Marty Stuart Shoots For The Stars

This appeared in Country Music Magazine - September/October 1994

Actually, you caught me at the end of a great week," Marty Stuart beams, drumming his fingertips on the top of a table at Austin's Broken Spoke honky tonk while a VH-1 Country Countdown crew sets up to shoot a segment with him and Travis Tritt. Marty just blew into Austin about an hour ago, did a quick change at the hotel and then hopped a limo to the Spoke. He spent the last couple of days in Dallas where he was representing Nashville in a tourism show (it's a little-known fact, but Mr. Stuart just happens to be the International Ambassador of Tourism for the city). While there, he'd managed to have dinner with Hank Williams' sister, who keeps a very low profile but is giving Marty a rare interview for this magazine and, around midnight Saturday, to pay a quiet visit to the book depository and grassy knoll where President Kennedy was assassinated. Sunday morning, he had breakfast with and then attended the church of Ralph Mooney, the retired steel guitarist best known for writing "Crazy Arms" and playing with Ray Price, Buck Owens and Waylon Jennings; Mooney became a deacon not too long ago.

Earlier in the week, Marty had joined Johnny Gimble, Chet Atkins, Ray Benson and others to accept a Grammy for his part in Asleep at the Wheel's "Red Wing," which he sang on the Austin swing band's Bob Wills tribute album. Tomorrow morning, he'll be taping an installment of Willie Nelson's new TV show, Legends of Country Music, with Wheel leader Benson, Tritt and Willie. And so you can maybe understand why the guy's in such a good mood as he waits to tape his segment with Tritt.

A VH-1 producer comes over to give him some directions, telling him to just kinda talk with Travis like they're in mid-conversation. You may have seen Tritt's show by now and thus know the drill; basically, he's introducing the top videos of the week with his guests and keeping it as light as he can; a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.

But with Marty and Tritt, it's different. Anyone who believes these guys toured for a solid year because it made good business sense has never seen them together. The chemistry is undeniable. As Marty is being called to his stool, Tritt is asking if anyone knows where his hair dryer is. "I want you to know Travis Tritt is the only person who's ever brought his hair dryer to the Broken Spoke," Marty cackles. "And I'm proud of him. He's an innovator. My brother is an innovator!"

Marty is also taken by the fact that Travis is wearing a puffy-sleeved shirt in a honky tonk and such banter continues virtually until the millisecond the cameras come on--at which point, they stop teasing each other and turn into hams. Their takes are flawless, their comic timing well-honed, but one segment has to be redone because of camera troubles. When the producer tells him this, Marty is still so busy yammering into Travis' ear that she has to holler it to him again; this time, Marty does a hard double-take, like he's just come out of a coma and declares, "All you gotta do is tell me twice." Big laughs all around and, then presto, the take is finished in no time. While Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore prepare to swap some songs on camera, Tritt's roadie calls over to the Continental Club to see if Junior Brown is playing there as he does every Sunday he's in town (but this week, he's gone). Last time these two were in town together, Marty decided to introduce Travis to the music of Austin's local legend with the guit-steel and they liked it so much that they were compelled to hang in until last call while getting themselves notably sideways. That's obviously not in the cards again tonight and, besides, Travis has himself an invite to the governor's mansion for tea. Stuart will satisfy himself with room-service cheesecake.

Thus ends Marty's Excellent Week.

Surprisingly, given my introduction to Stuart Sunday night, things turn serious with Marty come Monday. We meet at a Southwestern cafe just off downtown and try to start an interview before the food arrives but that doesn't come easy for either of us. He talks a little about his new band, The Rock and Roll Cowboys, who made their first appearance early this year on the Opry. Then there's the George Jones project--essentially a George Jones "unplugged" album with the star singing some of his old hits with the new stars, accompanied by a mostly-acoustic core band which includes Marty on mandolin (he also sings "One Woman Man" with George). Then there's his and John Anderson's version of "Mama Tried" on a forthcoming tribute album of Merle Haggard chestnuts which will also serve as a benefit for Second Harvest, a song called "Beyond the Storm" that Marty wrote with Mike Reid and Steve Cropper for Wynonna; his benefit work for AIDS; his track with Pop and Mavis Staples on the Rhythm, Country & Blues set ...... the man definitely has a side project or two going. To say nothing of Love And Luck, which is his own newest album (and, to my ears anyhow, easily his best). Much as he likes that one himself, he's not inclined to puff it up too much. When the waiter puts our lunches down, Marty seems visibly relieved. "Let's eat," Marty Stuart says emphatically.

Over lunch, we small-talk happily about favorite records, favorite stories (apocryphal and otherwise) about the stars, and the like but, at one point, Marty puts down his fork and says simply "You know the reason I'm so uneasy with an interview right now is I don't want to do the usual started-with-Lester-and-then-Johnny Cash stuff, and I don't want to hype my new album that much." I begin thinking there isn't going to be an interview but, once we're in my car with an hour to go before he must be at the television studio for Willie's taping, Marty asks if we're close enough to the river that we could go sit there awhile. "This is likely to be my last chance to a little peace and quiet for the rest of the day," he explains and, as I head toward the water, he begins talking about music and stardom and what you gain and what you give up when you go for the latter. It sounds like he's been thinking about this subject a lot lately so, when we settle down on a soft patch of green alongside the river, I begin by asking him what his intentions were when he first went solo after his tenure as the 13-year-old boy wonder with Lester Flatt, after his years as the rock 'n' roll cowboy with Johnny Cash. Just what was he hoping for on his own?

"Well, the ultimate," he answers forthrightly. "What do you want to do? You want to sell all the records you can, you want to win all the awards you can, but the thing that meant the most to me on top of all that, it wasn't about coming to town and grabbing all the awards and running off, it was really about bringing a point of view with you. And sticking around a lot of Januarys. That's what means a lot to me. And when you're done, you know, what's to do, when you grow up, who do you want to be? Bill Monroe, that'd be great. Or Buck Owens."

But the way you've been talking, I suggest it sounds like you're getting discouraged; do you think it's possible to hold onto the music and the point of view and have the good career, and to keep all that to the end?

"I feel it's extremely possible to do that. I feel there's a supreme price you pay for it sometimes," he replies, just as quickly as he had before. "It means you're not always the most popular guy on the dance-club circuit, but it's a lot more interesting for me to go in and out of that. I think Willie's a great example. He's been in and out of the driver's seat a few times and I admire him a lot for it. Johnny Cash too. It must be hard to figure out how to be those guys after 40-something years. What do you do in the morning? But I think it's that figuring it out that is the fun part of it all. You find yourself with a product in your hand every now and then that don't make a lot of sense and you say, 'Why am I doing this?' Well, you've got a family to feed and a band to keep together. But the main thing is that at the end of it all, you're able to respect the body of work you've created. And that's the thing I'm most cautious of these days. Don't play any music you don't believe in because it will definitely come back to haunt you."

Now, Marty didn't arrive at these conclusions overnight. Much of his thinking derives from something Lester Flatt told him more than two decades ago when he was picking mandolin in the bluegrass master's band. "Keep it slow, keep it steady, build the foundation," Lester warned. "Go play music that you love to play with people that you love to play it with. That'll feed you and it also comes in real handy for your soul down through the years."

"I caught what he was saying a bit," Marty realizes, "but now I understand it a lot better." More recently, there was another factor. Marty had just come off a year of flat-out touring with Tritt and was down in Mississippi shooting a video when he ran into a beam over a door and wound up with a concussion and a bunch of stitches.

"I refused to stop. I just kept going and finally I went down, just passed out," he recalls. "Later, I looked at myself in the mirror and I thought, 'you ain't doing you or anybody else no good; you're doing more damage than good 'cause you're pretty nuts.' So I had no choice really except to sit down and take a closer look for a couple months. Actually, it was nice 'cause I got to take a look at the whirlwind I'd stirred up in the last four-five years to get it to the point it is now. I liked what I saw. I thought I'd made a difference; I thought I'd contributed to the movement; I thought it was a pretty original statement; I saw that it made a whole lot of difference to other people.

"I thought I'd spent my time well; it was five years I could really value for the rest of my life. And I thought it was time to do some soul-searching to see just how much it meant to me. And perhaps to change the leanings a little bit, get a little deeper sound, some deeper words in the songs, without losing the context. I thought I'd started that on the last album, but I really got it on this one. This whole album is a product of slowing down. I still did some shows in there, but I just used the rest of my time differently. Instead of hanging out on the bus all day or laying around the hotel, I did some soul-searching. It's really as simple as visiting some other people in the towns where you are or as simple as this--sitting by a river and getting yourself slowed down enough to listen.

"Before I cut this one, I took that look around. At the first of the year, the last album had gone Gold. Travis and me and won a Grammy. I'd won some country music awards the piggy bank was full. We'd had a real successful year. I went back to the checklist I'd made when I was in sixth grade of things I wanted to do in life. Everything was checked off. And I was burned out. So I really just had to be still and dig inside of myself to see what I had to say and what God had to say to me. If there was a job to do, put on the clothes and go flashing for a couple hours a night, but then getting back to sitting and listening and thinking about it, figuring out what to do with the second half of my life. I have a pretty good picture of it, and this album was a direct result of such things."

It shows. I agree with Marty that up until 1992's This One's Gonna Hurt You, he was still working up to style and statement. And that one, in turn, set him up for the beautifully balanced Love And Luck. The title song is one of the most gracious to hit the airwaves in quite a while. "Marty Stuart Visits The Moon" is a mandolin instrumental to end all mandolin instrumentals--and Marty's first good work-out on that instrument in quite a while. Billy Joe Shaver's "If I Give My Soul" is partly Marty's act of humility after a couple years too many in the fast lane, while "Oh, What A Silent Night," which he co-wrote with Harlan Howard, has a purity that speaks eloquently for itself. "That's What Love's About" is the first ballad--the first "quiet" song, as it were--Stuart's written. Gram Parsons' "Wheels" is, as Marty puts it, "the anthem of just burning it, being a road warrior for country music."

And that speaks directly to what Marty does intend to do with the rest of his life. "I think the job at hand is to just go ahead and become a country music superstar, finish that off and be real blatant about it, coliseums and stuff, put more people in the seats, sell more records, that's part of my game and I love it. I feel a couple books inside me. But I don't at this point want to get off the stage. I figure country music needs a few warriors out there that knows where it came from to bring it into the 21st century. If anybody cares. If not, I'm doing it for my own sake 'cause I really believe in it. It's what I choose to do and it really gets down to what you love and believe. I'd love to carry the ball for country music in a big way, one time. I've contributed in a lot of ways, but I really haven't done that.

Like any good country artist, Marty is also a good fan, That's a big part of what brought him to where he stands now, hoping to fill those coliseums but also hoping to keep country music, especially its younger new artists and fans, in touch with itself.

"I think more than ever champion cause at the moment beyond this career is helping turn the Grand Ole Opry towards the 21st century. Saying what's it's accomplished and making sure that still works. Help yank it from that themepark status back into being a real show again. I really think it's like going home to save the church.

"A lotta people sign on with the Opry for the prestige of having the name. To me, it means a lot more--because I started there when I was a kid and left for a long time. I signed back on with real intentions. What I see the Opry doing...I see them signing Garth Brooks and me and Travis and Clint Black, and they're making all the right moves and they're keeping their old stars playing as much as they can," he notes. "But what they don't have is the access to this new audience that we've gained out here. Their audience has changed along with everything else, and that's gonna take some doing, but I figure I'm one of those hardcore mouthpieces that can get it done. I believe in getting in there and sweating for it until those younger fans are coming back just like the younger musicians. Nowadays, when you have a Friday or Saturday night open around Nashville, the Opry's becoming a real scene again. I'm seeing hip young players showing up just to see what's going on. And I love being a part of that. I really do."

Article written by John Morthland

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