Marty Stuart - Country's Biggest Fan

This article appeared in Country Music Magazine - May/June 1991

In the wee hours of a Monday morning, on a hillbilly tour bus halfway between Memphis and Nashville, with a thoroughly wrung-out honky tonk back down the road behind him and his sound system thumping out great old Ernest Tubb tunes, Marty Stuart is in the groove. He's got the spirit.

Has he ever. Eyes hooded, chin up, body swaying smoothly, his rock 'n' roll rooster hairdo bobbing in time, he's conducting an imaginary orchestra--very much in the manner of his mentor and "lifetime executive producer," the ever graceful Cowboy Jack Clement--and watching with a serene little grin as the three boys in his own lean, mean hillbilly rock band sing along with Ernest.

"Oh...maaaan," he drawls Mississippi slowly, with real wonder, as E.T.'s gravely heartfelt old chords twang steadily on. "Listen to that. Ernest was so great. I mean, don't that just say it all?"

It does and it doesn't. Yes, the moment has its own perfection, particularly since it's happening on E.T.'s old Silver Eagle--Marty having bought the iconic vehicle and kept it unchanged, is sitting exactly where Ernest used to see about him as he rode the very same honky tonk miles we're riding now--and yes, the music has its own great beauty and meaning: You really don't have to look any further than E.T. if you're seeking the soul of country music. But what Marty means requires further illumination.

Marty Stuart, you see, is not just one of the cuter new country hunks offering some of the hotter new videos, some of the more happening new tunes and a personal style streets sideways of the pack. He's also the most ardent fan country music could hope for and the most effective link between the music's past and future for which we other fans could pray. When, an hour or so closer to Nashville, after lots more Ernest Tubb and a little Bob Dylan, he brings the palms of his hands deliberately together in front of his face, saying "There. See? You understand what I'm trying to do?," that's what he's talking about: He's saying that his job is to carry tradition into the future. To add to the chain of the music. Forge a new link.

That's not such an unusual vision for a musician, particularly a country or blues artist, but I've only rarely encountered it as passionately felt as it is in this man's heart, and I've never heard it as fully realized as it is in his music.

You may already have read the basic Marty Stuart story in this magazine or another (he's been around a while), but repetition does it less harm than most.

The main theme of the story is one you don't encounter much these days, working apprenticeship. In other words, Marty reached his current position as a singer/songwriter/star-on-the-rise the old-fashioned way: He studied for it under the great masters. Most significant in his education were the late bluegrass guitarist Lester Flatt, with whom he started as a mandolin player at the age of 13; the noted Arkansas baritone Johnny Cash, in whose band he worked as a multi-instrumentalist until quitting to go solo at the age of 28 (he's 32 now); and the legendary Arthur Murray dance instructor/hillbilly record producer Jack Clement, from whom, like Cash and many another famous rockabilly, he has absorbed his share of slow waltz karma and home-cooked vegetables at The Cowboy Arms Hotel & Recording Spa on Nashville's beautiful Belmont Boulevard.

Those aren't bad masters, and neither are some of the other musicians with whom he's worked the road and the studio over the years: Vassar Clements, Doc Watson, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and lots and lots of others. And he's been an integral part of all sorts of significant tours, records and get-togethers: Dylan's fabled Rolling Thunder Review; the first Highwayman album and tour with Cash, Waylon, Kristofferson and Nelson; the wonderful second Will The Circle Be Unbroken? album with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

His solo career also has depth. It's been longer, and has involved more recording, than the casual fan might realize. Tempted, his current MCA product is, in fact, his fifth album., having been preceded by another MCA piece, Hillbilly Rock. He's also made a full album for CBS in 1987 that was never released; a "mini album" Marty Stuart, issued by CBS in its multi-artist 1986 "new Country" promotion; and Busy Bee Cafe, the 1982 Sugar Hill album which featured a band including Johnny Cash and Doc and Merle Watson and is now something of a collector's item.

Some resumé, that--but until his "Hillbilly Rock" single started making chart waves last year, Marty's was a set of magnificent credentials without the only item which really matters in the big-time recording artist business: hit followed by more of the same.

For a while, then, his aura was uncomfortable. There was the sense of an awful lot of talent going unsung or, worse yet, getting buried. There was in fact, the fear that CBS's junking of his career might prove fatal to his chances of making major label records and, beyond that, the suspicion that his style and his music might be just too strong to sell, period; that he might just be both too rock and too country for Music Row. For, as the late great ground-breaking Gram Parsons could have told you--and the monstrous Joe Ely and the wild and wonderful Steve Earle still can--combining real hillbilly soul with real rock 'n' roll energy (as opposed to achieving the usual fusion: vaguely country lite rock) is a risky proposition in Music City, U.S.A. You can get run out of town in a hurry.

But Marty survived, and now he's happening. At MCA he has hits, momentum and the wholehearted support of the business guys. The company's top man in Nashville, Bruce Hinton, is emphatic on that point. "It's great when you can help a new artist break through, you know, but it's even more gratifying when you can help someone who's been around a while, like Marty," he says. "And really, I love Marty. There's nothing else out there that sounds like Marty Stuart music. I think he's going to be an absolute giant."

Hinton could be over-optimistic in his estimate of Marty's commercial potential but, as to there being nothing out there like Marty Stuart music, that's a plain old unarguable fact. And it figures. Certainly, there are a few picker/singers with Marty's raw talent, but there's nobody with the depth in the most demanding areas of popular music--bluegrass at its highest level, first-class Nashville session work, major league rock 'n' roll--and even more to the point, there's nobody with his vision. Nobody else would have stood in the heart of modern Nashville and taken quite such an unfashionable position--country as music meant to blow you away--and then held it against all odds until it began to seem, well, almost profitable.

Now there's an interesting point. Basically, Marty Stuart's music is the first, really successful new sound to come down the Nashville pike since George Strait began popularizing the Hunky-tonk/New Traditionalist approach to commercial country almost a decade ago. So right now Marty stands alone, a hot-wired Glitterbilly Kid shooting off sparks in a corral of calm ol' Music Row cowpokes--but how long will that situation persist? After years of falling for slow-rolling hunks in hats, are you fans ready to cut loose again? Is Marty's market anomaly or a trend?

Nobody knows yet, but a lot of people might like to: the business guys, certainly, but also a few other roots-oriented but non-hunkytonking, unhatted artists just breaking or bubbling under or, for that matter, coming back: Lee Roy Parnell, Kevin Welch, Shelby Lynne, Carlene Carter, Delbert McClinton, Joe Ely himself. And then, of course, there's Manuel the tailor, the man who makes today's brightest hillbilly suits of lights. Manuel, who apprenticed with the late, legendary Nudie and whose business Marty began revising almost single-handedly several years ago, is doing very well these days, as any half hour of CMT will show you but, if Marty really gets monstrous and Glitterbilly becomes a major trend, he's going to have to go 24 hours and put in a drive-thru window.

For his part, Marty eschews speculation. He'll talk your ear off about music and tell you anything you want to know about his conservative, giving-value-for-money, in-for-the-long-haul business ethic but, as to his career future, all he'll do is frame the question. "Yup," he drawls sleepily--if you can call a live wire laid-back, that's Marty--"the thing is, can we find a way around the hats?"

Again, who knows? But if it's a look you're trying to get around, a new and different look is what you need to do it with, and Marty certainly has that. As he speaks, sitting on the patio of a happening Nashville restaurant close to Music Row, he's dressed relatively inconspicuously, all in black and denim with just a pound or two of muted silver accessories--but, even so, he stands out. When your overall effect is one of Keith Richards trying to be the Cisco Kid, or vice versa, you can't help attracting a little attention.

Marty laughs and remembers another Nashville lunch when he was wearing one of Manuel's more colorful jackets and really standing out. People were rubber-necking, whispering. Fortunately Manuel himself was there. "Oh, don't worry about it," he said, "You look fine. Nobody in here has one like it."

Marty laughs again, remembering another time when he was playing a fair date in Michigan. There was a Ferris wheel off to the right of the stage, lit up bright and pretty in the night, and it kept drawing his attention. So between numbers, he stepped to the mike and said, "Please excuse me if I keep drifting to the right. My suit thinks that's its mother."

Marty's a funny man and getting funnier: lightening way up. Not that he was ever exactly a drag. As you'll hear from all the musicians he's played with and inspired in one way or another--technically, creatively, across barriers of age and culture and uptightness of all kinds--he's been a live wire from the get-go. That's what's made him so effective as a catalyst and connection-maker: a mixture of boldness, enthusiasm and humor; a lightness of touch which promises and usually delivers good times.

That, of course, doesn't mean his life has been free of hardship. There was, for instance, one particularly rocky period between his departure from Cash's band and his arrival at MCA. In terms of events, it was defined by the breakup of his troubled marriage with Cindy Cash and the end of his frustrating relationship with CBS. In terms of processes--well, you can probably imagine.

Marty can joke about it now ("It's like Roger Miller says: 'I looked up and buzzards were circling my career"), but at the time he was in trouble. Fortunately, he did something about it. "I went to see my mother," he says. "My motto is 'When in doubt, go see Momma,' 'cause I'm a card-carrying Momma's boy. I said, 'Momma, what do I do?" She said, 'Well, when you're tired and confused and off track'--and when she says 'off track', I know what that means--'you stop and you listen and you go back to the beginning.'

"So I stopped and I listened, and I went back to the beginning, to Mississippi, and picked it up where I left it when I was 12 years old. I found the way flowers smelled down there back then. I saw my old friends. I went to the woods where I used to walk with my grandpa, sat on his front porch. I knew I didn't belong there anymore, but I just stopped and was still.

"And I connected and I cleaned it all up. I got back in tune with the Big One; quit running my own show and let the Big Spirit take over. I looked up and said, 'If you need me to go to Ethiopia and wash windows for You, and I'm supposed to ride a bicycle to do it, I'll do it as long as You approve of it. Now I'll leave You alone, and You send me the word. Keep the doors closed that need to be closed, and open the ones that should be open for me, 'cause I want to live my life and make You proud. The rest don't matter."

Marty says that "from that very day on, I walked forward unafraid," and good things just began to happen. "Shortly after that, my old friends who play bluegrass gospel music, The Sullivans, came back into my life--they were the first group I worked with when I was 12--and I rode around with them on weekends, not preaching or pretending to be anything I wasn't, but just enjoying playing music and watching people be happy about themselves and hearing some pretty prayers, you know?"

Things continued to go along well, "and soon Paul Kennerley started coming around, and then Tony Brown started back into the picture." Kennerley, the renowned songwriter, gave "Hillbilly Rock" to Marty and wrote "Western Girls" with him. Tony Brown, an old acquaintance--he was playing piano for Elvis when Marty was with Lester Flatt--performed his function as head of Artists and Repertoire for MCA, signing Marty to the label and producing the Hillbilly Rock album along with guitarist/arranger/producer Richard Bennett, the man who played that outrageous neo-Duane Eddy guitar on Steve Earle's Guitar Town. "He's the guy who brought the twang back to Nashville," Marty says of Bennett. "He played the solo on 'Hillbilly Highway,' which I think was the best song cut in Nashville in ten years. He's just a low-key guy who's a total monster."

The same team worked on Tempted, achieving a spirit very similar to that of their first album together and a style even more on the money. Thick and fast and muscular with Fenders, aching with fiddles and Marty's mountain mandolin, it's strong stuff: virtuosos working the edge with power, taste, finesse and feeling, running a gamut of songs from Bill Monroe to Neil Young (plus great new Kennerley/Kostas/Stuart tunes and the usual Johnny Cash number, this time "Blue Train") and slaying them all. Tempted, in fact, is something of a total monster itself. It's the first contemporary country album to do a superb job of playing to to the marketplace--it delivers five or six killer mainstream radio hits--while also seizing the neglected reins of country's historically strongest stalking horses and making that buggy run. The bloodlines of all the really great movers are in this record: E.T. and his Texas Troubadours from the 1940's, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash and his Tennessee Three from the 50's, Buck Owens and The Buckaroos from the 60's, Waylon and his Waylors from the 70's.

Marty himself is real is proud of Tempted, saying that "I think I've finally gotten heart and soul together in my music" and adding that his band, formed in time to play on Tempted, has contributed mightily to that state of affairs. He lists them with pride: Larry Marrs, King of the Hillbilly Bass Players ("He's like Don Rich to my Buck Owens"); certified limey and guitar-star-in-his-own-right, Rockin' Ray Flacke, on Telecaster; and on drums, the incomparable Dangerous Dave Durocher.

These guys don't look like a country band--they don't even talk country--but they lay waste to a honky tonk as quickly and totally as any outfit I've ever heard. Marty seconds that motion. "This band absolutely works. You can give this band any song, any place and they'll eat it up, man. They're fearless. They'll get out there on the limb where it cracks. That's the way I like to do it.

"And, besides, they're real interesting to be around. It's like, on the bus, you'll have Ray and Dave playing chess and listening to classical music; you'll have Mike, our road manger, who's into heavy metal; and Larry Marrs, his day don't start 'til he smokes a cigarette and listens to a Little Jimmy Dickens record."

He chortles. "Everyone of us a misfit somewhere, right here where we belong. Fun, huh?"

The great old Tubb bus has transported us from Memphis, where among other things, Marty observed the legendary echoes in the Sun Recording Studio (he always visits there), to Nashville, where during the last two days he has been nominated for another video award, has played guitar on a Travis Tritt record, has attended to business matters with his manger Bonnie Garner and has met Roy Rogers.

That last item was quite some occasion, a gathering of stars--Clint Black, Ricky Van Shelton, Emmylou Harris, Roger Miller, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Riders in the Sky, Tanya Tucker, Marie Osmond, Alan Jackson, a dozen others similarly stellar--to sing the chorus on a new recording of Roy's "Happy Trails To You."

Marty, of course, was in his element putting people together, getting things going, telling stories and more than anything, being a fan. Maybe Bonnie Garner's affectionate prediction wasn't exactly on the money--"You watch," she laughed, "he'll show up with his Roy Rogers lunchbox"--but it was close. He'd been through his large, first-class collection of country music memorabilia (he has things like one of Hank Williams' guitars) and shown up with two items, a Stetson and a vintage movie poster, ready for the autograph of the King of the Cowboys.

He asked and received, and he got something extra and special: Roy knew who he was and told him he enjoys his songs and videos. So now, as he navigates his hard-used Cadillac around the alleyways behind Music Row ("A hillbilly music star has to have a Cadillac, you know"), he's feeling pretty privileged.

"I felt like a five-year-old, meeting Roy Rogers," he says. "That just totally made my year. But y'know, what a man. Think about it. What a campaign he's run. Anyone can be an outlaw, but it's awful hard to be a good guy."

He sounds like he knows what he's talking about on that last point, and maybe he really does, so I ask him how he feels about the campaign he himself is running.

"Well, being a sideman in Nashville, I've always felt like some of the things I did made a difference," he says, "Like the Highwayman record--I took that song to that project. When the video thing started up, I pulled the costume bit out of Nashville's closet and got that rolling. And now I think it's time to do that kind of thing on a larger scale. I want to make a difference in a bigger way now.

"You know, sometimes I feel like it's a crusade, or a mission: a crusade for hillbilly music. Materially, I have some great tools: the Tubb bus, the closet full of Nudie suits, Hank's and Lester's and Clarence White's guitars, hit songs, fans. So materially, we're armed. But most of all I'm armed spiritually, because when I lay down and sleep at night, I feel real good. There's peace waiting on my pillow."

He glances through the windshield at the skyline of the city that's always had his heart and is now beginning to take some pride in that gift. "You know, I'm glad I got my spirit taken care of before any of the rest of it happened," he says matter-of-factly. "I'd be pretty worthless without that."

Article written by Patrick Carr

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