Marty Stuart - Pickin' and Choosin'

This appeared in Country Music Magazine - September/October 1986

In the garden of The Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa, an old familiar feeling is upon me. Picking wizard Marty Stuart and I are having fun being music fans.

It's nice to be a fan, especially when as a professional you waste most of your time talking about "careers" and "trends" and similar cold-hard-cash-related questions, and The Cowboy Arms is the perfect place for fan-type feelings. Being the home/office/recording studio of the great Jack Clement (a/k/a "Cowboy," "Cowperson," Pineapple Jack," and lately "pop Country"), it is by far the most entertaining musical playground in Nashville, the nation and probably the world. Anything can happen at The Cowboy Arms. That's why it's been my home-away-from-home ever since my first trip to Nashville, and why Marty Stuart is proud to acknowledge that "it's my official unofficial office." Marty is also honored to be a member of Nashville's most exclusive fun elite, Cowboy's Ragtime Band.

Right now The Cowboy Arms is in prime form, full of warmth and music and continuity and creativity. Spring is in the air again, the sap is rising and the buds are blooming, the birds are singing and so is Jack; he's been livening up the scenery with his latest infatuation, polka music, but now he's crooning lustily along with a tape of another recent project, the romantic sensuous sounds of internationally obscure but locally infamous Latin Lover Roberto Bianco, otherwise known as songwriter Bob White. "My soooon to be former wife"....lots of happy big-band horns, a suave and swinging weekend-in-Rio feel...."owns fiiifty percent of my life...."

Here in the garden, then, it's easy for Marty and I to relax. Just play. Talk about the stars of our record collection, memories of magic moments, sweet inspirations, the works: the beauty of Bill Monroe's band when both Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt were in it; the crazy, escalating tension of Johnny Cash's Live at Folsom Prison ("It's still the best record to mow the lawn by; you go faster and faster," says Marty); the way to Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo album combined bluegrass harmonies and honky tonk piano and an electric 12-string Rickenbacker like they'd been together forever; the sudden surprise of Bob Dylan's "Lay, Lady, Lay"; the time Bernie Leadon of the Eagles asked Marty to introduce him to Lester Flatt and Lester days, "Who are the Eagles?"

We can't play forever, though. We can't just sit around being fans and fellow family members in the house Jack built. We have to do business. I have to become the music journalist, and ask Marty questions; he has to become "the artist" and answer them. This is because Marty, at the ripe old age of 28, has made a major career decision; he is now the singer, not just another of the boys in the band.

Well, he never really was just another of the boys in the band. He was always pretty unique, something of a prodigy, and in fact he started out in the music trade as the only boy in the band. That is, when Marty Stuart went on the road as one of the legendary Lester Flatt's crew of hard-core country pickers, he was only 13 years old.

Behind this startling fact was an unusual childhood. The son of a supervisor of a heating-element plant and a lady banker, Marty grew up securely middle-class in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a town of some 30,000 souls which became notorious in the 1960s for the murders of civil rights workers which occurred there. Marty remembers watching Martin Luther King march through town while the local farmers stood by with shotguns breeched over their arms, and realizing that he was seeing something important. "That's where I come from," he says, "but that's not what Philadelphia's really about; it's about a lot of down-to-earth people who get up and tend to their business and their flowers and their farms, and go on living."

He was always a music fan ("I think I fell out of the chute that way"), but unlike most of the kids of his generation, he was always a country music fan. He was enthralled by the country TV shows of the era--The Porter Wagoner Show, Jim & Jessie's performances on Country Carousel, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs' show--but unmoved by rock.

He got serious about music at the age of nine when his father bought him a guitar in exchange for a lot of grasscutting and such, and he "had the usual kid bands around town for a couple of years." Then, because his daddy loved the instrument, he also acquired a mandolin. One thing led to another until, through the good offices of his friend Carl Jackson, he spent his twelfth summer with the Sullivan Family Group, playing Pentecostal churches around Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and even Indiana and Illinois.

"I had a blast," he laughs. "I haven't had that much fun since. I mean, I got my introduction to the road by way of the Pentecostal Church! Kinda slid into it sideways. 'Course, that fits just about everything else I've done since then."

But, summers must end, and twelve-year-old kids, even Future Country Music Stars of America, have to cut their hair and go back to school.

"That didn't take," says Marty, "so I used up one of my aces." He called Roland White, Lester Flatt's mandolin player whom he'd met that summer, got invited to Nashville for a weekend, talked his parents into letting him go, and wound up on Lester's bus traveling to a bluegrass festival in Delaware. He was on the bus, picking with Roland White, when Lester came by on his way to bed and was, understandably, brought up short.

"I was a real bluegrass fan, knew all about Earl Scruggs and Lester when they were in Bill Monroe's band, so I started talking all this stuff to Lester," Marty remembers. "He couldn't believe it--a 13-year-old kid puttin' all this in his face! It kinda stunned him. We hit it right off. I caught his sense of humor; he loved to tell stories and I loved to listen, and it really was a cool relationship."

Lester, no dummy, suggested that Marty and Roland work up a number for the show. They did, it "didn't go over too bad," and Lester invited Marty to join the band if something could be worked out with his schooling.

Marty didn't exactly need to be asked twice. The phone lines between Mississippi and Tennessee began burning up, and the next weekend his parents traveled to Nashville to meet Lester. It went well. "They saw what kind of person he was, and how well he was respected," says Marty. "I think if he'd been a guitar god in the rock 'n' roll world, it might not have happened--but they turned me loose, and I love them for doing that. It took a lot of love and trust and understanding. That's what a good family's all about."

He adds that his folks are not "stage parents." They were just as proud of their daughter when she became a cheerleader as they were of Marty when he took his first solo on a Lester Flatt and Mac Wiseman album. "And anyway," said Marty, "my dad thinks my career's been shot ever since I plugged in. He's a purist."

Plugged in. A nice term in relation to Marty Stuart. It goes with his rock 'n' roll looks and it suggests other terms like high voltage or, even better, live wire. Which he certainly is; this boy has plenty of energy and he enjoys stirring things up.

"I've always been like that," he says. "Whatever's going on, I've always been one to buck and gnash and claw at it, often just to keep from getting bored. I'm a total cosmonaut, a rebel."

During the six years he was with Lester Flatt, for instance, he made a point of buying every new Earl Scruggs album and presenting it to Lester (who, as every 'billy music fan in the world must surely know, was engaged in the mother of all feuds with his former partner). He also took pains to address Lester as "Earl" at all the wrong moments. "That would always bring on an exchange," he laughs. "It was a lot of fun."

After Lester passed away in 1979, Marty's career continued in an unboring fashion. He grabbed an electric guitar and went on the road with Vassar Clements' hillbilly jazz revue. "I've always gone with feeling players rather than technical wizards, and Vassar's playing just takes me over." Next he met Doc and Merle Watson, and wound up working with them. He hitched a ride on Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review and had a ball--"I've seen lots of zoos on the road, but nobody ever admitted they were zoos; Rolling Thunder was proud of it." He picked onstage and in the studio with Merle Travis, Ernest Tubb, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Anne Murray, Neil Young, Billy Joel and a few dozen others; he made a great little minor-label album, Busy Bee Cafe, with a crew of back-porch pickers whose names read like the honor roll at the Country Music Hall of Fame; and, of course, he got to work with his greatest idol.

"One day in 1980 I was laying in bed, really frustrated because it was medium-time all the way up to that point, and I really wanted some big-time excitement," Marty remembers. "I really wanted to meet my hero, Johnny Cash." Marty's feelings about Cash run deep, way back to the first records he ever owned: Claude Boone's Wolverton Mountain, Johnny Western's Have Gun Will Travel and The Fabulous Sound of Johnny Cash.

"That was such a great record," he says. "The honesty was the main thing; the sincerity of John's voice, the sincerity of Luther Perkins' mistakes, the way Fluke Holland could make a drum sound like a train, the feeling in Marshall Grant's right hand--he wasn't a great bass player, but he played Johnny Cash music just right--all that stuff just got right to me. John's been a part of my life, all my life, as long as I can remember." True to form, Marty achieved his ambition. He went along with a friend who was delivering a guitar to Cash at The Cowboy Arms, and walked into a room containing both Cash and Jack Clement.

"There sat Cowboy drinking olive juice, singing 'The Wabash Cannonball,' and gurgling," he recalls. "John was singing 'The Wabash Cannonball,' then playing rhythm while Cowboy sang a verse. I just watched and enjoyed it, and then Cowboy said, "Why don't you grab a mandolin?' "

Once again, Marty didn't exactly need to be asked twice. Pretty soon the three of them were having "a magical little pickin' session,: and a short while later Marty wound up working for the Man in Black. This he did from 1980 until just recently; traveling the world, playing guitar and mandolin, singing backup, suggesting songs, having fun, stirring things up.

"I think above all I was laying the groundwork for a friendship," he says. "We probably strained it at times, but what 'billies don't give each other headaches now and then? It ain't nothing an aspirin won't take care of, and then you get up and go at it again."

For Marty, that magic little picking session with Cash and Clement was a very big deal--and counting those men as friends still is. "I know this is corny," he says, "but it's like when you're a kid and the preacher has just preached a good hot one, and you walk up and shake his hand on the way out of the church. You feel a little better about yourself 'cause you were close to that guy who just talked like that. That's the way I feel when I'm around John and Cowboy."

He adds that "I'm not through playing with Johnny Cash; I've just finished by six-year apprenticeship with him." Now, though, he is no longer a part of Cash's traveling family; he's rolled the dice on his own show. The other day he watched the Johnny Cash tour bus take off on the road without him and felt strange.

As a professional musician, Marty Stuart has seen it all; the lowbucks "purist" bluegrass/folky circuit, the conspicuous consumption world of rock 'n' roll; and every kind of hard and soft-core country, from the purely inspired to the numbingly mundane. Now he has a notion about where he fits.

"I could have gone with a solo career a few years ago," he says, "but there was a lot of that urban-cowboy stuff going on, and I certainly don't belong there. If that came around again tomorrow, I'd have to jump out. I come at country music from the roots angle, see; that's where I'm at."

Not necessarily his bluegrass/hardcore country roots, however; there's a lot of beat in Marty's music, a lot of rockabilly oompah. "My album's a real bold album," he says. "Basically, I pulled out all the stops. I decided to steer away from what everybody who knows me is familiar with. Don't get me wrong--I love a steel guitar and a banjo and a mandolin and a fiddle section as much as anyone, but I figured this material called for a big B3 organ a lot more than a steel guitar."

He also figured the music called for "green energy," so he avoided the business-as-usual Nashville record-making process in which professional session musicians walk in cold and build tracks one part at a time, opting instead for the Cowboy Arms method: you find energized pickers, you rehearse together and then you all go into the studio and cut the song as "live" as possible.

The resulting album, Marty thinks, will probably turn off a lot of traditionalists and middle-of-the-road fans, but that's too bad; he's loaded for a different kind of game. "I'm out to recruit a youth demographic," he explains. "I swear, it's almost like I'm on a revival campaign, or a political campaign. I believe that the person who buys Madonna records can find something to like about us in this town."

Which is not nearly as odd a notion as it sounds; Marty is just one of a whole new generation of country artists who might very well be capable of stirring the kids of today.

How? Marty has an opinion. "You see, I'm still a fan," he says. "I still know what getting good value for your money is about. I know how great it feels when you buy an honest record, a record somebody's put everything he has into, and I know how it feels when something else is going on. And I also know that the only way for me to make that kind of record is to be myself. Do what I feel, not what's easiest or what somebody else figures I should do."

Sometimes that's difficult. Some pressures are hard to resist; the record company wants you to record a song you don't care for, somebody else wants you to open the show for an act with whom you have nothing whatsoever in common. "It's easy to get suckered into that kind of thing," says Marty. "I know, 'cause I've done it. But it's not the way to go; it doesn't work. All of us youngsters have got to remember that it's okay to say 'no', to pick and choose what we do--'cause when it comes down to it, the most valuable thing we have is our integrity. That's the only thing that gets across to real music fans."

We start talking about musicians who have always done what they wanted--have always been honest--and pretty soon we're talking Marty's heroes: Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Bob Dylan, John R. Cash, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff. "Every one of those guys made a real bold statement," he says. "Every one of them did something new, every one of them created new fans, and every one of them lasted. All my heroes are guys who dared to be different."

That seems like a good exit line, so I turn off the tape recorder and Marty and I just shoot the breeze for a while: about the family feeling in country music ("It still has that mom 'n' pop element to it; I hope nobody ever figures out how to wreck that," says Marty); about his own family (he's married to Cindy Cash, and she and their daughter are fine); about the progress of this magazine for which Marty has written several articles and reviews, and about some of his other fan/scholar/collector interests. Then the Cowboy comes wandering out into the garden with a guitar. Marty picks up a mandolin and the two of them start messing around together; having fun: "Love in Vain," "Waymore's Blues," "Miller's Cave," and (of course) "Wabash Cannonball."

This particular week in this particular month, Marty's place in the scheme of career-related things is not an easy one. Adrift from Cash's bandwagon and awaiting the release of the album to which he is fully committed, he's being so selective about work that the money is beginning to tighten as the available fretting time increases; lots of tension in those doldrums, lots of nagging questions about security and ambition and risk and integrity. But watching him follow the Cowboy's lead with a glow of pure fan's pleasure in his eyes, and listening to the easy flow of fine free music, I get the feeling that no matter what happens, Marty will be okay.

Article written by Patrick Carr

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