Starting Over, Again

After conquering a midlife crisis, Marty Stuart returns with a forward-looking album that draws on his love of the past -- as always

This appeared on Country Music Magazine - July 2003

Backstage, Marty Stuart walks by a catering table that is anything but lavish -- a bowl of chips, some salsa, a pot of coffee, a bottle of cranberry juice. Stuart's contract clearly doesn't make the extravagant demands many stars require for their dressing rooms. It's that way by design.

"It's all about the music," he shrugs, as he and his three-piece supporting band, The Fabulous Superlatives, prepare for sound check on a sunny afternoon at the Galaxy Theatre in Santa Ana, California.

Even during warm-ups, the band's excitement about the music is evident; they play with intensity. Blues progressions, bluegrass harmonies, gospel tones -- the material is all over the map. Nevertheless, there's no questioning the country origins at the heart of it all.

A take on a Porter Wagoner classic, "A Satisfied Mind," nicely summarizes what's happening in Stuart's musical world these days. Written as a mournful waltz, the song is stripped then refashioned as a rockin', driving Western theme. The music shines and glimmers in a surprisingly stirring rendition that partially disguises the dire nature of the lyrics' warning about greed.

"Satisfied Mind" mirrors Stuart's musical approach. It's a classic country song, given due respect, even as it's reworked with 21st-century energy nearly 50 years after it was introduced. And it serves as an appropriate introduction to the Mississippi native's first album of the new millennium, which bears a very direct title: Country Music.

With this CD, Stuart figures he's starting over -- despite everything he's already experienced and achieved.

He's paid his dues, big time. In his teens, he worked as a sideman to bluegrass legend Lester Flatt. Then, in his 20's, he played guitar and mandolin with American icon Johnny Cash. He built a solo presence in the '90s that hinged on rockabilly-tinged tunes, flashy style and cunning musicianship.

He scored a half-dozen Top 10 hits, including "Hillbilly Rock" and "Tempted," plus a couple gold albums and a Grand Ole Opry membership. In addition, he's recorded with everybody from Travis Tritt and The Staple Singers to Earl Scruggs and Rolling Stone Keith Richards.

But by decade's end, Stuart felt stifled. His 1999 theme album, The Pilgrim, attracted such guest performers as Ralph Stanley, George Jones and Emmylou Harris. The CD earned him critical praise and a couple of Grammy nominations, but was dismissed by radio and, therefore, never stirred any significant sales. "The Pilgrim was a bit of the War and Peace of my mind at the time," Stuart ruminates. "It was a love letter to country music.

It hurt to see his letter mostly ignored, but Stuart was able to view it with just enough objectivity that he could make a reasonable decision. He decided to back away from the music business.

"It's the band member in me," he explains. "I know when to lay out."

Stuart gave his road band time to look around for new jobs, playing their final concert in northern Mississippi on the last day of 1999. After the show, Stuart and his wife, Grand Ole Opry stalwart Connie Smith, headed off with no specific plans about how to start the next year.

"It was a quarter to 12 on New Year's Eve, the new millennium," he recalls, "and I remember Connie and I saying that we'd give anything if we had a church to go to. 'Wait,' we said. 'There's one.' A little cinder-block church. We walked up, a little black church, and it was rockin', man it was rockin'. And that's where I started the new millennium."

Talk about beginnings. Filled with the spirit, Stuart and Smith shipped off to Hawaii for a month of relaxation -- and, a mere 16 months after he turned 40, Stuart found himself with plenty of time to ponder how he would approach the last half of his life.

"I came back a different person," he says. "It was time to start over. I took every gold record off the wall, every award off the wall, wrapped 'em up in paper and started over."

Stuart avoided listening to the radio. He and Smith sold their house and redecorated a new one. They took time to enjoy their life as a couple, and he began to look at the world in a way he could not during a lifetime of one-night concerts and endless sessions in windowless buildings.

"I remember one day somebody came up to me and said, 'What's goin' on?' I said, 'I've been watchin' a bird's nest in my yard and four little birds finally hatched today, and they're like robins. Then a cardinal came and fed 'em.' They said, 'Have you heard the new George Strait single?' 'No.'

What nobody understood is, man, I left home when I was 12. I never had a summer to watch birds hatch, so it was like a totally different world -- and I loved that."

Unusual things began to happen. Instead of making hit records, Stuart scored the music for three different movies, earning a Golden Globe nomination for his work on All The Pretty Horses. He wrote two songs on the Dixie Chick's Home album and produced an album for actor Billy Bob Thornton. He also got an opportunity to produce another album -- a tribute to his mentor and former father-in-law, Johnny Cash.

Sony executive Blake Chancey suggested a collection of Cash songs with interpretations from the current crop of hitmakers, such as Toby Keith, Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney. Stuart turned him down.

"I couldn't play that record for Johnny Cash," he explains. "I don't know why, but it just doesn't ring true to me."

Instead, he thought of a Cash tribute done for television in 1999, one that drew on Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Sheryl Crow. The idea took, and Stuart oversaw the development of Kindred Spirits, which had contributions from those artists as well as Steve Earle, Little Richard, Keb' Mo', Mary Chapin Carpenter and Rosanne Cash.

The album served as an appropriate bridge. It proved to Stuart that he could stand his ground artistically and still deliver music that would interest Music Row's decision-makers.

Through Kindred Spirits, the Chicks' album, and a Grammy-winning song, "Same Old Train," that he wrote for a 1998 tribute to country tradition, Sony had established a relationship with Stuart and the label gave him another chance.

He was sidetracked briefly a year ago by a DUI charge. It was eventually dismissed in court, though Stuart -- who admits he had been drinking -- refused a sobriety test. As a result, his license was restricted for a year.

"It was embarrassing, but it was a great wake-up call," he says.

After altering his life with a 12-step program, Stuart is now free to concentrate on his new opportunity. He approaches it with typical creative vigor. Instead of hitting major markets, he decided to organize what he calls the Electric Barnyard Tour, which features several acts -- including Merle Haggard, Connie Smith, Rhonda Vincent and BR549 -- along with some fair-style side attractions. Instead of hitting the nation's top population centers, he's focused on what he calls "the backroads," the places where real people still do real labor to fund their slice of the American dream.

A record executive told Stuart he was crazy. The suburbs are where country music lives, not the farms and little towns. Stuart dismissed the advice, placing more weight on Haggard's assessment. "What we're doing is remembering the forgotten."

In some respects, the songs on Stuart's new album do the same thing. "Sundown in Nashville" utilizes a Ray Price-like shuffle beat; "Farmer's Blues" finds Merle Haggard yodeling like Jimmie Rogers while plying a rootsy rural lyric; and "Walls of a Prison" effectively reincarnates an ominous Cash song from 1968.

But Stuart naturally imports outside musical influences, reflecting a mysterious, Chris Isaak-style vibe in "Fool for Love" and pouring Memphis soul into "Here I Am."

Further demonstrating his ability to walk with ease in multiple eras, "Tip Your Hat" name-checks a vast array of standards -- "El Paso," "Crazy Arms," "Cherokee Maiden," "King of the Road" -- even as Stuart shouts out a chorus that mimics Loverboy's "Lovin' Every Minute of It," a song written by Robert John "mutt" Lange in 1985, some eight years before Lange became Shania Twain's husband and producer.

It's one of the ways in which Stuart has rededicated himself to country music. He demonstrates that country's past does not have to be ignored, even as the genre continues to move forward.

That parallels his own story. He's recorded with Clint Black and Little Richard, with Tammy Wynette and Mark Knopfler, but he's very clear on who he wants to work with in the future.

"Nobody," he says emphatically.

"There comes a time when you get your diploma," he explains. "Collaboration is good, and I'm still doin' it, but I look at guys like (Ricky) Skaggs, I look at Vince (Gill), myself, Alison (Krauss) -- there's a handful of us, and we've gotta do it now. We've gotta carry the torch on."

It's important to Stuart to do that in a commercially viable way. But it's even more important to do it in a way that gives him a satisfied mind.

By Tom Roland

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