Marty Stuart - One Hot Hillbilly

This article appeared in Country America Magazine - October 1993

It's one of those breath-stifling, muggy-hot summer days in Tennessee. All outdoors seems like one boundless, wide-open blast furnace, and sweat clings like a seamless second skin. It's one of those days when every living thing seems addled by the heart. Bugs seem to crawl slower; birds don't even try to sing. Even the leaves on the trees hang loose and limp, drained of energy and animation. On a day like this, boy, that ol' creek sure looks good.

Marty Stuart stands on the bank of a modest little stream with his baleful-looking coon dog, Oscar, eyeing a shallow spot just spacious enough to accommodate a full-grown man with legs outstretched. Marty peels out of his boots and socks and plops down in the middle of the creek, which quickly turns muddy once Oscar joins him and starts sloshing around. Marty's face radiates extreme comfort; you can almost hear the water hiss as it comes in contact with his jeans. "This," he says, reclining on his elbows, "is what we call a hillbilly swimming pool."

And Marty, you know, is one hot hillbilly. Hillbilly. The term conjures up several images, most of them comical, if not downright derogatory. Ma and Pa Kettle, Jed Clampett. The yahoos from Deliverance. Li'l Abner.

Years ago, country entertainers used to be more or less automatically labeled "hillbilly singers," a tag that alluded, not inaccurately, to country's rural roots. But as country music expanded its scope and sophistication, Nashville grew weary of the hillbilly label and fought to bury it, along with all the trappings it had come to embody--wagon wheels, hay bales, rhinestone suits.

But for Marty, hillbilly is a term to be embraced. For him, it conjures up things that are unique and colorful about country music. He uses the word a lot; he's always talked about hillbilly this or hillbilly that. And in doing so, he's plugging into a timeline that goes all the way back through Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe--performers who took country music out of the woods and into the world.

"It seems like Nashville is a bit ashamed of the word hillbilly," says Marty later. "All the old suits and everything--it's like they swept all that under the carpet." He smiles and his brown eyes flash. "Well, I'm pulling it all back out again. I'm proud to be called a hillbilly singer."

With his poofy rooster's plume of ink-black upright hair, Marty may look more like a Rolling Stone than a Drifting Cowboy. But in his chest beats an authentic hillbilly heart--a heart pumping with the rhythm of two decades' worth of working alongside some of the masters of the field. He started playing mandolin and touring with bluegrass titan Lester Flatt when he was barely a teenager, later moving on to become a star in Johnny Cash's band.

In recent years, Marty's career has found its own solo orbit. This past year was the best one yet: A pair of duets with country-rocker Travis Tritt boosted his musical profile substantially, and his current album, This One's Gonna Hurt You, became his first gold-certified release and added more hits to his resume. Professionally speaking, Marty Stuart is a hillbilly on fire.

And he's using some of that fire to reforge the bonds between country music's past and its present. He rides on a bus that used to belong to Ernest Tubb ("the last of the great hillbilly buses," Marty says) and plays a guitar that used to belong to Hank Williams. And he wears his idols on his sleeve, literally--with an eye-catching collection of rhinestone suits and other vintage country-star stage wear--and figuratively--by constantly reminding his fans that there were other, greater stars who came before him. When his single "Cry, Cry, Cry" hit the charts in 1989, it was also a nod to Johnny Cash, who recorded it originally. In his video for "This One's Gonna Hurt You (For A Long, Long Time)," he turns over his guitar to reveal the words thanks on its back, a reference and a tribute to Ernest Tubb, who made the same gesture of appreciation a part of his performances. Marty's video for "Now That's Country" includes a cameo appearance by DeFord Bailey, Jr., son of the Grand Ole Opry's first black performer.

In this manner, Marty is gently, sometimes even subliminally, turning a new generation of young country fans on to a mother lode of long-running musical tradition. "I'm glad to see that young kids like country music today," he says, noting that country wasn't so cool when he was younger. "When I liked country music as a kid, I was definitely a minority of one."

Indeed, as a young boy growing up during the Sixties in Philadelphia, Mississippi, Marty was virtually alone among his age group in preferring country or bluegrass to the newer rock sounds of groups such as the Beatles. "I remember him going to school one day for show and tell," says his mother, Hilda. "He took a Johnny Cash album."

Marty was inspired not only by country music but also by the charisma of its performers. "The artists who meant something to me were the ones who weren't just singers--they were stars," he said. "When you saw their pictures, you just wanted to stare at them for a while."

And a star is what Marty wanted to be, too, from a very early age. He'd practice signing his autograph on top of his fourth-grade classwork, anticipating the day when someone would actually come asking for it. He'd sing on his grandfather's big front porch, pretending it was a stage. Hilda recalls Marty playing Little League baseball--or, actually not playing Little League baseball. "I went out to see one of his first games," she says, "and he was standing on top of the dugout, playing his bat like it was a guitar. It was pretty obvious where his real interests were."

Marty never seriously considered doing anything other than playing music for a living, but he does recall one phase of childhood when he learned a valuable lesson in salesmanship. "I sold greeting cards," he says. "And I was good at it. I'd say to my mom 'Tell me about Mrs. Smith. What are her kids' names?' Then I'd walk up on the front porch with all these cards: 'Hello, Mrs. Smith. Boy, your flowers sure are lovely. How are Joe and Sara? Are they still in St. Louis? By the way, I've got some cards here....' "

His banker mother and his father, John, who worked for an appliance factory, indulged his interest in music. As a young fan, Marty met the members of Lester Flatt's bluegrass band, later hitting it off so well with Flatt himself that he was invited to join them on the road. Marty was only 13 at the time, but his parents knew they couldn't tell him no.

Marty finished high school by correspondence and spent the rest of his teens wowing bluegrass audiences as a pint-size picker. When Flatt died in 1979 and his band dissolved, Marty hooked up with Johnny Cash. As a member of Cash's band, he became known as the Boy in Black because of the way he emulated the dress of his idol. He spent several years with Cash before finally heading off on his own solo path.

The most important advice that Cash ever gave him: "Don't sweat the small stuff. Keep your eye on the big picture." Those words of wisdom have sustained him through various personal and professional upheavals, including a 1987 divorce from Cash's daughter Cindy. The divorce was especially uncomfortable for Marty because of his closeness to Cash. "We pretty much managed to keep the personal parts of relationship separate from the professional ones, but I think he got mad at me there for a while," says Marty. "He was a lot better father-in-law to me than I was a son-in-law to him."

Single now for six years, Marty says he has no burning desire to remarry. "I failed miserably at it the first time," he says, "and it doesn't interest me in the least right now."

What he is interested in, however, is getting back to the country, back to his Mississippi roots. "As entertainers, we work so hard after we leave the country to make enough money to go back to it," he says. He's in the process of clearing 50 acres that he owns back in rural Mississippi to build a house. Right now he's on the road so much that he doesn't own a place of his own. Instead, he splits his time off between the home of his parents who live outside of Nashville and the home of his friend and Nashville-based manager, Bonnie Garner.

Professionally and personally, his goals are clear. "Right now, I'm interested in wearing out the road, making good records and entertaining the public as a singer.

"A hillbilly singer," he says with a grin.

Article written by Neil Pond

Return To Articles Return To Home Page