Marty Stuart: Keeper Of The Faith

This appeared in Country Song Roundup - December 1996

Most country music fans know that Marty Stuart was a lad just shy of this thirteenth birthday when he joined the renowned Lester Flatt's bluegrass band. You are about to learn the rest of the story.

"I've told this story before," Marty began, with a hint of mischief in his voice. "I was in the eighth grade. I got kicked out of school on account of Country Song Roundup. I was reading Country Song Roundup inside of my history book, and my teacher whacked it out of my hand and told me if I'd get my mind off that garbage and get it onto history, I might make something out of myself. I told her I was more interested in making history than I was learning about it.

"She excused me from school, so I went home and called my friend that worked with Lester Flatt. That's when he invited me to come to Nashville during my excused period from school. So, thanks to Country Song Roundup, I have a career in country music."

Well, as much as Country Song Roundup would like to take the credit, there are probably a few other factors that should be mentioned. First of all, there's Stuart's boundless talent as a musician, singer and songwriter. And then there's the little matter of that personality and charisma that have made Stuart one of the most exciting entertainers in the business.

And, finally, we probably should share some of the credit with an impressive group of mentors that include Flatt, Johnny Cash and Jerry Sullivan, to name just a few.

"Lester was the guy who gave me my start," Marty said of the bluegrass great. "He showed me the ropes in show business. He was about 59 years old and already a legend and ready for retirement if he wanted to. Why he took on a 13-year-old kid to put in the middle of a bunch of seasoned pros, I'll never know.

"But, I think that the main lesson that that taught me is that you pass it on. You treat people right and pass it on. So, when the time comes to move along, instead of being bitter about anything regardless of what's happened, I think you pass the music along.

"The best piece of advice that Johnny Cash ever gave me was 'Don't sweat the small stuff, keep your eye on the big picture,' That's a pretty good rule of thumb for show business.

"The Sullivans helped save my life at a time when I was pretty low," Marty continued. "Jerry Sullivan was the one person who reached out to me--musically and spiritually--and kind of helped me turn my life back around and get above a divorce and bad career timing and all of those things. He just really loved me and he and his family helped me back on my feet. I think it goes back to passing it on. They taught and re-taught me about Christian values."

Although he could hardly be classified as a mentor, Marty's friendship with Travis Tritt is well known. "Our friendship began over a song I helped write called The Whiskey Ain't Workin'. I had already finished recording my record that I was going to use it on, so I took the song over to Warner Brothers to Hank Jr. and I had just seen Travis on television--he was a brand new act at the time--and I asked them to send one over to him.

"Travis hooked onto it and his producer asked me to come and play on Travis' record of it. So I just played a guitar part and, as I was about to leave, he said, 'Why don't you sing the second verse?' I said, 'Nah, Travis did a great job.' But he talked me into it. To make a long story short, I sang it and we got together on account of that song.

"Me and Travis made an agreement at the end of that Whiskey Ain't Workin' video," Stuart revealed. "We shook hands and agreed that when we're fat, old, bald and ugly and don't nobody care about our music no more, we're still going to love each other and it's going to be a family thing. I really don't have any brothers; Travis is as close as any brother I could ever hope to have. We're both loud mouths; we're both a little different."

Marty is proud of his individuality. It begins with his unique blend of country, rock, and bluegrass music and extends right down to his distinctive wardrobe. Marty admits that blazing your own trail can have its pros and cons.

"The upside is that you wake up every morning and know that you have something that's unique and special. The downside sometimes is that you don't score as deep inside the mainstream as you always wish you could. Sometimes a hard-core individuality costs you a sale or two. But the country music fan that I know and love understands the real article.

"I'm more interested in the long, long haul of the situation. Young artists say that all the time now, but I've got 25 years under my belt, so I can say that with just a little bit of justice. But I believe in the long haul, I really do."

Even in this age of assembly line, cookie cutter, country music clones, Marty sees some other individualists on the scene. "There's a kid named Keith Gattis on RCA Records. He's got a different look. He's got a different sound. Wade Hayes seems to have something different. I think you'll be hard-pressed to find anybody that's more of an individual than Shelby Lynne in this town right now. There's a new bunch of boys called BR5-49.

"The price they're all going to pay for it is that they're not going to be as hot as they want to sometimes for making themselves who and what they are, but it's really worth it."

Stuart has heard all the talk about country music losing its identify, but he's not worried as long as it doesn't forget its secret ingredient. "I think it's three words. I think it's 'heart and soul.' We've always had heart and soul and I think any time we threaten that just for the sake of sales, we're in trouble. I think just to have a bunch of numbers run up beside your name, but have no heart and soul, is kind of empty. But there is just so much good talent in this town right now; I just don't see any danger of that happening."

Stuart's latest release Honky Tonkin's What I Do Best, certainly stays with that winning formula. "For the first time in my life, my record company comes back to me and tells me that they hear about five or six singles," he said with obvious satisfaction. "I've always just tried to make records with ten or eleven songs on them that I dearly loved and let them pick anything they wanted.

"The first single, Honky Tonkin's What I Do Best with Travis, is off to a great start. Radio's embracing that, and I'm very proud of that. The song starts the album off good. There are songs like Thanks To You, I'll Be There For You, You Can't Stop Love, Rock Ship, Sweet Love, Shelter From The Storm. All of those songs are real special songs to me."

Stuart often seems like a bundle of restless energy while he's performing. It must be that way off-stage as well, for he continually stays busy with one project or another. "I'm producing Connie Smith's new album and a tribute record to Hank Williams. Me and Travis are going back on tour with the Double Trouble tour. I have three Marty Party television specials to do. And I bought about 350 items that belonged to Hank Williams and we're turning that into an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame called 'The Treasures of Hank Williams.' So that's my year. We've got a lot of stuff laid out there."

With all of his achievements and all of his outside interests, Stuart is still driven by the music and the search for that elusive signature song. "I think about it every day. I write all the time. Every time I make a new record, I think about it. It's like going fishing; you're always hoping to catch the big one. I'll never cease trying.

"There are still platinum records to make, there are still Number One songs to have, still more seats in an arena to fill. I have my definite set of goals I've had my entire life. I know I've built a solid career, but there are just areas of my career that I will not let up until I fulfill."

By Jerry Armor

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