Letters From Nashville

This letter appeared in Country Music Magazine - November/December 1997

Dear Russ:

Rule Number One, don't blink or you'll miss it. I'm talking about the next 25 years. Where did the last 25 go? They flew like passing though some small town whose welcome sign said "hello" and "goodbye" at the same time. Traveling took me by storm. I'm now a full-fledged motion junkie driven by whatever tomorrow holds all the while clinging to the memory of yesterday's kiss. I'm a cutting-edge interstate slave who secretly pines for the simplicity of the backroads. There's such a delicate balance in making the heart and soul of the backroads live in harmony with the commerce of the freeway.

Like the crow, I'm a witness. I was there when country music left the dirt roads and found its way onto the blacktop. It was thrilling. After years of struggle, we finally gained mainstream acceptance. Just like Burger King. Now we're everywhere. The sound of the 4/4 shuffles gave way to the ka-ching of the cash register. We all got more buses, more money and more fame than ever before. That's great. Isn't it? It's been a great ride. What a trip. But no matter how much fun and success any good road trip yields, there comes a time when your heart cries out and home weighs heavy on your mind.

Hanging around in a small town the day after a show has never been my style. Being the hero in last night's spotlight is reward enough. Then it's time to move on. That's the way I feel about my place in country music right now.

For the last decade, country music has given the world a good show but, just like a trip down the interstate, after a while it's pretty much all the same. Burger King Whoppers taste the same in California as they do in Maine. They're predictable at any turn. It scares me to think that country music has to forfeit its character in order to survive in the mainstream. It's something to think about. Johnny Cash has a saying, "You've got to know where you've been so you know if you're playing connect the dots with the bugs on the windshield when they spell out 'Is it time to turn around or do you prefer to keep going this way?' " I'll admit, the going's been good....Before I go any further into the future, I want to go home and spend some time at the heart of country music. I want to rekindle my emotions.

After months of searching for a place to turn around, I discovered that it wasn't a turn-around I needed after all. It was a new intro. Specifically, it was Ralph Mooney's steel guitar intro to Merle Haggard's song, "The Days of Wine and Roses," that turned me around and put me on the road to home. I started looking for more signs and wonders, markers of any kind to guide me. The next song I heard that touched me was "You Don't Even Know Who I Am" by Patty Loveless. She was singing close to home.

I drove to Poor Valley, Virginia and spent part of an afternoon at what's left of A.P. Carter's Clinch Mountain home. I picked flowers and ate a handful of blossoms off of his apple tree. I called my code-a-phone to get my messages. The first one said, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash. I don't know my number, but you do. Call me when you get home son." Just the sound of his voice moved me on. Travis called and left his latest joke. "What's the difference between a country music magazine publisher and a large pizza? A large pizza can feed family of four." Buck Owens' message asked if I'd help him find a Martin acoustic guitar. He said he was tired of loud country music and he wanted to bring his songs a little closer to home. It made me wonder if everybody was thinking of home. I knew how much Earl Scruggs loves The Carter Family, so that led me to his house to tell him about the Carter Fold experience. We wound up having a living room concert. The sound of his banjo took me home.

Sadness sometimes surrounds the home. You can't imagine how much it hurt as Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Patty Loveless, Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanley, Stuart Duncan, Roy Huskey Jr., Connie Smith, Emmylou Harris and I stood on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium and sang a song and played Bill Monroe home. After the funeral, without a word being said, I understood that, regardless of what is happening in the stratosphere of country music, from time to time, the children are needed at home.

One of the things I rediscovered along the way was how much I love the mandolin. The end of the day usually finds me by myself in a dark corner playing my mandolin. Somehow, through the melodies, my mother's words find their way to me, "When you're weary and confused, be still and wait. Go home and regain your power and vision. Do what ever your heart tells you to do. When you see clearly, observe and you'll find a new beginning." She told me this a long time ago, but it's a timeless piece of advice. I minded her, I minded my heart and I followed the spirit, and here I stand at the heart and soul of country music feeling brand new and ready for the new millennium.

As the song says, "It's a long journey home." Tomorrow, perhaps I'll be like Woody Guthrie and ride me a boxcar across the world singing about what I see as I go, or maybe I'll inhabit a small town somewhere and fly around the high line poles observing life below me like some old squawking crow, or I might just do what I do and keep on being me. I may as well because I guess that's who I was meant to be. Or maybe I'll just sit on the porch at home and do not one single thing except think about my friends at Country Music Magazine.

Letter written by Marty Stuart

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