Meet Marty Stuart - The Biggest Fan Of The Country Music Fan

This appeared in Country Fever Magazine - June 1993

Marty Stuart began his professional career at age 11, singing at gospel tent meetings near his Philadelphia, Mississippi home with a group called The Sullivans. A year later, he entered secular music when he talked his mother and father into letting him go on the road as part of Lester Flatt's bluegrass band. It was there at the feet of a man he called a master that Marty began to learn about the importance of music fans. He saw it for himself when he'd stand at the door and collect dollars still damp from the sweat of a hard day's work from fans who could hardly afford the time or the money to enjoy Lester's show and young Marty's musicianship.

Over the years, as part of Lester's band and later as a member of Johnny Cash's band, Marty continued to learn about the special relationship country performers have with their audience. And, unlike some artists who seem to show disinterest, sometimes even contempt for their fans after they've made it big, Marty's reverence and true affection has grown ever greater for the people who have provided him with a living and the chance to do his life's work. Because of his long association with fans and Fan Fair itself, he's uniquely qualified to grace the cover of this edition. When I spoke with Marty, we talked about his earliest memories of the music business, as well as his first experiences with Fan Fair. We touched on his induction into the Grand Ole Opry last year, and we took some time to look at his career plans for 1993. But mostly we talked about one of his favorite subjects: you, the country music fan.

When did you first come to understand how important the country music fan is? Did you learn about that from Lester Flatt and some of the guys?

Well, the very first weekend I went out with Lester, I was a guest on his bus; [this was in] 1972, Labor Day weekend. We played Glasgow, Delaware. Lester could turn anywhere he was into a boardroom, whether it was at a coffee table or the front seat of a bus or restaurant. When he'd start talking, people would start listening. The wisdom starting pouring. And he got on the subject of fans. He called me "Marney." And he went, "Marney, come over here. I want to show you something." He said, "You see these two old people coming here?" I looked and there were two old-timers walking toward the bus. He said, "Those people used to come see me and Earl Scruggs when we were in Bill Monroe's band in 1945. They've been coming to our shows ever since then. Now that's what country fans are all about; they'll always be loyal to you." Second-best piece of advice I ever had on fans, Minnie Pearl gave me. She and George D. Hay, the old Judge that started the Opry, gave it to her. Minnie said she was about to walk out on stage for the first time at the Opry and the Judge said to her, "You're scared to death, aren't ya honey?" She said, "Yes sir, I am." He said, "Well let me tell you about country fans. You just love them and they'll love you back." And that's a timeless piece of advice for any artist. It truly, truly is.

What else makes country fans so special?

Why are they so great? They stick with you when you're getting started; they're there to encourage you if they believe in you. All it takes is a smile, handshake, autograph, a hug. And any country star that won't sign autographs or hug necks ought to be ejected from the industry 'cause that's what we're built on. It gets harder as you get bigger, but you still have to do it. Country fans stick with you when you're starting out; they're there to throw the support at you; they're there with you through your divorce, through your bankruptcy trial; through whatever scrapes you get into. They're there with you when you're red-hot. They're there when you're white-hot. And when you start coming down and your records go to the bargain bins, if you've been faithful to them, you're going to find that they're still faithful to you. Man, you can't beat country fans. They're what makes us go. In fact, I learned another great lesson in the kind of relationship stars should have with their fans from Ernest Tubb. It's the most memorable fan thing of all times. As a young teenager, we were on tour with the Texas Troubadours, and Ernest Tubb was the greatest admirer of country fans I believe I've ever known. We played this old National Guard armory, and it wasn't a huge crowd, plenty to play to, but I'll tell you what he did. After that show, I sat up in the bleachers while they were tearing down, and it was cold in that place that night. Ernest had on his overcoat and a folding chair and he sat right at the edge of the stage and he signed popcorn boxes and he signed pieces of paper and 8x10s and albums and took pictures 'till every fan was pleased. And he never said a word to me 'cause he didn't know I was there. But he taught me the greatest lesson of 'em all. You don't leave till everybody's happy. And as we get into these situations now to where we play coliseums, it's impossible to sign, but we still do fan club. Spend an hour or 30 minutes or however long it takes to get everybody happy. We sign whatever they bring. And it's impossible to sign for coliseums and thousands and thousands of people that come to festivals and stuff. But I've never refused an autograph, never will, and I believe that the fan is the first and foremost reason we're out here.

Beautifully said. Fan Fair has been going on since 1972, and you were probably at the first?

Well, it would have been '73. I would have been 14. I was still with Lester, and we played the Early Bird Bluegrass Show. And Fan Fair was just a baby then. They had it at the Municipal Auditorium, and we were in the Bluegrass segment, so obviously we had a cult group anyway. But, beyond that, I went out and explored it. I wanted to see what was going on. And it was just a much smaller scale of what Fan Fair is now.

You know that the fans had come there just to see a bunch of country performers and bluegrass performers?

Absolutely, I mean, the people that showed up were a lot of the same faces you saw on the road, that truly supported country music in the field and just came to support the artist and the event. You know?

Did Fan Fair take on a different meaning as you thought about a solo career?

The first Fan Fair I remember being a part of as I approached my solo career was about '82, '83. Ricky Skaggs was just hitting. I remember we did the Columbia Show, and it was right around in there.

You remember how many people were there?

There was a grandstand full of 'em, but there wasn't anything near the capacity as what we have now. But I remember there was this place in Nashville called "Hatch Show Print" that used to print a bunch of show bills, you know, advertising shows and things. And I wanted to be a part of it so bad and even before I'd ever made a tape to pitch to a record label, I went to the print shop. I got real cool-looking cards that just had "Marty Stuart" printed on them. I got me a staple gun, and I thought, The executives I'm going to need to target will see the signs as they get off the interstate and head to Fan Fair. So, I hit every telephone pole and stapled "Marty Stuart" everywhere I could possibly go. I was embarrassed to do it but somebody had to do it. And that was about 1984. That's when I started trying to figure a way into the world of "lead singer." That was my first modern memory of Fan Fair. And I was always excited. The thing that I liked about Fan Fair, from an artist's standpoint, I don't care whatever level you're at, whether you're at that place where you're stapling your name on a telephone pole yourself or you're Garth Brooks, there's some level of acceptance for every artist at Fan Fair. I don't care how big or how small. The fans know how to treat an artist, and it makes you feel good to get to sign autographs. It makes you feel good to get your picture taken. And you wind up making friends with a lot of other artists that you probably wouldn't see the rest of the year. So, at whatever level, Fan Fair serves the fans and the artists alike. It's a great idea.

Is there a Fan Fair that stands out as your personal favorite or that was the most meaningful for you?

The last couple of years have been good. I mean, when "Hillbilly Rock" came out, there was a line, a lot of people were aware. The "Tempted" year, things were cooking. But this last year, I played the MCA show and the grandstand was full. When I came on, I felt like we'd finally registered in the hearts and the heads of many, many people. I felt like I was in mainstream and a part of what was going on right now. Last year made me feel accepted and worthy to be a country singer.

I was standing on the side of the stage watching you. I saw it happen for you and I felt it too.

I mean, I felt really, really good that time. It meant a lot to me. You have to use every opportunity and I, in my whole career, I've probably played Nashville six or seven times. I just don't believe in playing "in town," and when you do, you better make it count. And I knew that there were an awful lot of people watching it. I knew I had to deliver, and I thought that that particular show, if we came off good, would make a difference. And it did.

I see it and I hear it from you and other stars about how loyal the fans remain, how loyal the fan clubs are. But with country music getting so big, are you seeing a little more fickleness in fans or can you tell at this point?

I think, well, there's a whole lot going on now. It's a cross-section. Because there is definitely that part of the audience that is made up of the traditional country fan that has been coming for years and there's a lot of people that are in the joy of first discovery of country music and they're there because it's the thing to do at this point. But the bottom line to your question is, yes, it's more of a fickle industry and that scares me a little bit, but there's no reason to let it slow you down. It's just a rule that has changed. It's a little more like rock 'n' roll than it ever has been, and that's just a little scary. But the thing I don't want to lose sight of is if we learned anything from the Urban Cowboy scare, it's that you cannot keep new fans with just a trend. You have to feed 'em the real thing. And I think that's important when you have young kids and new country converts that get hooked into the music. Once you've got their attention, I think you need to feed them some honest-to-God real roots country music. Let that do it. It's kind of like going to church. Just show up and the magic occurs if you'll open you heart.

It's interesting that you say that. I was just talking to publicist Evelyn Shriver and she told me that she went to two concerts where George Jones closed the shows and she said it was a totally young crowd.

Well, we just played two of those shows this weekend. Tracy Lawrence opened and then I went on and then George. And I really think there's a stroke of genius going, or some good thinking, because they've got a modern light show around George Jones. They're packaging George Jones with this young-ticket seller. And as you know me, I think combining legends and young blood is just wonderful. And so we had houses full every night and it was like a rock 'n' roll show as far as the enthusiasm. The great part about it was they were there to see country music, and they gave us young kids just as much thunder as they gave George. And, you know, I've had to sell myself to the traditional country fan for years, but it's nice to see the young kids respecting George Jones. My whole campaign has been to promote our grownup stars to this young crowd, and it's nice to see it happening.

That was quite a flap you caused a while back when you were inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. You can't say "old farts" anymore, can you? [Note: when Marty was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in November, he used that "affectionate" term regarding some long-time Opry members and it raised quite a few eyebrows.]

No, I've been saying it for years and years. I can't help it. Somebody asked me if it was a slip. I said, "No, actually, it was quite intentional; it just didn't work." Leave it to me to make a mess on the Opry stage. Hello.

Well, you and I have talked about how long you had waited to be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry and the respect you've always showed that institution. So much so you took your time until you thought you really deserved being part of it. A lot of people thought you deserved it long before you got in there, but how did it feel that night?

It felt wonderful. I truly felt like the prodigal son coming home, and I think it took them and me a couple of minutes to get adjusted to it. But the first night there was so much hoopla around it. Then I said that, and there was a whole lot of hoopla around it. But the next time I went out there, my band was off and I took The Sullivans out there, you know, the gospel singers, along with Uncle Josh Graves, who used to play with Lester and Earl, and we did like a bluegrass set. Everything had settled down by then. Alan Jackson was on the show and Ricky Van Shelton and Mike Snider and myself and Ricky Skaggs, along with the cast out there. And, boy, it felt like old days out there that night. It was really a fired-up crowd. They were into it that night and, man, it felt like old days. It was a great feeling. That's when it really hit me the second time. Hey I belong out here and I'm proud of it.

I happened to be there that night that you got up with The Sullivans. It was wonderful. What was fun was I got an opportunity to stand and talk with your mother quite a bit.

She's a nice one, ain't she?

She's a good one.

I believe I'll keep her.

And it was just great. She was so humble and happy for you, just the typical mother and told me a couple of stories. I know how you had to sell her on this whole idea back when you were 12. And you must have felt very proud to have her there the night you were inducted.

Well, you know what? She's one of my best friends. And I've tried to include her and my dad and my whole family. I've included them every step of the way. Because the music industry will come and go, but family is family.

Getting back to Fan Fair ... how many Fan Fairs do you think you've performed for?

Probably five or six total over the years.

Now did you ever perform there with Johnny Cash?

I played the Columbia Records Show with Johnny Cash the year Ricky Skaggs really broke and Ricky was hot.

The early '80s?

Yeah, somewhere in there. And it was out at the fairgrounds and by then, you know, the grandstands were full and everybody was ready to do it.

What was your greatest band experience--when you were working with Johnny Cash?

Well, the whole fun of him was just watching people's eyes when he appeared. It was like something bigger than life. A phenomenon or whatever. A natural wonder. He had a great sense of humor about who he was and his image and everything. My favorite thing he ever did was at an airport one time. There was this young kid; I think he was a buck private. It was in the Nashville airport. He was sleeping, had his feet stretched out on his duffel bag, and he was sitting there. Cash looked at me and said, "Watch this." [Laughs] And he walked over there and he tapped him on the boot and the kid woke up and saw Johnny Cash and he just got to where he couldn't talk. John stuck out his hand and said, "Hello son, I'm Johnny Cash. Just didn't want you to miss your plane because I'm sure your mamma and daddy want to see you." [Laughs] I thought that was real cool.

It was either Johnny Cash or God with that voice, right?


Let's catch up on current career happenings. Last year you did the "No Hats Tour" with Travis Tritt, and you're going your separate ways this year. What are you going to be doing that's different?

I got a deal that we're doing called "The Marty Party." It's the coolest; I can't explain it. It started in Canada in March, and most of the dates are already sold out. We're with Pam Tillis, and we have an incredible set. It's like Roy Acuff's tent show meets The Grateful Dead. Figure it out for yourself. It's just basically a portable honky tonk, all across the world, you know. It's going to be a real fun tour.

Can you describe the honky tonk set to me and give me some more details?

Well our new album starts with a recitation called, "Me & Hank & Jumpin' Jack Flash." The guy that designed Tom Petty's set last year in Hollywood--Tom Petty had a tree house on stage that he used as a great prop, and he'd run in and out of it and come back as different people and things. I thought, Well, we're getting theatrical here. I like that. And I've always seen shows like The Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones and I thought wouldn't that be incredible out front if you heard something like "Wine Me Up" or "Crazy Arms" coming out of those, on a real rock 'n' roll level. Back to the opening song. I was looking for somebody with the same vision. It was the guy that designed the Tom Petty tour last year, Tim Lenanhan. I played him the album and the concept he came up with, it's like the cornices that go around the top of the stage have pictures of Lester, of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb. Their pictures are up on top of the stage, like an old carousel. What happens is the stage goes dark and it sounds like 55 million airplanes explode. When the lights come up, there's a lot of fog and there's an old '50s-looking rocket ship that has crashed on the stage, and me and the band step out of it. And I come out and we start the show with that recitation. And I dreamed I went to Hillbilly heaven. There's a tepee on the stage that I'm going to fall into and come out with a costume change. Ray Price's little stage suits used to have Indian headdresses down the sleeves. There's two giant Indian headdresses that drape the stage. So I mean it's country music, hardcore country, rockin country music, honky tonk music with a theatrical flair to it that I am really, really jazzed about.

Looking forward to seeing that. That sounds neat. When did you play Fan Fair the first time as a solo artist.

I didn't play Fan Fair as a solo until a year before last. I played the MCA show. So last year was the first real victory we've had. I've noticed for the past two or three years, they've always had a booth and the lines keep getting longer and last year, when I was there, our line was out the building and around the corner. I thought, Oh-oh, I'm going to be signing autographs for a long time today.

What's been the most personally gratifying fan experience for you now in your career?

There's a little girl. I think she lives in Vermont. Her mamma and daddy drove her. She can't talk; she's in a wheelchair and lives on heart machines, respirators and all that stuff. And her mamma and daddy brought her to Nashville to meet me. And the connection was she goes into a coma, just slips into a coma a lot, and the only thing it seems she responds to is the "Hillbilly Rock" tape. And she points to me on TV. And so she was part of one of the "Make A Wish" programs or "Dream" program. Her dream was to meet Marty Stuart and hang out with him for a while. So I went out and hung out with her for a little while. And I truly walked away feeling like I had been in the presence of an angel. And that one weighed on me pretty heavy.

That's nice. I know that you don't like to talk about it and I know a lot of artists do a lot of things behind the scenes just because they want to do it and they're in a position to help. What do you get back from that personally?

President Reagan said something one time that really struck me as a nice remark. He said, "I thought I had a lot going when I was in Hollywood, acting and being a part of that world. But my life really did not begin until I began to serve." And I know that what I do is something that brings enjoyment and lightens up people's lives. We're supposed to be a beacon; all entertainers are. And what it does for me, it fulfills me. Any time I can do anything by way of music or my presence to lift somebody's spirits or lift somebody's life or make them forget about their troubles for an hour or whatever, it really makes my day complete. And I can go to bed at night feeling like I've done my job. I feel really blessed.

That was a wonderful closing note. Thank you, Marty Stuart.

By Neil Haislop .

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