Sideman For Country Greats Strikes Out On His Own
|This appeared in Guitar Player Magazine - December 1986|
|If Marty Stuart fails to achieve legendary status, it won't be because he didn't understand what it takes. In the more than 15 years he has logged as a guitarist and mandolinist behind Lester Flatt, Doc Watson and Johnny Cash, he's had a chance to get a close-up look at the stuff that legends are made of. Now he's summoned the experience of those years and struck out in his own direction with his band and his first major-label release, Marty Stuart. His distinctive vocals, subtle touch with the Parsons/White String Bender, and tasteful acoustic chops on the LP have drawn strong reviews and created lively chart action. It seems that Marty Stuart--solo artist--is on his way.
Despite those many years as a professional, Marty is still only 28 years old. Born in a tiny Philadelphia, Mississippi (pop. 6,434)--and also the birthplace of blues great Otis Rush), Marty was first exposed to music through his mother's piano playing and his father's singing at the local Baptist church. His first experience with records proved prophetic. "Although the first record I remember coming into the house was by the Chipmunks," he recalls, "the second one was Johnny Cash's first Columbia album [The Fabulous Sound of Johnny Cash] and the third was an album by Flatt & Scruggs. I was only four or five, but I really loved the drive and sound they got. That's about when I decided I wanted to play guitar. It was like somebody had written a prescription and told me to go fill it."
By age eight, he had his first guitar--a Silvertone electric--and was picking chords and lead lines off records. Shortly thereafter, he acquired a Teisco/Del Rey electric mandolin and began playing along with early Bill Monroe records. He had switched to acoustic instruments by the time he stepped into his first working band at the tender age of 12. Traveling weekends and during the summer, he played mandolin with the Sullivan Family, a gospel bluegrass band that worked as far north as Illinois. "We'd play rural churches where people would jump and shout and talk in tongues," he remembers. "They used to scare me a little because our church was so quiet and theirs rocked, but it was a neat way to start because it was like starting at the root. We'd play those churches and I understood where Jerry Lee Lewis and his music came from."
While on the road with the Sullivans, Marty visited Bill Monroe's Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival where he met mandolinist Roland White, then a member of Lester Flatt's Nashville Grass. White, co-founder of the Kentucky Colonels along with his brother Clarence, befriended the youngster and invited Marty to visit him in Nashville. When the summer ended, Stuart reluctantly returned to school, though not for long. He had quickly gotten used to the applause and a paycheck and, following an altercation with a teacher, he promptly quit.
"I went home and called Roland and, by the time my parents came home from work, I had my plan of attack worked out," he recalls. "I convinced them to let me visit Roland in Nashville and, because the band had a gig while I was there, I went along. Lester heard us doing a mandolin and guitar duet on the bus and asked us to do it onstage. It was a big hit with the crowd and, when we got back to Nashville, Lester suggested that we talk to my parents to see if something could be worked out about my education so I could play with them. Within a week, I was playing on the Grand Ole Opry. I remember coming home from that first Opry show and thinking how fast things had happened. One day I was going to school, and now here I was with a job. I also remember thinking that since I had the job, I had to keep it. I understood it was time to get after it and develop my skills."
And so began an eight-year tenure that lasted until Flatt's death in 1979. Though the repertoire was fairly well set in stone, that period provided an enormously expansive learning experience for Marty. He continued to seek out parking-lot picking sessions at bluegrass festivals and, through Lester's manager's record collection, he was turned onto swing music, which in turn led to jazz. He was also affected by the things he was hearing on the radio--namely The Beatles. And perhaps most important, Clarence White came into his life.
"I was living with Roland and his family," he says, "and we would just sit around and pick for hours. Roland can actually play most of Clarence's things on guitar and he'd show me all kinds of them. Then Clarence would come to visit and show me for real. He was making it big as a session player and he talked about rhythm a lot. He got me into all kinds of syncopated rhythms and showed me how to play with my pick and two fingers."
After Clarence joined the Byrds, Marty began to take an interest in White's electric playing--in particular his backup work. "There was a song on the Byrds' Sweetheart Of The Rodeo [Columbia, PC-9670] called 'One Hundred Years From Now' that really opened my eyes," he recalls. "In the second verse he plays rhythm fills that were really a solo. That really affected my approach. Earl Scruggs was like that when he played duets with [fiddler] Paul Warren. Earl could get more lead out of his backup than most guys can play in 20 breaks. I would try playing those electric breaks on my acoustic by bending strings."
Fortunately for Marty, Flatt allowed him a tremendous amount of latitude: "I was the first flatpicking lead player that Lester had ever used and he dug it. Scruggs played some guitar, of course, but it was that pretty fingerstyle. The banjo player and I got to doing some pretty rambunctious things between us. I won't say we moved or changed Lester's music in any way, but we did get to do some new things with it. Lester encouraged it. That's what kept me interested. I listen back to some of those things now and it sounds like a 16-year-old trying to play everything he knows in two seconds. It was when I started thinking in terms of what to leave out that it started coming together."
When Roland left Nashville Grass in 1973 to re-form the Kentucky Colonels with Clarence, Marty became the mandolinist by default. Nevertheless, he continued to develop his guitar playing outside the group, and people began to invite him to play on their records. The only problem was that Flatt had a very strict rule that forbade recording outside of the group.
"He and Earl had had the same rule in their band because they didn't want to risk blowing any unique qualities in their sound," Marty explains. "I hated that rule from the start because I always felt that if one of your guys plays with somebody else, he's going to bring some new life back with him. The first time I ever stepped out was when John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty dirt Band invited me to do a session with him and [fiddler] Vassar Clements. McEuen was the first rock musician I'd ever met, and I walked the floor all night debating whether to break the rule. I decided I couldn't pass it up, so I went down and played mandolin on "Lonesome Fiddle Blues." When I told Lester, it kind of made him mad, but I explained that I had to expand my knowledge and make more money. He finally understood it from a business standpoint and reluctantly gave in. Then I started working a lot of sessions.
"I always refer to that period as 'a bunch of sessions' because they all kind of ran together," he continues. "I do remember that the first mainstream country session I did was for [singer] George Jones. It was a full-blown Billy Sherrill production with backup singers, strings, charts, modulations--the whole bit. I never did dive in and become a great chart-reading session player. I always liked to improvise and that got me in trouble sometimes. I've never been interested in becoming a day-by-day session player because I really dig playing live. I was more interested in doing live music and working on my studio life when I got the chance. It was a big thing just to find out who had the studios and how to get time in them. Even early on, I started experimenting with my own stuff."
By the end of 1977, Flatt had begun to cut back on touring because of failing health. When Slim Richey of Ridge Runner Records offered Marty the chance to make his own album, he jumped on it. The resulting album, Marty, was a curious mixture of influences. Sandwiched between the gospel nugget "Precious Memories," which served as the opening and closing theme, were selections by Bill Monroe ("Rawhide"), Lennon and McCartney (" A Little Help From My Friends"), and Steve Cropper and Otis Redding ("Dock Of The Bay"). Also included were covers of "Big Boss Man," "Kansas City," and "Mystery Train." Guest artists included Flatt, vocalist/mandolinist Curley Seckler, mandolinist Jesse McReynolds, and fiddler Buddy Spicher.
Though Marty describes that first effort as "a 19-year-old kid punching at it," the album was a real showcase for Stuart's instrumental versatility. In addition to acoustic guitar, mandolin and fiddle, the LP featured Marty's first efforts with a String Bender. [Ed. Note: The Parsons/White String Bender is a device invented in the late '60s by drummer/guitarist Gene Parsons and Clarence White to allow White to achieve steel guitar-like bends on his Fender Telecaster. It is a system of cranks and linkages inserted inside the body, connected to the B-string at the bridge, and also to the strap button. When pressure is applied to the neck, the strap button moves, raising the pitch as much as a full step.]
"After I got that guitar, I'd play along with the Byrds' records," he says. "I'd get the licks right, but the guitar just didn't sound the same, no matter what I did. Then, in 1980, I bought Clarence's guitar from his widow, Suzie, and found that it had just a little bit longer pull than any other bender I've ever seen. That little fraction of an inch seems to create an overtone or something, and it makes all the difference in the world. Roland says Clarence used to call it Frankenstein because of the way it was put together. The front pickup came out of a Stratocaster, and the rear pickup is a stock Tele that was rewound by Red Rhodes. It's a lot hotter and has a fatter sound than a stock Telecaster pickup. Clarence also had Scruggs [banjo] tuners put on the high E and the A strings. It really is an experimental axe."
Marty still looks to Clarence String Bender work with the Byrds and on sessions as his standard reference point for excellent with that device. "The trick to playing a Bender is to be able to use it without being totally obvious you have one," he declares. So many Bender players I see yank their guitars. You've got to kinda roll it with your shoulder action to get a smooth pedal effect."
In Marty's eyes, his acoustic and electric playing are of the same cloth--one linked to the other. He explains, "I always thought that in order to be a great electric player, you should understand acoustic, as well. It just seems to be a natural evolution. Before a person can be a great lead player, he must first be a great rhythm player, and I think you can find out more about rhythm on an acoustic guitar. If you get your rhythm chops together on an acoustic, you can apply that knowledge in the electric and become a total guitar player."
When Flatt died in May 1979, Marty and Curley Seckler were offered the opportunity to keep the band together and retain the spot on the Grand Ole Opry. Stuart declined because he realized it was time for him to move on. But he recalls his years with Flatt with great fondness. "When I look back, it seems amazing to me that just as he was about to go into the Country Music Hall of Fame and could have stayed home and counted his money, he hired a 13-year-old kid. I think he saw it in my eyes and was just passing it along. That was a good lesson for me."
Following Flatt's death, Marty played briefly in Vassar Clements' band and then spent several months with Doc and Merle Watson. "That was the best band I've ever been in," he declares. "It was Doc, Merle, [bassist] Michael Coleman and me. I got to express myself with them more than I'd ever been allowed. The sky was the limit. I was playing mandolin, guitar and fiddle."
There was one album left on Lester's contract with RCA and Marty was asked to produce a tribute LP. Though he was initially against the idea, he decided to make the best of it. He had recently met Johnny Cash while working at Cowboy jack Clement's studio and reasoned that a guest appearance by Cash would enhance he album's appeal. When he called, he discovered that Cash had toured with Flatt & Scruggs during the '60s and was a big fan. He agreed to the project and Stuart and Cash hit it off immediately. Johnny invited Marty to play fiddle on a session with him and, eventually, offered him the spot in his band that had been vacated by Carl Perkins.
"I played a little bit of everything," he says of the experience. "It was not a place to grow as a lead player, though. I'd figure out my three licks per song and that was it. But the gig taught me a lot about the top end of the business. It was a first-class ticket all the way. And I learned a lot about songs and songwriting."
In 1982, Marty was again offered the opportunity to record a solo album, this time for Sugar Hill. Busy Bee Cafe was an all-acoustic effort that showcased his versatility and featured such friends as Cash, Earl Scruggs, Doc and Merle Watson, and dobro specialist Jerry Douglas. It also marked the beginning of the end of the stint with Cash.
"We had a great time making that album, but when it was over, I had to go back to work with John," he explains. "I never got the chance to play that music for an audience and that made me unhappy. I started doing things that were not good for me and began coasting and playing soggy rhythm. After about two years, I said 'Enough!' and started writing and going back into the studio. Meanwhile, how do you walk away from the Johnny Cash gig? I'd get the schedule in the mail and there'd be an enormous amount of money along with it. It finally happened quite naturally. One night John came into the dressing room and said he was getting tired and was going to take some time off to do a couple of movies. I figure that was my cue."
Marty had been shopping his demo tape around Nashville for a while with no success when he decided to take matters into his own hands. One day he walked directly into the office of Rick Blackburn, Senior Vice President and General Manager of CBS Records' Nashville operation, and made his pitch: "Basically, I told him that all the people who were coming to see country music's legendary acts were older people who didn't buy records anymore, and that to invest in the future of country or Nashville music, it was necessary to build a youth-oriented demographic. He agreed and a record deal came down on the spot."
The album, Marty Stuart, is quite deferent from his two previous solo efforts. The tunes defy categorization but clearly lean in the direction of rock and roll. He co-wrote most of the tunes and the LP also features a fine reading of the Band's "The Shape I'm In." The primary instrument out front is his String Bender-equipped Telecaster, though his acoustic guitar and mandolin are also evident. (At this writing, the LP has reached the mid 30s on the country charts and is still moving up.) Interestingly enough, it is also a band album. Though Duane Eddy and studio guitar great Reggie Young guest on a few cuts, Marty carries the guitar load and the band is essentially the one he has taken on the road to support the LP--definitely not the norm in country music.
"I don't want to get caught in the trap of having a studio band and a road band," he explains. "I think that breeds stale music. Charts are all well and good, but they can't take the place of having performed the tunes 25 or 30 times in concert. I also don't wan to give up my guitar playing just because I have to front he band. Country music has been especially guilty of that. Glen Campbell is one of the greatest guitar players ever; he's forgotten more guitar than most of us will ever know, but most people only think of him as a smooth vocalist."
Marty's collection of working instruments is small but significant. In addition to the Telecaster once owned by White, he carries a '70s vintage Fender Stratocaster that was given to him by Carl Perkins. For the past several years, his primary acoustic has been a 1947 Martin D-45 that was once owned by Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Cash used the instrument almost exclusively throughout he '60s and '70s and gave it to Marty as a present. The neck is about the same size as the Telecaster's, and he's had the action set up to match the Tele.
All of Marty's instruments are strung with medium-gauge strings, though he would prefer something lighter on the Tele. "I can't use anything lighter than an .011 on the B string," he explains, "because that's about where the tension sets on the Bender. I would really prefer something slinkier, but the guitar won't stand it." Stuart also carries a Telecaster-style 4-string electric mandolin built by Kevin Schwab that is set up with heavy-gauge guitar strings and tuned down a fourth. "I had John put split-coil humbucking pickups in it," he says, "because those old Tele mandolins were so sharp and shrill, they hurt your ears. Tuning it down a fourth gives it a deeper and darker sound."
For sound reinforcement, he uses a Fender Twin or a beefed-up mid-'70s Fender Super Six Reverb (similar to a Super Reverb but with six 10" speakers). He finds that the clean Fender amp sound without effects generally suits the Telecaster best, though he often uses a Morley volume pedal "with just a little bit of Boss compressor on, to kind of top off the edge." On occasion, he will add a bit of Boss fuzz to the mix. "When I was with Cash," he adds, "I used an Ibanez delay with a pretty clean Fender sound to get that Scotty Moore 'slap' effect that he had on the Sun Records songs."
The past year or so has been especially productive for Stuart. Besides cutting his own album, he appeared on Highwayman by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson and Class of '55 by Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Cash. He was also part of Neil Young's Old Ways album. This month he heads into the studio to begin work on his next LP, as he aims for the status of the kind of people he's worked for.
"All the people I've played and been associated with have been stylists and innovators, so I feel it's important for me to pull off something with a little style to it. I think I succeeded to some extent with this first album. Now it's time to take it to the next step."
By John Sievert
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