Keeper Of The Faith

This appeared in the Calgary Sun - January 16, 2002

Chalk one up for the good guys -- or rather the good ol' boys. Country music star Marty Stuart is on the other end of the line from Chicago and he's in a celebratory mood.

It's the day after he received word that the historic Nashville-based country music radio station WSM -- home of the Grand Ol' Opry -- had been saved from the fate of an all-sports talk radio format, due to financial concerns.

"It was a rare case where the corporate table listened to the cry of public opinion," says Stuart. "There was protests -- George Jones was protesting on the picket line. "Listeners were calling in and threatening lives. "It was great to see a little hillbilly spirit alive."

Stuart, who performs tonight at the Silver Dollar, was also heavily involved in the fight to keep the 76-year-old station C&W.

For him, a man who's a country music memorabilia collector and a fountain of knowledge on the form, WSM is a significant national and cultural monument -- one worth fighting for.

"People like myself and Vince Gill were really championing the station," Stuart says, "because you subtract that from the culture of country, it's a big piece of American culture gone down the drain."

The fact that it could get to the point where a station with the motto "Committed to country ... always have been, always will be" would even consider dumping the format is an especially troubling scenario for Stuart, whose career has spanned more than 30 years, including stints as a sideman for Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash.

He thinks it reflects the fact that country music radio has taken sides in a different battle -- the age-old battle of down-home country vs. poppier country.

The battle itself, Stuart says, is a healthy one. He just wishes both sides were getting more play. "It's always been roots against swanky gowns and tuxedos in country music," he says. "But that's cool, because what that tells me is there's always something for everybody in country music ...

"I really do believe with all my heart that it ... is the root source of country music and the roots element of the country music that sustains it and gives the pop edge its freedom to ride out there and take all the glory."

Stuart sees the recent success of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the subsequent bluegrass and roots acts that have popped up in its wake as a positive sign. Unfortunately, it came a little too help to help Stuart's last album, The Pilgrim, which was released in 1999.

The stunning traditional-based album was a concept record that spun the story of one man's highs and lows, and featured guest appearances by musical pioneers such as Jones, Earl Scruggs, Pam Tillis, and Emmylou Harris. For anyone, especially Stuart, who is more known for the rockabilly and honky tonk Marty Party persona, it was a brave statement.

So much so, that he also knew to put it out was career suicide. "That's what it's all about," he says. "When God gives you something that divine and that inspirational, you have to record it.

"While I'll was standing at the microphone the hardest part about making The Pilgrim was knowing that I was absolutely making a record that would stand the test of time, but knowing all the while that it was way ahead of its time and ... would be a disaster commercially.

"I really didn't have a choice because my heart and my soul spoke to me and said, 'Make this record.' " Stuart considers the disc his "love letter to country music." It also turned out to be his swansong on his long-time label MCA, which dropped him soon after.

He has no hard feelings over the relationship's demise, in fact he looks at the time off from recording as a good thing. It allowed him to pursue other projects, including film score work (All The Pretty Horses), as well as producing albums, including Billy Bob Thornton's Private Radio.

He's also in the midst of producing a tribute album to commemorate the 70th birthday -- Feb. 26 -- of his former father-in-law Cash, featuring contributions by Steve Earle, Travis Tritt and Sheryl Crow to name a few. When he finishes, he'll be ready to get back to the task of making an album of his own.

"I've been on the sidelines watching people make records in all genres of music, and all the turns that it's taken ... and looking at where I fit in in this pantheon of music."

And where is that?

After a pause, Stuart laughs: "I don't have a friggin' clue."

By Mike Bell

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