Marty Stuart: The King Of Hillbilly Glam

This appeared in Cowboys & Indians - July 2011

Marty Stuart proclaims himself to be the torchbearer of traditional country music, and he has every right to carry that distinction. The artist has been working with honky-tonk heroes for 40 years. His career began at the age of 13 when he landed a gig as the mandolin player in Lester Flattís band. He went on to play with Doc Watson and Vassar Clements and spent six years backing up Johnny Cash. Since those early days standing behind the greats, heís played alongside just about every star from Dolly Parton to Brad Paisley. Stuart took a break from a tour promoting his latest album, Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions, to discuss his TV show, Johnny Cashís last days, and the current state of country music.

Cowboys & Indians: Some of your idols have a strong presence in your latest album. For starters, your Grammy Award-winning song ďHummingbyrdĒ was a tribute to Clarence White, guitarist for The Byrds and Nashville West.

Marty Stuart: Clarence, yeah. And that guitar of his. I grew up listening to him, and I bought his guitar from his wife in, I think, 1980 or í81 when I was in Johnny Cashís band. I remember the first thing we did after I bought the guitar was ... John was on Saturday Night Live. We played on that TV show with him, and I walked to Mannyís [Music] store and bought a gig bag for that guitar with my Saturday Night Live money. At that time I was too scared to fly it under the airplane because it meant so much to me. I got an AAdvantage miles number from American Airlines for that guitar. So it has been pampered and loved.

C&I: Tell us about working with Johnny Cash.

Stuart: We were next-door neighbors, and about two or three days after June [Carter] passed away, his son, John Carter, called me and said, ďDaddy wants to record.Ē And I said, ďWell, thatís the best news Iíve heard in a while. Whatever he wants to do. Letís go.Ē So for the next few months, whenever I possibly could, weíd record. Weíd record at the Cash house or the Cash cabin across the way. We would do one session at my house. Just anything to keep him occupied. And the microphone was about the last place he had to go where he could ... He had to record from his wheelchair ...

Anyway, I went to Folsom, California, to do a concert, and [Cashís] At Folsom Prison is my all-time favorite record, period. Itís the perfect country music record. I found out at my concert that the head security guard also worked at Folsom Prison as a security guard, and I asked him what it would take to get behind the walls to see where they made that record. His answer was: ďWell, you might consider killing somebody.Ē [Laughs.] But while I was on stage, he made some calls and the governor issued a gate pass to go to Folsom.
So I stayed there an extra day, went to the prison, and saw where they made the record, which was in the cafeteria. I recorded two times in the morning. Behind the back wall of the cafeteria were a couple of doors that led to the hanging gallows where they executed people for the first half of the last century. And the hanging gallows, of course, is not in use anymore, but ... at that particular time, it was the prison band hall. And Folsom prison bands share a common set of instruments. That day, the country band was playing, so I sat in with them. We played some songs. I went back to Nashville, and I kept thinking about what a creepy-feeling place that was. And then I got to thinking what a creepy job it would have been to be an executioner ó a hangman.

When I got back home to Hendersonville [Tennessee], I walked next door to see John and tell him about my experience out there. I said, ďMan, I started this song about a hangman.Ē And I had it all finished except a couple of lines. He stepped up from his wheelchair and gave me the lines and then we finished the second verse ó that turned out to be the last song he ever wrote. Four days later, he was gone.

C&I: What were those words?

Stuart: I had: ďI killed another man today, itís hard to believe. / Well I lost count at 30 and Iíve grown too numb to grieve. / The bottle helps me cope, when I lay down at night/ And when the dope rolls through my veins, it all fades out of sight / Hangman, hangman, thatís my stock and trade. / Hangman, hangman, sending bad men to their graves.Ē And he spoke up and said: ďWho killed who, I ask myself, time and time again. / God have mercy on the soul of this hangman.Ē And then we wrote a verse right quick and it was done.

It was hard to sing that song. I couldnít sing that song for a long time. I tried and would lose it and just had to set it aside. But as time went on, I got a little more confident about working it and it worked out all right.

C&I: You also have your own show on RFD-TV. What was your inspiration for that?

Stuart: The music that I love more than anything in this world is traditional country music. And it was becoming, as Edward S. Curtis says about the Native Americans in the last century, a beautiful vanishing race. As the last decade unfolded, I staged museum exhibits; I staged photo exhibits; I did a book called Country Music: The Masters. Iíve gone after all these artifacts through the years. But what I noticed more than anything ó it was the music. The music is now what is really becoming an endangered culture, genre. And modern country radio doesnít program that kind of music anymore. There are certain satellite radio situations or the Grand Ole Opry ó there are pockets out there that program and offer a stage and a voice to traditional country music. But in general, beyond that ó nowhere.

I discovered RFD-TV almost a decade ago. I saw Patrick Gottschís vision about what he was trying to do, and I thought, Boy, if there was ever anywhere that this would fit, it might be here. So we had a meeting and he said, ďAbsolutely, letís do it.Ē Iíve always thought somebody ought to do one of those old syndicated 30-minute í60s-style TV shows. And as time has gone on, to me, theyíre still the most precious cultural documents we have of country music, great snapshots.

I knew I had the band; I knew I had the vision. I just needed a sponsor, and my home state of Mississippi stepped up. We just finished our third season. Itís the No. 1 show on the network, and everywhere I go itís like a wildfire. I think it speaks to the fact that traditional country music is alive and well, and the show has given a voice to that particular kind of music. It gives young artists who want to play traditional country music, and legends alike, a place to come. Itís a wonderful feeling. Itís probably one of the richest experiences of my life to get to do that show.

C&I: Do you plan on doing the show for a while?

Stuart: As long as the quality of guests can stay where itís been for the past three seasons. I keep my eye more than anything on the spark. As long as the band has a spark and the cast has a spark and the audience responds to it the way it does now. The minute I feel that that goes away Iíll look at something else. Thereís a time to get off, but right now itís humming.
C&I: How did you go about creating the format and the set?

Stuart: The Porter Wagoner Show, Flatt & Scruggs show, and The Johnny Cash Show ó those three were kind of the templates of how I saw the components of this show laying out. And I just went back to the textbook about hillbilly glam. It needed to be costumed. The first two shows I shot, the set was very clean and pristine. I took a look at it and said, ďWeíve got to junk this up.Ē This called for hay bales and more rhinestones and folk art. We made it more like a barn. It was somewhere between the Smithsonian and Pee-Wee Hermanís playhouse.

C&I: Please expand on what you consider hillbilly glam.

Stuart: Patrick Carr, a great writer, wrote a great book on Johnny Cash. Patrick had a statement that Iíve never lost sight of. He said country performers are like the Native Americans. Itís about total plumage. Itís like really putting on your finery before warfare. [Laughs.] I always liked that. I think those rhinestones and a Cadillac and a Martin guitar around your neck was a bit of plumage. It was a benchmark of success at that time, and I think it became, unknowingly, a great part of the American story. It was probably the most original fashion offering that America has ever made to the world stage of fashion. Itís the bad boy of the fashion street. And it seemed to go alongside Hank Williams songs ó that era. Itís just a beautiful art form.

C&I: What else do you have going on right now?

Stuart: I just finished producing Connie Smithís new record. Took her back to Studio B, the home of her early recordings. She hadnít made a record in 16 years. And, whew, Iím telling you, this is a masterpiece. This is the kind of music you thought youíd never hear again. Authentic. And itís wonderful. So thatís up and running. The Fabulous Superlatives and I are back on the bus. Weíre back on tour now.

C&I: Are there any new acts out there that you really admire?

Stuart: You must consider The Quebe Sisters Band. Three sisters from the Dallas/Forth Worth area. All three play the fiddle. Itís like having Bob Wills and The Andrew Sisters wrapped in a 21st-century package coming at you all at once. And they steal the show every time they come on my show. Iím still a big fan of Hank Williams III. He came on to my TV show, and he wore one his grandpaís suits. We sat there on two stools and did ďA Picture from Lifeís Other Side.Ē And it was mighty. Old Crow Medicine Show is taking care of business on the old-time end of things. They are drawing lots and lots of people. And thatís three examples of a younger generation that flat gets it. It offers me hope.

C&I: How can younger acts make old-time music without coming across as naive or out of touch?

Stuart: I think you have to write your culture. Thatís the thing I loved about coming to Nashville as a 13-year-old kid and joining up with the Lester Flatt bunch. That put me right at the epicenter of things. But the thing that I loved more than anything else is that people brought their culture and who they really were to the table. Bill Monroe brought Kentucky to the table, and bluegrass music. Willie Nelson brought his perspective. Merle Haggard brought his perspective. Johnny Cash was a very worldly man, but at the end of the day he was still a Dyess, Arkansas, farm boy. Grandpa Jones, Porter Wagoner, Dolly. Everybody was a character that came from wherever they came from to this 50,000-watt beam on a stage in Nashville. It became the culture and the family of country music. Ernest Tubb was always the Texas Troubadour. It was a reflection of a different place.

This is pure malarkey philosophy, but Americaís a more homogenized place now. Itís the same place anywhere I travel anymore, in general. I think the music reflects that, and when kids come to Nashville to be stars now they kind of have to surrender their culture just to get into the homogenization of the sonic stream out there ó which is sad. I donít think itíll be that way forever. I love the independent spirit and thatís whatís always going to give us our spice. But at the same time we need that loud and poppy-sounding end of country music for a certain segment of the audience. But thatís good. Iíve been there, done that, helped out the cause. I contributed to that sound in the í80s and í90s. But itís wonderful to be back home on the dirt road now.

C&I: A lot of traditional country music artists are going under the label of Americana.

Stuart: I had this very conversation yesterday with the head of the Country Music Association. The deal is, I respect Americana music. I respect what theyíre trying to stage. Theyíve welcomed me and I appreciate it. And I support them. I donít exclude myself from that. But at the end of the day, Iím a country picker and letís call things what they are. In country music, in my opinion, we have some interfamily things that need to go on. The hardest part is, as the last couple of decades have gone on, there was one executive after another who was sent here to the farm club from New York or L.A. who really didnít understand, care, or like traditional country music. So we made pop music.

Weíve always had an identity crisis. I think weíve caved in to network advertisers. We donít even put the Country Music Hall of Fame segment in the Country Music Association Awards anymore, or the ACM [Academy of Country Music] Awards, because itís not appealing to a younger demographic. Well, screw that. Itís wrong. We need to go back and recognize. We have to reeducate the family of country music again ó teach that it is not an embarrassing piece of the business. It is really the empowering force of this whole culture. And there is dignity and integrity that outlasts any chart success or any sales figures as time goes on. So, it is a mission. It is a life mission. Will it ever be fully accepted again? I donít know. But itís where I stand. Itís what I believe in, and until further notice this is where youíll find me.

By Jennings Brown

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