Marty Stuart: 21st Century Rock & Roll Cowboys

This appeared in Guitar Player Magazine - April 1994

Marty Stuart is so cool he could turn Nashville into the North Pole. A slick dresser with an affection for vintage cowboy boots and custom Manuel and Nudie suits, he projects an image that is equal parts classic country and modern rock and roll. His records mirror that image, boasting hot rockin' licks, cowboy poet wisdom, and bluesy vocals with a country twang, all neatly packaged in crisp production.

Few artists are bigger fans of country music and its history than Stuart. His collection of stars' guitars, stage clothing, and memorabilia rivals the Country Music Hall of Fame's. He tours in Ernest Tubb's bus, which he has renovated to include modern comforts while retaining the classic charm of its decor.

But Stuart's most impressive historical relic is his own experience. When he was 13, he toured as a mandolin player with Lester Flatt and later landed gigs with Vassar Clements, Doc Watson, Johnny Cash and the Sullivan Family. Along the way, he met countless artists, learned about their lives, and memorized their stories. Stuart is as enthusiastic recounting anecdotes about Jimmy Bryant, Hank "Sugarfoot" Garland or Roy Nichols as he is talking about his own escapades. He's made friends with so many legends and legends-to-be that it's hard to imagine anyone in country music saying a bad word about him.

At a time when most male country artists are attempting to be the next Garth Brooks by donning cowboy hats and clothing that looks like a bad mescaline hangover, Stuart beams like a beacon, leading listeners to what made and makes country cool. His new album Love and Luck salutes the sensibilities of Owens, Haggard, and the Byrds, throwing in blues licks and attitude, and bluegrass energy to make it all palatable to audiences young and old.

The album marks a turning point in Stuart's career. His last effort, This One's Gonna Hurt You, was his most successful record yet, but Stuart felt it was time to spice things up instead of relying on his time-tested recipe. Stuart, Randy Scruggs, John Jorgenson, and Brent Mason share guitar duties on this 6-string heavy effort, with liberal doses of Paul Franklin's steel sliding on top. Enlisting a new producer, Tony Brown, and hiring a new band for the road, Stuart is preparing to take his career to its next stage from a different prospective.

Outside Nashville's Soundstage studios, around the corner from the Country Music Hall of Fame, Stuart drives up in a new black Lincoln Continental. As we drive to one of his favorite restaurants, he reflects on country's past, present, and future and examines his role in keeping its finest traditions alive.

You've always deviated slightly from country's mainstream.

It's so competitive these days. Country radio is such a straight line of sound. The parameters are so drawn. The game to me is getting inside of that sound--if you can't go sideways, go up and down. And never forget to have fun. We were laughing at that song "Love and Luck," thinking about all the people we had stolen licks off of--"Only Daddy That'll Walk The Line," Stones, Maybelle Carter, "Buckaroo," the Beatles. We want them to all know we thank them very much.

I'm on a campaign to get the pickers back to the forefront, alongside the stars and the songwriters. The pickers were the dominant force around here for years. It's like we've slid away. There's definitely room for guitar stars in country music. As a matter of fact, it's a must.

What's missing?

The thing I really miss in modern country records is identifiable tones. There are very few identifiable players. I know John Jorgenson's and Richard Bennett's tone. That old guitar of Clarence White's that I have definitely has a sound. But on a lot of the hits that I hear now, I wish I could put my finger on who's playing what so when I see the players in the halls, I can say, "Great lick." Unless you buy the record, it's hard to say.

Tone used to be a lot of guys' signature around here, whether it was a fiddle player, banjo player, guitar or steel player. You knew a guy by his lick and his tone. That was the autograph. It wouldn't hurt a bit if that figured back into things.

Your records have rock appeal without veering away from your country identity.

I figured out a long time ago that there's no reason to buck the system. First of all, I love the system. But I don't see where there's anything wrong with adding to it. Go to a major rock and roll concert, and you see the lights and feel the magnitude of the sound. I've seen that whole picture coming for country for years. There's nothing wrong with that. Garth Brooks proved that last summer. He staged the event for country music.

When I was a teenager playing with Lester Flatt, we worked at Michigan State. That one show changed my life. The opening act was Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons, Lester played, then the Eagles, who were touring for their Desperado album. That night I saw that country music and rock and roll were the same thing. I'd heard "Blue Moon Of Kentucky" and I thought that the tempos we played at in a bluegrass band were just as fiery as "Jumpin' Jack Flash." But I knew it was going to be a long time before I ever saw that whole thing come into focus. I saw what was trying to go on, and that's the track that I've always stuck with. It's what I believe in.

Love and Luck sounds like your most traditional country effort yet.

This album's so close it scares me. It's like what Roger Miller said. "You dazzle them and run." You get right up there to the brink and run off. I finally got this thing figured out: The more records the sell, the more guitars you can buy.

How did the songs come together?

Me and Bob DiPiero wrote "Love and Luck." We cut a cover of Slim Harpo's "Shake Your Hips." Jorgenson and I played Slim's harp lines on guitars. Another cool guitar piece is a Billy Joe Shaver song called "If I Give My Soul." Billy Joe embodies what is left of the old outlaw spirit from the '70s. He wrote a lot of that stuff. I play some cool Nashville guitar on that, and Jorgenson comes in at the end and California stomps it. There's good guitar playing all over this.

We definitely stayed inside that mid- to late- '70s L.A. country-rock sound. That's where I see the band heading--lonesome, L.A. rock and roll cowboys, like the late Byrds when they were really slammin'.

Your direction is getting more focused.

A lot of people start trends and can't even capitalize on them. I hacked at things around here for so long when it was unpopular, and suddenly I saw people walking by me with the same licks, which made me very mad. But it was nice to see all those things that were unpopular and untrendy for years become fashionable. I don't think I had any catching up to do. I've never paid attention to who is doing what. I'm a fan. I have any hands full. I enjoy making the music that God gives me. That's the important part.

I've been working with the same program for years, and it is becoming more focused, which tells me it's about time to blow this up and go on to something else. My favorite band in recent years was Emmylou Harris' Hot Band. All those guys came from great places and made an enormous contribution to her music. Then they all went on to do other things that were equally great, if not more important than what they did with her. I like grabbing a hold of guys, training up something and getting it famous, and then blowing it up. I've just done that. The Hot Hillbilly Band is done, so I'm putting together a band called Rock And Roll Cowboys.

Basically, all we are is a revved-up, 21st century, Saturday night string band. There's not a big difference between us and Roy Acuff's band or the Maddox Brothers. We're that Saturday night bunch of boys who come into town, tear down the barn, and have some fun. We're just a rock and roll string band.

Joining Lester Flatt's band at such a young age, you bypassed the "grinding it out in the bars" stage.

I didn't have to work honky tonks until I started my own band. I truly started at the top and worked my way to the bottom. I felt guilty at points. I went from Lester to Vassar Clements to Doc Watson to Johnny Cash. I remember riding around with Johnny Cash and thinking "I'm making a lot of money, but there are a lot of dues I haven't paid yet." I always felt guilty about not slugging it out on that honky-tonk level. I knew when I started my own band that we were going to struggle for a while. At this moment, there are really not a lot of struggles, but a few hurdles to jump. Believe me, I've had my fill. I don't feel guilty about that anymore.

What did you learn from the people you played with?

Lester and Johnny weren't the kind of guys who set you down and talked to you. You just watched the way they conducted life. From watching Lester, I learned that it's important to be loyal to the people who made you and bought your music. He called me up to the front of the bus on the very first trip I went on with him. Lester pointed out two elderly people who were walking towards the bus. He said, "Those two people have been coming to see me since the mid '40s. That's what a country fan is all about."

I learned how universal he was even though he wasn't trying. His music appealed to bluegrass, country, gospel, rock and roll, and blues fans. It was Southern music. It was roots music. Those guys weren't about coming into town and stealing all the awards and money. It was a career. It was showing up every January 1 that really mattered and making a lifestyle of it. That's the track I found.

It must have taken a lot of guts to approach Lester for a gig at such a young age.

I got kicked out of school. Before I went to the bank where my mom worked to tell her about it, I went home and called Roland White, who I'd met the previous summer at a bluegrass festival. We swapped telephone numbers, and he said, "If you're ever in Nashville, you can come on the road with us." So I called him and asked if I could go on the road. Roland asked Lester and I begged my mom to let me go for the weekend. It was definitely a con job on my mom and dad--a begging and pleading con job. I had a feeling if I ever got out there that I could do it. I give the credit to my mom and dad for having the trust and faith to let me out. I think they knew that I was a misfit in the hometown world and needed some space. I'm glad they didn't try to hold me down. I don't think it could have happened with anybody but Lester Flatt, because he's like grandpa.

I had done this radio show with Lester about two weeks after I'd been with him. I was riding home and thinking, "I've got a great gig. Now how am I going to keep it?" It came up real fast that I was a student and they were the masters. I assume the same position today. Just when you think you've done something that's real incredible, go to the used record store and you'll find somebody who is way beyond you.

Were there any dark periods in your career?

I've had four or five careers inside of country music, so I've had a pretty good run at it so far. There was one time in '87 when I wanted to say "Done." I tried everything. If I'd had "Achy Breaky Heart" with "Your Cheatin' Heart" on the flipside, I couldn't have gotten arrested in this town. I told my mom, "I quit." She let me go through my whole speech and said, "Right. What are you going to do?" I thought about it and said, "I'd better get back to work."

What is your finest recorded moment?

I think the closest thing to a perfect guitar solo that I've ever played is the song "Matches" on a CBS album called Let There Be Country. If I ever want to be remembered for any guitar playing, it would be that song. It says everything I want to say. I couldn't play it again if you held a gun to my head. It was a pristine moment.

How would you define your guitar playing?

It's a hybrid of Luther Perkins, Ralph Mooney, Roy Nichols, and Clarence White, plus my own thing. I add a touch of blues to it all--that Mississippi thing. I'm basically a mandolin player who plays the guitar like a mandolin, with a B-string bender on it.

Do you find yourself trying to use mandolin voicing on the guitar?

Yeah, but that's okay sometimes. You stumble onto unique mistakes doing that. This summer I got into playing this little guitar on the bus. I was tuning everything in open G and trying to play Dobro songs. I found myself making mistakes in open G that I liked. Changing tunings puts a whole different spell on what you write. As a singer I always hate to have things with flats. I can't imagine playing "Buckaroo" in Bb. There's something about open strings in country music that works.

You had a couple of silverface Twins in the studio. Are those your favorite amps?

I can't find anything that serves me better than twins. The saddest thing happened to me this summer. We played a concert in Salem, Virginia, in a football stadium. We were doing soundcheck and it started sprinkling, so we covered up the stage. During soundcheck I thought that my guitar had never sounded better. For about five days in a row, my tone was just kissing me. Suddenly this black cloud came out of nowhere and the next thing I know, a tornado hit and the Twins were circling the football field. It smashed my amps. I've been searching and haven't found that tone again. I use a bassy Twin for the bottom and a classic tinny Twin for the top and dial them in.

What settings do you use?

On the bassy Twin, I run the volume at 4, treble at 8, middle 10, bass 6, and way too much reverb on everything. I run the top amp at 3, treble at 8, middle at 10, bass about 9 because it needs it, and too much reverb as well. The bright switch is up on both amps.

Do you use any other amps in the studio?

My favorite is a blackface Deluxe Reverb that you put on 3. It sounds great at low volume s with a jazzmaster on each-touch stuff. I got into playing too loud in the studio. Kennerley pointed out that the softer you play, the bigger it gets. Richard got the best, solid, earthy, off-the-floor guitar sound on "Till I Found You" from the Tempted album playing a Musicmaster guitar through a Princeton amp. It's the most gorgeous, eloquent tone we've achieved so far. It works that way onstage too, though it's hard to work that way sometimes.

How did you get Clarence White's Tele?

His wife Susie was a friend of mine. She told me she was interested in selling some guitars. I went to Kentucky where she lived at the time. She had this '54 Strat. I asked her if I could see the B-string guitar and she looked at me and said, "I know that's what you came up here to see." She flipped the lid on this case and there it was. It hadn't been aired out in about seven years and a couple strings were missing. I got a chill. That was the guitar that I listened to on countless records. At the end of the day, I asked her, "What do you want to sell?" She asked "What do you want, the B-string guitar?" I said, "Yeah!" She sold me that and the '54 Strat. I don't feel like I bought the guitar. I just bought the rights to borrow it.

That guitar has a following. Any time a guitar player comes around who's a fan of Clarence, I'll hand it to him. Fender is making this new Clarence White model. I took the guitar out to Fred Stuart at the factory and he ran specs on it all afternoon. The secret to that guitar is in the wood and metal. It happens to be a good one to begin with. The magic's in that back pickup that Red Rhodes wound to the bajillions. I hope it never goes out.

You can lay into that guitar and it rocks and rolls, or you can play clean chicken pickin' stuff. That B-string bender does its own thing. The middle setting is that Strat thing. Clarence played that setting on "Tulsa Country" and some Wynn Stewart songs. The front pickup is a butchered-up Strat pickup that has that fat, full, B.B. King warmth. That guitar is an all-round Tele. It's perfect.

You've got a lot of other interesting guitars in your collection.

All my guitars have names. My guitar tech Randy will say, "What do you need this week?" I'll say, "Clarence, Hank, Lester." It's so much easier than saying, "The '54 Strat with such and such serial number." I've got serial number 0001 of the new Fender Clarence model. The original is "Clarence" and the new one is "Bradley," which was the name of Clarence's son. I call both of them father and son.

"Wayne" was Wayne Moss' Jazzmaster. It's one of the three guitars that were used to record "Pretty Woman" with Roy Orbison. He also used it to play "Only Daddy That'll Walk The Line." "Lester" was Lester Flatt's guitar. "Hank" is a D-45 that belonged to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. There's a '52 Esquire called "Ronson" which belonged to Mick Ronson. I also have a Strat that Carl Perkins gave me. One of the guitars I'm proudest of belonged to Howard Gordon of the Chuckwagon Gang. Every song they did began with a chord that Howard strummed on that guitar. Paul Kennerley gave me a great '58 Tele. I've got a couple of cool paisley Teles, a blue flower one, and a bunch of '60s surf Teles.

My guitars all have an interesting story. Some have made a difference on a few things. They're still working guitars. I play every single guitar I have. They have to earn their keep. I don't take them all on the road, but I use them for TV, videos and recordings. It's important to keep them working.

Why does the guitar appeal to you?

Beyond making a living with a guitar, the guitar makes you happy. To me it was designed for happiness, sorrow, and emotion. There's something about when you're lonely and you pick up a guitar and make yourself grin. All the loneliness disappears. It's a good way to meet girls. I can't think of anything that a guitar can do wrong.

How does your acoustic playing differ from your electric style?

There wasn't a lot of up-front flatpicking on the country records that I was listening to. I got into black blues players hardcore when I was a kid. Later I discovered Maybelle Carter and I loved her autoharp kind of rhythms. That seemed to work with what I already learned from the blues. Then I heard Scruggs play, and he was taking Maybelle's thing further.

I didn't discover flatpicking until I moved to Roland's house. Roland can play guitar like Clarence. He doesn't do it that much, but he can show you just about anything that Clarence ever did. We'd sit around the house days upon days and do that. Then I got into Merle Travis. When I got into B-string benders, I wondered why you couldn't do that without a B-string bender on the guitar. I started thinking steel guitar on acoustic and I liked that. But when I'm by myself and nobody's looking, I love to play that old Appalachian lonesome folky guitar.

You have a lot of variety on your records. It's hard to nail you down to a certain signature.

I think variety is the signature. I like for albums to dance by me. I view a CD like going to a live set. It should entertain you. It should have a beginning and end and a point of view. It's a challenge to put out something that you're not ashamed to look back at. When you become predictable, whether to your audience or to yourself, that's when you're going to find some moss on you. Hopefully, 30 years from now, what I've done will hold up.

I included "Wheels" on this album because it's an anthem. When anybody sings that song, I usually cry. "We're not afraid to ride, we're not afraid to die." If you're passionate about what you do as I am about the music that we make, that's once-in-a-lifetime statement. So many people just show up for the money. Whether I make a nickel or a million, it's the same song to me. I've dedicated my life to music.

By Chris Gill

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