Marty Stuart: Gets In The Holiday Spirit

This appeared in IN Lifestyle Magazine of Nashville - November/December 1993

Sometimes a life-changing event can arrive incognito. For example, who would have thought a guy playing piano for the Oak Ridge Boys would change the course of your life? Certainly not Marty Stuart, although, as a twelve year old, he did take note that the piano player "dressed really cool" and was "a cut up on stage" during a 1971 concert in Jackson, Mississippi.

"He just made an impression on me," Stuart says, smiling with the memory of the first time he laid eyes on his producer, MCA Nashville president Tony Brown--who might have said the same thing if he'd noticed Marty in the audience. Why? Because even as a twelve year old, Marty Stuart was something special.

He'd gotten his first guitar at 9 and recalls instantly feeling "this shovel fits my hand real good." By the time he was 12, he was an accomplished musician. So much so that when he met his idol, Lester Flatt, at a Bill Monroe Bean Blossom Festival, he freely admits, "I knew I belonged in that world."

While he was hanging around Flatt's bus, band member Roland White let the star-struck kid play his mandolin and encouraged his musicianship. Months later, when Flatt's band played near Philadelphia, Mississippi, Marty's hometown, White was invited to the Stuart residence for supper. He returned the favor by asking Marty to accompany the band to a gig in Delaware. That's when Lester Flatt heard Marty play the mandolin and was impressed enough to allow him to play on all four shows that weekend; he then extended his offer to the Martha White radio show and the Opry the following week. After those performances, Flatt began his campaign to bring Marty into the band. He succeeded in 1972, when the Stuarts finally agreed to let their 13-year-old son begin touring with the country legend.

Why would any parent hand their impressionable young son over to a bunch of road musicians? Marty flashes a quick grin. "I think it had a lot to do with who it was with. I don't think they would let me go out with The Rolling Stones. But Lester was a statesman--a well-respected man, a family man. They met him and had a long discussion with him; they understood him and he understood their point of view. Lester loved me like I was one of his kids. It took a lot of faith and vision on my parent's part--and it took a lot of faith and trust in me to conduct myself the way they had tried to raise me."

But what else can you do with a kid who, after getting caught reading Country Song Roundup in class, also got suspended from school for talking back to the teacher--she told him to get his mind on history and he said he was interested in making history. (If there's any justice, that same teacher got a front row seat when they held "Marty Stuart Day" in Philadelphia last summer.)

It was obviously the right decision for Stuart. "If I had it to do over again, I'd do it exactly the same way," he says. "I wouldn't take anything on this earth for the experience. I was hanging out with the people I wanted to be like all my life." He does concede, "it's a little bit different going from the ninth grade one day to Lester's bus the next day. My best buddy was 38 years old. My peers were Roy Acuff, Stringbean, Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt. Those guys had standards--rules and regulations they lived by. I just tried to be the kid that fit in but they all treated me like an adult. I loved playing poker with Ernest Tubb and I loved just sitting around listening to these guys talk--the backstage antics and practical jokes. Besides, you got paid for it and got to dress up like a hillbilly star and see the country. To me, that sure beat cruising the drive-in in Philadelphia, Mississippi!"

Stuart played in Flatt's band until Lester's death in 1979, then branched out, playing in bluegrass fusion with Vassar Clements and working with acoustic guitar virtuoso Doc Watson. He also began a six-year stint with Johnny Cash's band in 1981. Cash was calling Marty his "favorite electric guitar player." In between gigs, he recorded two independent albums and played sessions with stars like Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris and Neil Young. He filled his "down" time by keeping a journal and taking pictures.

"Before I learned how to write songs, I learned how to write down situations I was in. Merle Travis encouraged me to do that years ago. Some of 'em I thought were worthy to put into stories and be published because I thought they were relevant to country music." One that comes to mind is when he did a Johnny Cash Christmas special in Montreaux, Switzerland. "Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon and Cash were the guests on the show and after the taping at night, we'd all go up to somebody's room and they'd pass the guitar around and sing songs nobody heard 'em sing before. That's where I saw the Highwaymen project come together. I thought that should be documented. I bugged everybody by taking their picture and writing the story. Some things should be recorded right."

In 1985 he signed a recording contract with Columbia Records and released his first major label album. When the reaction from radio was less than stunning, he pulled back, assessed the situation and began to mobilize. "I was lucky," he says of that difficult time period, but credits his friends for helping him through it. "I went back and played with The Sullivans. I hung out with Bill Monroe, with Roy Acuff backstage at the Opry--my old friends, the people that raised me. These legends usually aren't in the limelight any more, but there are a lot of 'em that are still real active and have worlds that they still play in. It might not be on radio charts, but they're still gettin' it." Just knowing there was life without radio hits helped.

It was during that soul-searching period that he began to think again about Tony Brown, who was now a Nashville producer. "I was getting this whole new plan together and growing. I was working hard on the inside trying to grow up, catching up on some time I had lost and trying to develop a sound that when the needle drops down, you say, "That's Marty Stuart." He called Brown and said, "I really like the records you're making right now; I think you're being true to the artists you're producing." Then he took the plunge and confessed, "I need somebody to help me right now. I need a big brother 'cause I'm sinking. There are buzzards circling my career."

Brown---the man who also raised Vince Gill's career to epic proportions--accepted the challenge. That's when "hillbilly music with a thump" was born and Stuart's career was jump started. He signed with MCA Records in 1989; his debut release (co-produced by Brown and Richard Bennett--the man who "put the twang back into Nashville"), Hillbilly Rock also became his breakthrough solo album--the title cut and video became instant hits (even President Bush requested a copy for Air Force One).

His encore disc, Tempted, spawned four consecutive Top Ten hits: "Tempted," "Little Things," "Burn Me Down" and "Till I Found You," and earned the attention of his contemporaries--George Strait, Wynonna, Travis Tritt, Emmylou Harris and Buck Owens soon recorded Stuart-penned tunes.

Once the wheel of good fortune began spinning, it was unstoppable. In 1991, Travis Tritt invited Marty to sing on one of those Stuart-penned songs, "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'." The song not only hit #1, it won the duo: the 1992 CMA Vocal Event of the Year award and a Grammy for Best Country vocal Collaboration. They fanned the flames with a second duet, "This One's Gonna Hurt You" (the self-penned title cut of Marty's 3rd MCA release, which was certified gold last summer) and the now-famous "No Hats" tour. That duet garnered Stuart and Tritt the 1993 TNN Music City News Country Award for Vocal Collaboration. How do you top those accomplishments? For Marty, it was simple--he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry, something he'd dreamed about since he first appeared as a 13-year old child.

His continuing solo success with the 1993 "Marty Party" which kicked off last March in Canada, and follow up-hits like "Now That's Country" and "Hey Baby" have made him one of today's hottest performers. Yet, he hasn't forgotten his past. Not only does he tour with Ernest Tubb's old bus (although it was just relegated to crew bus status last spring), he plays a Martin D-45 formerly owned by Hank Williams and a D-28 that was Lester Flatt's. On stage, he plays country-rock pioneer Clarence White's 1954 Telecaster and has a collection of 400 glittering Manuel-designed jackets. He's also got one of the best-stocked private collections of country music memorabilia.

His self-proclaimed goal is "to tell young people about the Grand Ole Opry because the sad thing is most young people are just into country music because it's the thing to be into. We have to tell them the truth while we have their attention. If we learned anything through the Urban Cowboy phase, it's that you can't keep people with a trend."

Stuart is the perfect grand marshall for the 41st Annual Nashville Gas Christmas Parade on December 5. He combines the best of the new country music and attitudes with a reverence for the legendary music and performers that made Nashville Music City.

By Marjie McGraw

Return To Articles Return To Home Page