Marty Stuart - Son Of The Pioneers

This appeared in Country Guitar Magazine - Summer 1993

If Marty Stuart has upset some of the powers-that-be in Nashville, it is because he loves country music too much. He has probably been closer to the music's history than any other contemporary performer, backing up such legends as Lester Flatt, Doc Watson and Johnny Cash. On the first tune on his 1992 album, This One's Gonna Hurt You, "Me & Hank & Jumpin' Jack Flash" (one of several songs composed about mysterious meetings with the late Hank Williams Sr. in recent years). Marty implies that his brand of country has been personally approved by ol' Hank.

Does Stuart have a colossal nerve? Certainly, but he's also got major chops, an encyclopedic knowledge of country music, a sense of humor and boundless energy. By staying true to his personal vision of kick-ass hillbilly music, Stuart just may be country's conscience and its future, as well.

Stuart's barnstorming effort to spread the gospel of true country is beginning to take effect. His conversation with Country Guitar took place in the glow of a January week that saw him receive both his first Grammy nomination--he later won--for his vocal duet with Travis Tritt on "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'," and his first Gold Record award for the album This One's Gonna Hurt You. It's a good period for a one-time mandolin prodigy who started his career at the age of 12 with The Sullivan Family Singers, a bluegrass gospel group.

A Southern Baptist whose first musical performances took place in churches and tent meetings, Stuart today surrounds himself with relics of a highly secular nature. The very tour bus used by Marty and his band is one previously owned by the late star Ernest Tubb. The walls of the vehicle are decorated with country memorabilia that could just as easily be displayed in the Country Music Hall of Fame. But the greatest treasures are some of the guitars Stuart travels with and performs with on stage--instruments of inspiration once owned and played by the likes of Lester Flatt, Hank Williams Sr. and Clarence White. With Stuart so physically and emotionally immersed in country love, it follows that his concerts and recordings are like history lessons, only a lot more fun.

As the New Traditionalist trend in country is muscled aside by Adult Contemporary-sounding crossover fare, Stuart rails like a denim-clad prophet against the abandonment of "hillbilly" music traditions. Not that he has a problem with rock and roll or blues. He frequently interweaves those styles in his country music, but never to the point where the country is overwhelmed. His high-energy live shows have attracted rock fans who walk out humming a country tune. Country may be hot but, unfortunately, not all country is cool. Marty Stuart's is.

Country Guitar: How about starting off with your influences?

Marty: When I pick up my guitar, this is what comes out: a hodgepodge of Ralph Mooney, Roy Nicholls, Clarence White and Luther Perkins. Beyond that, Muddy Waters had a whole lot to do with the feeling I play on the guitar.

Country Guitar: For readers who may not be familiar with those guitarists, can you explain who they are?

Marty: Luther Perkins was the original guitarist for Johnny Cash. The simplicity and elegance of his playing drew me in, even when I was a kid. A Johnny Cash record without him would be just half a record. Ralph Mooney and Roy Nicholls were two wonderful, complete lunatics from the West Coast. Mooney played steel guitar for Buck Owens. Nicholls played all the weird 7th stuff for Merle Haggard. And Clarence White [guitarist for the Kentucky Colonels and, later, for the Byrds during their Sweetheart of the Rodeo period], the first time I heard him, I said, "hey, that's what I wanna do when I grow up."

Country Guitar: It's well-known that you were a child "phenom." When did you begin playing professionally?

Marty: I started with The Sullivan Family, a gospel-bluegrass act, at 12. I began working for Lester Flatt at 13, in 1972--I remember playing a Gibson A-40 mandolin at the first real gig I had that got applause. When I went to work for Lester, I finally got my first Martin guitar, a D-28 that had belonged to him that he gave me. I played with Lester for seven years, when he passed away.

Country Guitar: I notice that you didn't list Lester as an influence.

Marty: Lester had such a weird sound--it was undefinable, it truly was. He played an old mountain style, with two-fingered rhythm. The Flatt run that he made famous, we've all played that, but the kind of rhythm he played sounded like nobody but him. I couldn't play it if I tried.

Country Guitar: What did you do after Lester's death?

Marty: After Lester died, I knew I wanted to play something beyond acoustic music for a while--I was feeling burnt out and just didn't feel like doing it without him. There weren't any great gigs around that were open and I felt I owed it to myself to try some things. So I went to Sho-Bud Guitars [steel guitar manufacturers, now defunct, in Millersville, Tennessee] to buy a Telecaster, and I had them build me a guitar that was like Clarence White's--it had a bender on it and I had them put two Scruggs pegs in and make the body thicker so it would like and sound just like Clarence's. And I proceeded to make noise with [bluegrass fiddler] Vassar Clements--he gave me my first gigs--at his goofy bluegrass-jazz fusion shows.

Country Guitar: Did you stay electric after that?

Marty: Well, next I went to work for Doc Watson for about a year. Now, that's the most fun I ever had playing guitar on stage. It was Doc, his son Merle, and T. Michael Coleman. We plugged in, but for all intents and purposes, it was an acoustic show.

Country Guitar: Your next stop was Johnny Cash.

Marty: Yes, I did six years with Cash as his utility player--mandolin, fiddle, but primarily lead guitar. The thing I found out about Cash was that his band had grown to eight pieces, and he'd come a long way from his old Tennessee Two [the original Cash back-up group]. The big group sounded pretty good to me on some things and like a mess on others. Now, what drove this band was rhythm. So I turned around and played a whole lot of acoustic rhythm guitar.

Country Guitar: You were playing lead acoustic rhythm?

Marty: Yeah. There's a real art to playing lead rhythm guitar--the Buddy Holly records prove that. Buddy's records were fiery and full of fun. And he was a great rhythm player. That art has been lost. Richard Bennett, my producer, is another one who totally loves playing rhythm. We've even talked about devoting ourselves to playing rhythm on everybody's records--just to take an acoustic guitar and show up at the studio and say, "Hi. What key are we in today?" It's a wonderful world, rhythm.

Country Guitar: I notice that on your records you share guitar responsibilities with Richard.

Marty: We both have no ego when it comes to guitars--we'll switch off on leads, depending on what's appropriate. Richard's always digging for something different--that's the beautiful part of making records with him. He'll bring in weird little toys and instruments that make beautiful sounds, like the mandolin-guitarphone.

Country Guitar: Your latest record, This One's Gonna Hurt You (MCA), sounds quite a bit tougher than your previous albums, with a hard rock edge to it.

Marty: I thought it was time to mash the button, to really have the showdown with Nashville. To say, "Hey, this is what we do." This trail--the kind of music I've been playing--is one I've been on since 1985. The gold album tells me it has finally been accepted. As far as I'm concerned, the road I'm on started with people like Gram Parsons, the Burrito Brothers and the Byrds. Along that road have been others, like Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam.

Country Guitar: You are reported to have a great guitar collection. What are some of your favorites these days?

Marty: My primary guitar is a 1952 Martin D-28. In the studio, I also have a 1932 D-28 that belonged to Hank Williams Sr.; I use that a lot. The guitar went from Hank Sr. to Hank Jr., who gave it to Johnny Cash. I got it from Johnny when I traded him a guitar that once belonged to Merle Travis. I also have Lester Flatt's old D-28. Electrics that I use are a 1952 Fender Esquire, a 1968 Paisley Telecaster and the Clarence White guitar. And I have a great 1983 Strat that Carl Perkins gave me.

Country Guitar: How about amps?

Marty: On stage I use 6 Fender Twins--they're not all plugged in together. With the Clarence White guitar, I'll use two Fender Twins that I run into each other with a multi-volume boost with the power volume wide open. On the Esquire and the Paisley, I use the Fender Twin stack. When I play acoustic, I'll either direct input the sound or use a Fender Twin or a little Fender Blackface DeLuxe I found in a guitar shop in Tuscaloosa, Alabama that I use a lot.

Country Guitar: Do you think that one day you might do another bluegrass project?

Marty: Yeah, I'd love to. You know the one we did with Jerry and Tammy Sullivan? Did you pick that record up? Oh, man, you have to get it. Jerry and Tammy Sullivan are part of the old Sullivan Family. Richard Bennett and I produced their album, A Joyful Noise, for the Country Music Foundation. It was the most wonderful bluegrass gospel album, highly acclaimed by the critics, and Jerry and me, we wrote half the songs. It's the first live act that the CMF has ever recorded.

Country Guitar: When you say "live," you mean contemporary, that is, not dead?

Marty: Yeah, that's it. Not dead. It's the first not-dead act they ever recorded.

Country Guitar: Do you see yourself as keeper of the country flame?

Marty: Yeah, man, I love it. I'll tell you what bothers me most about modern country music. It's the players. There are some of the most brilliant, wonderful players, but there are no tones. With the guys I talked about earlier--Roy Nicholls, Ralph Mooney, Luther Perkins, and with certain rock and roll people, you knew from the minute the record came on, from the tone of the guitar, who was playing. With most modern country records, you'll hear a hit song with hit licks, and you'll say, "I wonder who that was?" It all goes through a rack. What you get is guys with talent but no tone. I'm a tone freak. Richard Bennett's a tone freak, and I heard James Burton say that all he used to think about in developing his style was tone, tone, tone! Tone is something that's missing in Nashville and I hope it is something that our records come through with.

Country Guitar: A couple of years ago, you and Travis Tritt went on something you called the "No Hats" tour. What was the point of that? Were you sending a message to Nashville?

Marty: The whole thing behind "No Hats" was this: Travis and I recorded a song called "The Whiskey Ain't Workin' Anymore," that I co-wrote. We did the song on a TV show one night and the audience just had a ball with it, and so did we. We were just backstage laughing and talking about how it had gotten to the point in Nashville where executives referred to you as either a "hat act" or a "non-hat act," and Travis said, "Hey, guess that makes us a hair act." I said I would wear a hat, but I couldn't get it over my hair--I would look too stupid in it. Travis said he had the same problem. My manager, who was standing there listening said, "Why don't you put a tour together and call it 'The No Hats Tour'?" We both looked at each other and said, "Why not?" We were just looking for a reason to get out on the field, play some music and have some fun. We also saw that nobody else in country music was doing that kind of tour. It had some flash to it and fun to it. I think that, besides playing before traditional country fans, we turned a lot of young people on to country music. I'm real proud of what that tour accomplished.

Country Guitar: What, in the end, is special about Marty Stuart and his band?

Marty: I think we are a better full-tilt, authentic honky tonk band. I think we're like the Rolling Stones of country music--we're loud, you can't take us everywhere, you can't take us to Branson (Missouri) or Vegas. We'll work about anywhere else. We're a wide-open band. The guys I have around me are just full of music. And we'll listen to anything on the bus from bluegrass to Brubeck, and all points in between. Our band has bigger balls.

By Isaiah Trost

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