Marty Stuart Happily Waves Country Flag

Musician's new release bucks current trends

This appeared in the Chicago Tribune - April 23, 2012

Like country-bluegrass veteran Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart has assumed a weighty mantle: torch bearer for traditional country music in the face of a genre that increasingly becomes more removed from its roots. It's a passion for Stuart. It's also a musical mission.

Nashville, Volume 1: Tear The Woodpile Down (Sugar Hill Records) comes out Tuesday. Stuart wrote most of the 10 songs here, and is backed by his crack, longtime band, the Fabulous Superlatives. The finely honed music draws on older country forms — honky-tonk, hillbilly boogie, gospel — and it completely eschews the current trend toward modern pop-rock on the mainstream country charts.

"When I first came to Nashville ... the most outlaw thing you could possibly do around here was to take country music and blow it up into rock 'n' roll," Stuart writes in the notes to his new release. "Today, the most outlaw thing you can possibly do in Nashville, Tennessee, is play country music."

Calling from Nashville, Stuart remembers a lesson he learned while playing a tribute show for Johnny Cash at the Ryman Auditorium, not long before the country legend died. Cash was backstage, Stuart onstage. Stuart cut loose on a long mandolin solo during a song. The audience kept applauding. Stuart kept playing the solo for nearly eight minutes.

"After it was over, I went up to (Cash) to receive my compliment," Stuart chuckles. "And John says, 'Remember, son: Too much of somethin' is the same as nothin'."

Stuart laughs, then ponders his place in current country music.

"It's hard to look at somebody who's selling a million records a minute and say, 'Hey, this isn't really valid,'" he says. "I think it goes back to the individual. You have to follow your heart. But as an art form, when I hear most modern country music, I hear a craft and a product. I don't feel the same soul that I felt from Hank Williams' music or Bill Monroe's music."

At 53, Stuart is a contemporary musician who grew up with extraordinary access to some of the greatest names in country music history.

He was 13 when he landed in Nashville in 1972, a Mississippi music prodigy with dreams of stardom in the town he calls "a country boy Hollywood." He went on to apprentice with the bluegrass legend Lester Flatt. Nashville, he recalls, was at a unique moment in its history. Waylon and Willie were blowing up. It was a time of musical possibility and shifting boundaries.

Stuart remembers a bill he played on in Cincinnati. The lineup: Flatt, Chick Corea and Kool and the Gang. "The place came apart," Stuart says. "On the weekends we were playing the Grand Ole Opry, but during the week we were playing hippie bluegrass festivals or rock shows. So that kind of became the norm for me. And it gave me a lot of different friends at a lot of different levels."

He went on to a stint in Johnny Cash's band (Stuart was also a Cash son-in-law for a time). In the 1990s, his own country solo career landed him on the mainstream charts. Stuart was a new breed of country-rock cat back then, an ambitious guy with pomped-out hair, rhinestone suits and a Fender Telecaster.

Despite the hits, the pursuit of "the chart over the heart" took a toll on Stuart.

In 1999, determined to get back to the basics of the country music from which he originally sprang, he released the evocative concept album, The Pilgrim. The album was "a commercial disaster and a spiritual victory." It was also the line in the sand for Stuart. No matter what the consequences, he had to continue to follow his true artistic heart. Enough, he said, with the star stuff.

"I had to go back to what moved me and what made me fall in love with country music, and what still moves me the most to this day," he says. "And that is the form of traditional country, the language of traditional country, the empowering force, that part of our culture that moves me to tears. ... I believe in this with all my heart. I don't know that I believed in what I was doing (during my commercial mainstream heyday). I was just trying to be a star, and trying to get in the popularity parade. But I believe in what I'm doing now. It's my life legacy."

Stuart is among a handful of prominent names — including former mainstream hit-makers Skaggs and Vince Gill, and the bluegrass legend Del McCoury — who have increasingly become the new old-school conscience of country music. Their concerts, though highly entertaining, also serve as master class immersions in the music's foundations.

When Stuart talks about his deepest roots, it's not exaggeration. "There's an experiential connection with the golden age of country music that certainly no one else his age has," says Jon Weisberger, a longtime music journalist and bluegrass musician. "He has this perfect blend of curatorial approach with a really deep, really musical and very hip approach."

Besides his new CD, Stuart is a non-stop project machine. He's a singer, songwriter, mandolinist, guitarist and touring road warrior with a Grammy on his shelf. He's a noted photographer and a skillful prose stylist who wrote the bio notes for his new release. His country music memorabilia collection is world-class. He's the host of The Marty Stuart Show, a cable series on RFD-TV that's a throwback to the country music variety hours of yore. He's married to his sometime collaborator, the country singer and recent Country Music Hall of Fame® electee Connie Smith.

Stuart's reach extends beyond any predictable country base. Jon Langford of Chicago's Waco Brothers — who specializes in a raw brand of country-punk and is a visual artist who uses country imagery in his work — has become a friend of Stuart's. The two share a bone-deep love of both the music and its artifacts. Stuart gave Langford a suit designed by the famous country couturier Nudie that once belonged to the honky-tonk legend Webb Pierce.

"Marty comes from the core of it," says Langford. "He's basically become a custodian of what I find great about country music in Nashville. He's collected everything that Nashville was embarrassed about when it pitched its (past) and moved to the suburbs. Marty picked all that stuff up: the rhinestones, all the stories, all the fragments of the lyrics. He's got a warehouse full of that stuff."

By Chrissie Dickinson

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