music

This appeared in Bluegrass Unlimited - August 2010

A 14-year-old kid from Philadelphia, Mississippi, Marty Stuart found himself thrust into a bunch of new worlds after joining Lester Flatt’s Nashville Grass in 1972. One was the world of country music television. Back then, that didn’t mean multi-national corporate cable television like today’s CMT or GAC. It meant low-budget half-hour shows hosted by the likes of Porter Wagoner and the Wilburn Brothers.

“Going back to those first days with Lester, when we would do Porter’s show, I remember it was shoved into the corner of a studio at WSM,” says Stuart. They were done “on the cheap,” musicians standing on a bare linoleum floor, equipment cords running everywhere, with ramshackle rural-themed backdrops. But those $1.49 sets framed million-dollar talent, including a young Dolly Parton at the peak of her songwriting skills, along with guests from the golden age of bluegrass (Flatt, Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin) and country music (Don Gibson, George Jones, Merle Haggard). “It was intimate, it was homespun, it was folk art, it was cultural,” Stuart recalls. “But, at the same time, it was just great country entertainment.”

Eight years ago, Stuart found himself once again glued to the TV, watching those old shows. This time it was on the Marty Stuart & the Fabulous Superlatives’ tour bus. “I saw The Porter Wagoner Show and I thought I was watching somebody’s DVD they brought from home. Then they went to commercial and I thought, ‘What am I watching?’ ”

It was RFD-TV, a cable channel aimed at rural America. Stuart, a fan of all things authentically country, was hooked. “I’d be on the bus after shows and say, ‘Turn back to the country channel.’ And we’d watch farm reports and FFA (Future Farmers of America) conventions, and I was thinking, ‘This man is on to something.’ He’s put his arms around a culture that’s been abandoned. And that’s the same thing that I’m doing with my music.”

RFD-TV founder and president Patrick Gottsch is a visionary former satellite dish installer from Omaha. Stuart says he set up a meeting with Gottsch. “And I said, ‘Why doesn’t somebody redo the old Porter Wagoner show? Why doesn’t somebody redo the Flatt & Scruggs show, the Wilburn Brothers show?’ There was a template that went along with those shows. And nobody at CMT or GAC or the CMA cared or understood. But, I still saw beauty in them; I still saw entertainment value. Country music, the corporate side of it, is so grand. The song and the performance—the real performances—sometimes get lost in all the grandiosity. I wanted to make a show that just walked away from all the rules that we abide by these days, and go back to what I know, what I know works.”

Gottsch didn’t need convincing. “I loved the idea from the first moment. You can tell Marty’s passion for what he wanted to do and that he had a clear idea for what he wanted to do. I’ve learned in the ten years that we’ve been operating RFD-TV, when you find talented people that are motivated and really want to do something, you give them the support they need and get out of the way.”

Cutting-Edge Traditionalism

That support will continue. RFD-TV has committed to The Marty Stuart Show for a third season. Even as the country music industry reports a 28 percent drop in sales in 2009—despite Taylor Swift’s massive success—the Marty Stuart industry is booming. He’s a cutting-edge traditionalist, his fans spanning demographics (old and young, rural and urban), drawn to his combination of deep roots and wide-open eclecticism. He has his own label, Superlatone, that releases his projects as well as his wife Connie Smith’s new albums. He recently published Country Music: The Masters, a coffeetable book of the photos of country and bluegrass icons he’s been taking since his Nashville Grass days. There’s a new glossy souvenir photo book of the TV show, a throwback to the merch offered by first-generation country TV stars, which gets an additional historic spin due to the fact the pictures are by legendary Nashville photographer Les Leverett. Add to that a new two-DVD set of some of the best performances from the first season and plans to repeat that for the second season.

The numbers back up Stuart’s confidence, says RFD-TV spokesman Dan Kripke, who says The Marty Stuart Show drew 2,748,000 adult viewers in January (or almost 550,000 a week). RFD-TV’s January music programming accounted for 5,772,000 adult viewers weekly. The station has created an entire block of Saturday night music programming around that success, including new episodes of Reno’s Old-Time Music Festival, the bluegrass series hosted by Ronnie Reno.

Tune in once, and you’ll understand. The Marty Stuart Show moves faster than Stuart’s version of “Rawhide,” in a half-hour that both pays tribute to and reinvents classic country TV. It’s now in its second season (it premiered November 2008), with the first two episodes featuring living legends Little Jimmy Dickens and Earl Scruggs.

Since then, the show has featured bluegrass artists from Ralph Stanley to Dailey & Vincent, mainstream country stars such as Merle Haggard, Ray Price, and Dolly Parton, and such eclectic performers as Old Crow Medicine Show, Riders In The Sky, and the Quebe Sisters (a young western-swinging trio of harmonizing, fiddling siblings who sound like Bob Wills-meets-the Boswell Sisters).

Instead of the no-budget backdrops of old, Stuart fields what show announcer Eddie Stubbs jokes is television’s most expensive set. It looks like an explosion at the Country Music Hall of Fame; walls covered with a rhinestone rainbow of vintage stagewear by legendary country designers Nudie and Manuel, along with boots, hats, scarves, outsider art, Native American ceremonial costumes, Indian-blanketed hay bales and, of course, the vintage instruments Stuart plays, including his trademark Clarence White Telecaster, his autograph-covered F-5 and the priceless prewar Martin D-45 guitar given him by former boss (and ex-father-in-law) Johnny Cash.

The normally deadpan Eddie Stubbs, arguably the world’s most knowledgeable champion of traditional country and bluegrass, grins like a kid on Christmas as he talks about the show between tapings. “We’re all so blessed to be part of this. We know that this is something very special. We’re making history with what we’re doing,” Stubbs says. “The biggest complaint we hear is that the show is just not long enough. All of this fun is in 22 minutes. A lot of people don’t realize that. We pack a lot of music into 22 minutes worth of time.”

Superlative Nashville Grass

A lot of the music is bluegrass or bluegrass-based, whether it’s Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs, the Whites, and the SteelDrivers, or Stuart’s fittingly named Fabulous Superlatives: guitarist “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan, bassist “The Apostle” Paul Martin, and drummer “Handsome” Harry Stinson. They proved their bluegrass chops on Stuart’s acoustic Live At The Ryman CD, but even plugged in, Stuart and the Superlatives (who also serve as the show’s house band) put their unique stamp on bluegrass classics like “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome,” “Country Boy Rock’n’Roll,” and “Doin’ My Time.” For the Dailey & Vincent episode, the featured gospel song is a powerful two-band performance of Bill Monroe’s “Get Down On Your Knees And Pray.”

“Marty loves bluegrass,” says Stubbs. “That was his first love, and he features bluegrass and bluegrass-related music on every show.” Stubbs, best known as the voice of traditional country on the Grand Ole Opry’s home, WSM radio, pays tribute to his own bluegrass history as fiddler with the Johnson Mountain Boys by breaking out old stage wear. At the taping featuring the Whites, he’s sporting a vintage red string tie. “When Ralph Stanley was here, I wore the suit and the tie that I was wearing the first time we appeared on a show with him—way back in 1980.”

Stubbs and Stuart met three years before that, an event Eddie says changed his life. “I probably wouldn’t play the fiddle at all if it weren’t for Marty. We met February 27, 1977. I was 15 years old, he was 18, and he and I bonded that night and that bond has never gone away. Marty Stuart is an absolute genius. Everything he does just takes the music and the level of respect to another level. This show has all the elements, the foundations of what good, traditional, country music is all about. Whether it’s ballads, shuffles, honky-tonk, a little rockabilly, bluegrass, gospel music, blues, old-time string band music—there’s something for everyone.”

Old-time, pre-bluegrass music is represented weekly by singer/comedian/clawhammer banjo master Leroy Troy. Bluegrass may be TV’s redheaded stepchild, but television has treated old-time music like mirrors treat vampires. “It takes a special kind of person to want to put it over on the television and Marty’s a special feller,” Troy says backstage. They’ve been friends a long time. Stuart produced Troy’s 2001 Rounder CD, The Old Grey Mare. Troy, who also appears on the show with his Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, is surprised by the reaction to his weekly appearances. “Since this started, I get mail from everywhere, orders for CDs and stuff. It’s like, ‘My gosh, where’s all this stuff coming from?’ I get all these orders from England, California, Oregon, up in New England, the Midwest, Tennessee. I found out there’s some places in Tennessee I didn’t even know existed.”

The shows tape at North Star Studios in Hendersonville, just north of Nashville. Fans drive hours to attend. The day of Dailey & Vincent’s taping, Curt and Debbie Roberts drove four hours in the snow from Brown County, Indiana (home of Monroe’s Bean Blossom festival) to be there. Debbie, a long-time bluegrass fan, recalls seeing Stuart with Lester Flatt in the ’70s. It’s their second time at the show; they also attended the very first two tapings. “There’s nothing like it on television,” says Debbie. “There’s a lot of variety there. It’s all just good music,” adds Curt.

Stuart’s guests agree. “Marty keeps the music at the roots level and it’s very important that we keep this alive. If you watch other TV shows on mainstream television, you’re not hearing our kind of music on there,” says Jamie Dailey. “This show is extremely important, even for younger generations who don’t know about Dailey & Vincent, don’t know about Lester & Earl, don’t know about Marty Stuart. If they see this and give it a chance, they’re gonna like it. We’ve got to grow this music. We cannot let it die. We cannot let it start to fall. And younger audiences and TV is the key.”

Advice From Andy

“I hope to turn some people on to bluegrass that still don’t know about it,” says Stuart. “Bluegrass can always use a place to be heard and seen. And by way of satellite radio and various places across the globe now, bluegrass probably has more outlets now than it ever had—and that includes a couple of movies. But it always needs a place that’s integrity-based and entertainment-based and culturally-based for those people that have never seen it before. Bluegrass music has a friend in me and it always will.”

His show’s broad appeal is represented by the celebrities in the audience during one production day. For the Whites’ morning taping, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant are there; in the afternoon, when Ricky Skaggs is the guest, Lester Flatt’s widow Gladys and daughter Tammy are on hand. “It’s kind of the story of my life,” says Stuart. “Keith Richards one day and Ernest Tubb the next feels normal to me. It feels wrong to me when it’s not that way.”

RFD, celebrating its tenth anniversary, remains much more Ernest Tubb than Keith Richards. Along with its block of Saturday night country, Stuart, Ronnie Reno and other stars of RFD also perform live at RFD-TV—The Theatre, located in Branson, Missouri.

And years after those re-runs first inspired Stuart, you can still see Porter and Dolly, along with the Wilburn Brothers with their girl singer Loretta Lynn and classic episodes of Hee Haw! on RFD-TV. The Marty Stuart Show’s star hopes his series has the same longevity as those country television cornerstones. “You want to make shows that are evergreen, that are timeless,” says Stuart. “‘Here’s my latest record’ is a phrase that will never be heard on this show. I learned that by watching the Porter Wagoner shows, the Wilburn Brothers. Those shows do things for fifty years from now, as well as right now. They will keep re-airing. They will live somewhere.”

For that, along with lessons learned from his country and bluegrass idols, Stuart looks to the wise old sheriff from Mayberry. “I produced a Christmas album on Andy Griffith a few years ago. And everybody that came by to talk to him had some kind of Mayberry question. And he was gracious, and he accommodated everybody. And I declared I was not gonna ‘gurm’ him,” Stuart says with a laugh. “But as the proceedings were winding up, I said, ‘I have one question for you from those days. When you had that cast, that magic cast, did you know, did you know that you had it?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I could not wait to get back to work on Monday morning. We had so much fun doing that old show.’ He said, ‘We were creative, we felt good, it was a great time in life for everybody.’

“He said it really was a joy to go work. And that’s the way I feel about this show.”

(The Marty Stuart Show airs Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 10 a.m., Mondays at 3 p.m., Tuesdays at 1 a.m. All times are EST.)

By Larry Nager

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