Marty Stuart

Plugged In, Tuned Up, and Turned On

This appeared in Country Music Today - November/December 2003

Toni Marie races out to the lobby at KJUG (106.7 FM) in Tulare, California. The curly-headed air personality, scheduled to emcee Marty Stuart's Electric Barnyard Festival in the evening, insists on meeting one of its star performers before he leaves the station.

"I wanted to see his hair!" she beams.

Marty handles the exchange smoothly but, after spending several days with him, I can tell that the comment rankles him. He's just completed the seventh of nine radio interviews in a three-day period and, in at least half of them, his trademark puffy name, which gives him the appearance of a British rocker, became a significant topic. Typically, he reacts with a grimace, by deftly changing the conversation's flow, or by simply laughin it off, as he did several hours earlier at Bakersfield's KUZZ (107.9 FM).

"Every day's a hair disaster for me," he had insisted.

Later in the day, Brian Glenn, the bass player for Marty's band, His Fabulous Superlatives, smiles wryly when told of his boss' responses.

"Marty," he insists, "knows the value of that hair."

Marty explains his frustration the next morning during a drive from KSKS (93.7 FM) in Fresno -- where, once again, he was praised for his mop -- to the Arden Fair Mall in Sacramento where he was to briefly go on-air at KNCI (105.1 FM) during a fundraiser for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

"There's a record that goes with that hair," he sighs. "Listen to the music. It's about the music."

In fact, Marty has delivered some of the best -- if not the best -- music of his career, following a four-year disappearance from CD bins. Brashly titled Country Music, his new album rumbly walks the line between country's rich traditional heritage and its rock-influenced modern tone. He laces the classic Porter Wagoner waltz, "A Satisfied Mind," with a tough 4/4 beat. He covers "Walls of a Prison," an obscure story song written by former employer Johnny Cash, with reverence. And he holds special regard for "Farmer's Blues," a song written with his wife -- and fellow Grand Ole Opry star -- Connie Smith, and recorded with his Electric Barnyard touring partner, Merle Haggard.

Meanwhile, Marty demonstrates acute hipness as he threads the album with contemporary influences. The twangy "Fool for Love" has a backing chorus that belongs on a Chris Isaak record. His single, "If There Ain't There Ought'a Be," laces good-timin' fantasy with an "Arnie"-like opening riff and verses that land somewhere between urban rap and old time country recitation. Even when he namechecks such legends as Marty Robbins, Hank Williams and Earl Scruggs in "Tip Your Hat," he celebrates them with a chorus that reflects some "Mutt" Lange influence.

Four years since the release of his previous album, and a surprising 11 years removed from his last Top 10 single, Marty is pulling double-duty on the California leg of his Barnyard tour. While his stylish band and tourmates -- Merle, Connie, punk string band the Old Crow Medicine Show and "If There Ain't There Ought'a Be" songwriter Bobby Pinson -- travel to the next concert date, Marty takes a rental car excursion to several radio stations with Columbia Records record promoter Jon Conlon. Some artists -- introverted and shy about opening up to strangers -- have a difficult time with radio tours. Artists are often told how great their music is by programmers who later refuse to play that same music. Despite that brutal backdrop, Marty is ready to go.

"What kind of fool would get out of bed with Connie Smith and run up and down the road beggin' country music radio to play my little record?" he snickers, rhetorically. "Well, that would be me."

Over the course of several days, Marty demonstrates great abilities in the trenches. Buoyed by the caffeine of an occasional Diet Mountain Dew, he's able to turn on the energy the second he walks through the station door or, more importantly, when the questions are fired during an on-air interview.

He tells After Midnite host Blair Garner about Dolly Parton's breasts and the possibility of life on other planets. He tells KJUG that touring with Merle Haggard is "like goin' to Yankee Stadium with Babe Ruth." And, when the KSKS morning team tells him they've had three fatal traffic accidents during that rush hour, Marty doesn't miss a beat. "There was a fatality last night in Tulare -- I killed a guitar solo."

Told later that he's as much a salesman as an artist, Marty is anything but offended.

"There's not a nickel's worth of difference between campaignin' for a hit record and campaignin' for President of the United States," he says. It's about kissin' babies, it's about shakin' hands, it's about doin' s - - t you don't wanna do, it's about poundin' the pavement. It's a rubber chicken dinner one night with a black tie on; it's overalls, hangin' out with the farmers the next day. The thing that I like about it, and that amazes me about it, is I like every bit of it, 'cause it all revolves around people, and the quirkiness of people, and the photographer in me just sees a portrait in every bit of it."

Marty performs with every act on his tour in triple-digit temperatures, the heat itself a hefty tax on the system. The mere process of traveling has its own physical demands, and Marty's erratic schedule -- he signs autographs until about midnight after the show and he's sometimes required to be up at 4:30 a.m. for press opportunities -- make it difficult to get a biological rhythm going.

"It's like workin' out," he observes, "or doin' anything with repetition -- goin' fishin' every day or goin' to church every day, joggin' every day. You know, you build up a resistance, and an immunity and a strength about yourself."

The night the Electric Barnyard tour -- sponsored by Waffle House, CMT and WSM Radio -- reaches rural Dixon, 30 miles west of Sacramento, Marty extends his sidewinder guitar solo during "Now That's Country," launching into a modified duckwalk across the front edge of the stage while he peels of Chuck Berry-style licks during the song. At the close of the song, he becomes a preacher, testifying to the merits of Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Connie Smith, George Jones, Tammy Wynette and Buck Owens, then grafting an impromptu rendition of Buck's instrumental "Buckraroo" onto the proceedings.

Drummer Harry Stinson, whose resume bears associations to Steve Earle, Trisha Yearwood, Reba McEntire and Conway Twitty, relishes Marty's unpredictability.

"That's one of the reasons I love playin' with him," Harry says.

Marty was greatly challenged when he put together the Fabulous Superlatives: Harry, guitarist Kenny Vaughan and bass player Brian Glenn. He has pulled back from mainstream country music to re-evaluate his life, spend much-needed-quality time at home, and score a handful of movies including 2000's All the Pretty Horses. Despite a road familiarity developed over three decades of travel (he claims he can wake up from a deep sleep on a bus and peg his location within 4 to 5 miles based on the terrain), he had some doubts as he returned to the road that he would be able to continue.

"Fool me," he chuckles. "I put the band together and our first date was Switzerland, with no rehearsal. I got on a plane, said, "We're just gonna see what happens." I wanted to see how much I had lost and what happened.

"Sure enough, not a lot of vocal strength, not a lot of stamina on stage, rusty -- rusty, rusty, rusty -- stage skills down, dexterity down, alertness down. I got through all of it, just 'cause of natural instincts and natural abilities but, boy, it took three or four months. [Now that it's] back, I feel like I'm full-force again. I feel like, so far, I'm jumpin' through every hoop in front of me."

The most difficult hoop, however, is the one that's created this need to hit up radio stations. He's built an impressive connection to music's past and that's evident by the people he interacts with daily.

Over the next two days, Marty takes calls on his cell phone from Andy Griffith and Johnny Cash, and is short-circuited from a visit with Buck Owens only because the Bakersfield singer is ill on the day Marty visits his station, KUZZ.

As much as he loves the tradition that surrounds him, though, Marty has his own intense desire to make an impact on current radio playlists.

"I'm not ready to be overlooked yet," he insists.

There are souls to be won, to the cause of Marty Stuart and to the cause of country music.

"If you wanna hang out and play the Marty Party game, wonderful. But if you wanna go to the most dark and spooky part of country music, I can take you there. I've got a lot of bats in my cellar I can show you."

After all the interviews, after the show in Dixon, after a half-hour of signing autographs while the roadies dismantled his stage, a gray-haired woman struggled to explain Marty's effect to him.

Ultimately, she had to let her visible excitement explain to Marty the full depth of her less-than-exacting summation: "You've got whatever it is."

By Tom Roland

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