Marty Stuart: Too Country For Country Music

This appeared in the Charleston Gazette - May 25, 2007

There isn’t much that Marty Stuart hasn’t done. At age 15, he was playing mandolin with bluegrass legend Lester Flatt. He spent six years as a guitarist with his mentor and former father-in-law Johnny Cash.

He rode a wave of “new honky-tonk” stardom through the early 1990s, recording several hits himself and writing them for others. Somewhere along the way country music lost touch with itself, and somehow Marty Stuart had become “too country.”

“The biggest failures I’ve ever had concerning country music were when I tried to play country music,” Stuart said in advance of his appearance Sunday at Lincoln County High School. “I never hear anybody say ‘It’s too jazz,’ or ‘It’s too rock ’n’ roll,’ but I’ve heard the phrase ‘too country’ coming out of country radio’s mouth and the marketing systems in Nashville.”

Stuart was part of a heralded “new breed” of country singers, which included Randy Travis, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam, that was crowned “The Class of 1986.” Although Yoakam and Travis garnered inclusion on radio play lists, it wasn’t long before Stuart, Earle and Lovett were being ignored without shame. Country radio flirted with a middle ground that had less to do with roots and more to do with sales.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been an over-the-counter artist,” Stuart said. “Sometimes authenticity gets you left behind. It has me.” The most ironic evidence of this was Columbia Records’ balk on an album called Let There Be Country, which was released five years after it was recorded and only after Stuart had switched labels and enjoyed a few hits.

Once country radio had tuned Stuart out, he was able to get back in tune with himself — and with being “too country.” He fulfilled his MCA Nashville recording contract with 1999’s story-album The Pilgrim. He started his own "Superlatone” label and, as he put it, decided “it was time to get the fun factor back up.”

These days he’s hitting the road with a dream team of veteran musicians he calls “the band of a lifetime.” The Fabulous Superlatives Kenny Vaughan on guitar, Brian Glenn on bass and Harry Stinson on drums have backed Stuart on some of the best material of his career. Three albums, the Staples Singers-inspired Souls’ Chapel, the Native American narrative Badlands and the Grammy-nominated, bluegrass-with-a-twist masterpiece Live at the Ryman were released within a year of each other on the Superlatone label.

“I have no doubt in my mind that what I’m doing will eventually find a commercial mark,” he predicted. “It’s just not my goal in life.”

Stuart’s latest CD Compadres, out June 5, compiles more than 35 years’ worth of duets, from the young Stuart doing “Rawhide” with Lester Flatt in 1974 to the Fabulous Superlatives teaming up with Old Crow Medicine Show to cover The Who’s “I Can See For Miles.”

Stuart said he had forgotten about how much fun some of the recordings were, especially when he listened to the 15-year-old version of himself roaring through “Rawhide” with Lester Flatt’s band. “I hadn’t heard it in years and years,” Stuart said. “I grinned. I grinned a lot. I heard a couple of my big licks, like the ‘Yankee Doodle’ part. I went ‘Oh, man.’ It made me smile.”

Compadres not only displays Stuart’s versatility but also shows that even when he was nowhere near the charts, he was always hanging out in good company. Other duet partners on the record include B.B. King, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Mavis Staples, Del McCoury and Loretta Lynn. “This record is a name-dropper’s dream,” Stuart said with a laugh.

Never afraid to take matters into his own hands, Stuart started a “Late-Night Jam” at the sanctuary of country music, the Ryman Auditorium, to breathe an insurgent breath of fresh air at what used to be “Country Music Fan Fair.”

“Fan Fair went from being one-on-one with the fans to where most of the shows are staged in the middle of Titan Stadium. It’s not quite as personal as it used to be,” Stuart said of the event’s corporate takeover, now dubbed “CMA Music Fest.”

“Plus, the only way to get to Titan Stadium anymore is if you’re a current country hit-maker. And I ain’t going to go play the game unless I want to every now and then,” he said. “So I just started creating pirate ship shows for the week of Fan Fair.

The “Late Night Jam,” celebrating its sixth year June 5, donates its proceeds to the MusicCares foundation, an arm of the Recording Academy that provides financial assistance to musicians in need. “We’ve made a home for legends, we’ve made a home for sidewinders, bohemians, bluegrassers and old-timey folks, too. It’s basically just living up to the moniker of Music City,” Stuart said, adding, “The thing I’m proudest of is the diversity of the talent,” which this year includes Pam Tillis, Neko Case and Charley Pride.

But of all the guests at this year’s jam, legendary Opry member Porter Wagoner is the one who has traveled the farthest. The shimmering suit-wearing Wagoner will release Wagonmaster on June 5, recorded and produced with Stuart at the helm.

“I’ve been through this whole resurgence thing when I was with Lester Flatt as a kid and again with Johnny Cash,” Stuart says, “I said “Porter, you have no idea what’s waiting for you beyond your comfort zone. You don’t have to change anything. All you have to do is show up and be Porter. Now c’mon!’” Stuart said Wagoner wrote most of the material and the result, to his deepest pleasure, is “Hardcore, blood-curdling country. It’s what he helped invent.”

Also in the works for Stuart is the latest release by West Virginia’s famed daughter Kathy Mattea, who asked Stuart to produce a collection of coal-mining songs with her. “I wouldn’t have done it with anyone had they not been from West Virginia or Eastern Kentucky,” Stuart said. “I was taken at the thought of bringing a West Virginia girl back to the very basics of her roots, with her feet swinging off the front porch, an acoustic guitar in her hand, singing these songs.” (No release date has been set for Mattea’s record yet, though a brief explanation and some photos of the sessions are available at

With all of this and more, including a book of photography and an exhibit of personal memorabilia at the Tennessee State Museum, it’d be easy for Stuart to sit back and enjoy some time off. But that’s not his style. “It’s about getting from Philadelphia, Mississippi, to heaven and you can’t get there by standing still,” Stuart says, “Whatever comes next, I don’t know quite what that is yet, but I’m not worried about it. It’s waitin’ on me.”

By Adams Harris

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