Marty Stuart - Vintage or Vanguard?

Marty Stuart's music reaches deep into the roots of country without losing its cutting edge

This appeared in Country Post Magazine - July/August 1994

At the age of thirty-five, Marty Stuart boasts the kind of credentials generally found in country stars twice his age. A musician who turned pro when he was barely in his teens, Stuart cut his teeth playing with bonafide legends; and though he spent many years as a highly-regarded sideman, he's finally established himself as an artist in his own right. He's a Grand Ole Opry traditionalist with a rockabilly heart and that combination of roots and rebellious attitude makes him a key player in modern country music.

It's been such a long road for such a young man, but along with the hard knocks have come some sweet rewards--his 1992 album This One's Gonna Hurt You was certified gold and he picked up a Grammy for his duet with pal Travis Tritt for "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'."

Although he's currently busy promoting his new album Love and Luck and gearing up for a tour with his new band, the Rock 'n' Roll Cowboys, Stuart has plenty of other musical irons in the fire. Lately, his calendar has been filled with a variety of projects, including recording demos with Grand Ole Opry singer Connie Smith, playing a recent gig with former "No Hats" tour-mate Tritt, and producing the bluegrass-gospel act Jerry and Tammy Sullivan. These projects reveal Stuart's ability to embrace both traditional and contemporary influences.

"To me, what makes me really click is to be able to play everything authentically from the back end of Roy Acuff's world to what's going on right now toward the 21st century," he explains.

His love of country tradition comes through loud and clear in his music, but he's also equally well-known for literally wearing that love on his sleeve. Over the years, Stuart's made a visual splash with his pompadour and flashy Manuel suits. That clothing tradition dates back to legendary country costumers N. Turk and Nudie, men responsible for the flashy rhinestone look worn by revered artists like the Maddox Brothers and Rose, Hank Snow and Porter Wagoner. But that look, popular from the forties through the sixties, had fallen out of favor during the seventies and eighties. Stuart was largely responsible for reviving it, but he recalls a time during his early solo career when his duds caused a lot of confusion and dirty looks.

"The people on the fringe understood it, and I think the hard-core traditionalists saw the point. It was the mainstream that didn't know what they were looking at," Stuart recalls. "When we would go to places like Texas, Willie and Waylon were just kind of phasing out and George Strait was phasing in with his real clean look. When we showed up wearing Porter Wagoner coats and hair poked up in the air, with our pants too tight and sticking down into multi-colored cowboy boots....Wow!" he says, laughing at the memory. "The best line was from this old Texan. At the end of the night he said, 'I don't know what you are, but I like ya.' "

Stuart eclectic musical tastes stem back to his boyhood in Philadelphia, Mississippi where his mom was a "hit and miss" piano player at church and his father was a hard-core Grand Ole Opry fan. Back then, the local radio station didn't stick to a tight, narrow playlist: it broadcast a mix of gospel, soul, country and top forty rock and roll, and young Marty soaked it all in. "There was a full menu to listen to, and I loved that," he says.

He picked up a guitar at the age of nine and by thirteen his skills on that instrument, plus mandolin, won him a coveted gig playing with bluegrass legend Lester Flatt. Stuart completed high school through correspondence courses and spent his teenage years learning the musical ropes out on the road.

"It was an old fraternity that had its rules and you lived up to it without question," he says, remembering his apprenticeship with Flatt. "I did all I could to bend and put a few new ones in there, just for the fun of it, but the guys were great. Everyday was Christmas."

After Flatt's death in 1979, Stuart went on to become a guitar-slinger in Johnny Cash's band and found both studio and touring work with artists like Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris and Neil Young. His first solo album in 1982, Busy Bee Cafe, was released on the independent label Sugar Hill. He later signed with CBS but, despite his instrumental prowess and heavyweight resume, Stuart hit some rough times. His major label debut failed commercially. He was eventually dropped from the roster and his marriage to Johnny Cash's daughter Cindy ended in divorce.

But, Stuart pulled himself out of his personal and professional slump. He signed on with MCA, and his 1989 album Hillbilly Rock at last found Stuart combining his various influences to stunning effect. Stuart cites Richard Bennett who co-produced along with current MCA Nashville president Tony Brown as an invaluable asset in the studio.

"Richard was largely responsible for whatever we have that resembles a sound," Stuart says. "He had a whole lot to do with taking a blob and putting a little form to it." Both Bennett and Brown continued in their production duties for the follow-up album Tempted and This One's Gonna Hurt You, both of which captured Stuart's rocking blend of bluegrass, honky tonk and rock and roll.

Because of scheduling conflicts, Bennett abdicated as producer for Stuart's latest Love And Luck. "It fell to Tony Brown and me to produce," Stuart says. "I think Tony kind of took it in a little different direction, but I love where we took it. Tony has the best taste in town. He's always on the edge of what's gonna happen. He lets it revolve mainly around the music, which a lot of people don't always do."

Love And Luck proves once again that Stuart's roots run wide and deep and he has an unerring knack for playing new music that never loses sight of the past. Stuart brought in old pals Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs for some vocal backup. He teamed with songwriter Bob DiPiero ("Cleopatra, Queen of Denial," "Church On Cumberland Road," "Money In The Bank") to write both the title track and the infectiously bluesy "Kiss Me, I'm Gone," and co-wrote the lovely bluegrass-tinged "Oh, What A Silent Night" with veteran songwriter Harlan Howard.

Stuart's cover choices are equally strong, including outlaw Billy Joe Shaver's masterful gospel-rocker "If I Give My Soul" and the lovely "Wheels," written by country-rock pioneers Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons.

"It all makes sense to me. It doesn't to anybody else," Stuart laughs, explaining the diverse song mix on Love And Luck. Unlike some country artists, Stuart isn't cut from a typical cloth. "It would've been so much easier on me if I could've just picked up a cowboy hat and had one of those voices that could sing radio hits. That would have just been one-dimensional," he says. "But to me, country music is so much broader than all of that. Country music is a universe within itself, and I love knowing where the full corners of that stuff lies."

Despite the current commercial country explosion, Stuart keeps his head on straight, feet firmly planted and holds fast to his roots. "I've been around here for a few seasons now," he explains. "I've seen trends come and go. You don't want to be stuck with an album on your hands that you're cutting just to supply a trend. I believe you need to just do what you love and believe in or you're gonna find egg on your face,"

Stuart needn't worry about any flinging eggs coming his way. He's worked years to achieve a unique sound, and has earned the admiration of older country legends, his peers, music critics and a whole lot of fans. He's no starry-eyed kid, but a gracious, intelligent realist, who knows first hand what the path to stardom means.

"The road takes a lot of out of you, it robs you of years of your life if you're not careful," he says. "I have respect for the road--me and her have a good relationship. I'm a gypsy. I never go anywhere to stay. I always go to leave."

Touring behind Love And Luck, Stuart will be hitting a lot of towns this summer, admirably traveling that road he's been on since he was a kid.

By Chris Dickinson

Return To Articles Return To Home Page