Marty Stuart: Building Bridges Across Generations

This appeared in Music City News - April 1997

There is probably no other artist in country music who bridges the generations as well as Marty Stuart does. For more than 25 years, he has been making music with the best in the business. He was only 13 when he landed a job playing mandolin in the great Lester Flatt's bluegrass band. After Flatt's death in 1979, Stuart began playing with fiddler Vassar Clements and played acoustic guitar with Doc Watson. He then began a six-year stint as guitarist with country legend, Johnny Cash.

When he recorded his first studio album in 1982, Busy Bee Cafe, on the independent Sugar Hill label, his studio band consisted of Doc Watson, Merle Watson, Johnny Cash on guitar, Jerry Douglas on dobro and Carl Jackson on banjo. That led to his being signed with Columbia Records and his first Top 20 hit in 1985 with "Arlene," followed in 1986 by the album Marty Stuart.

Stuart then moved to MCA in 1989 and broke into the Top 10 for the first time with a song and album that not only described Stuart himself, but also a new direction for country music--Hillbilly Rock. His second MCA album, Tempted, went gold and yielded four hits, "Tempted," "Little Things," "Till I Found You," and "Burn Me Down." But it was his duet with Travis Tritt on "The Whiskey Ain't Workin" that drew the most attention and critical acclaim. The duo won Vocal Event of the Year Award from the Country Music Association in 1992 and a Grammy in 1993.

In 1992, Stuart became a member of the Grand Ole Opry, 20 years after his first appearance on the Opry stage. His third album, This One's Gonna Hurt You, also went gold and kept the Stuart/Tritt combination together.

In 1994, his fourth album was released, Love And Luck, followed in 1995 with The Marty Party Hit Pack, which was a combination greatest hits package and a sampler of the many sides of his talent. The album also spawned a successful series of "Marty Party" specials on The Nashville Network. "I get to call up my friends and pay them to come play with me," said Stuart. "It's like TNN gave me a big box of crayons and a budget and said, 'Go have fun'."

In the meantime, Stuart has found time to participate on many multi-artist albums: Asleep at the Wheel's Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills (which garnered Marty a Grammy for his cut of "Red Wing"); Mama's Hungry Eyes: The Merle Haggard Tribute; It's Now Or Never: The Tribute to Elvis (on which he sang "Don't Be Cruel" backed by the Jordanaires); Rhythm, Country and Blues; Red Hot + Country, an AIDS benefit album; notfadeaway, a Buddy Holly tribute album; One Voice, with Willie Nelson; and he sang with George Jones as well as played guitar on many of the cuts for Jones' Bradley Barn Sessions.

His 1996 release, Honky Tonkin's What I Do Best, brings together all kinds of music--honky tonk, hillbilly, rock, traditional country and progressive country. When Stuart was preparing for the album, he began to look for a feel of "magic"--in songs, in places, on co-writers, in people he talked to about the project. Then, in the week before he started recording, the magic found him.

Stuart, who has amassed a collection of country music artifacts and memorabilia that rivals the Hall of Fame's archives, had just bought some items that belonged to Hank Williams Sr. and discovered the original manuscript of "Cold, Cold Heart" was among them. Then he flew to California to perform with Bonnie Raitt and NAMM, the musical instrument makers' trade show.

"That same night, I got to meet John Lee Hooker," says Stuart. "I then bumped into Johnny Cash on the plane and he asked me to play on his album with Tom Petty, which I did later that week. I flew back to play the Opry on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, I went to a black church and that afternoon, I picked with Earl Scruggs and Grandpa Jones. The next day I started the record. All these blessings came in one week--all those 'go' signs."

Stuart is well-known for his tours with Travis Tritt. Their first road teaming was in 1991's No Hats Tour. Then they hit the road again in 1996 for their Double Trouble Tour. Tritt is part of this year's Fruit of the Loom Country Comfort Music Series tour and, ironically, Stuart will play a vital part in that venture. There will be a three-truck traveling exhibit of artifacts from Stuart's private collection that will travel with the tour which will be set up at each performance for the fans to see. "We got three trucks from the Tennessee State Museum which are set up for that kind of thing," he explains.

In 1996, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum opened a new Hank Williams Sr. exhibit featuring items belonging to Stuart. Rare items include the telegram sent by Williams' mother to his sister telling of the legendary singer's death, original scrawled lyrics to "I Saw The Light" and other Williams' classics, and even the 1948 Packard limousine that Williams toured in.

Yet another honor was bestowed on Stuart in November when C.F. Martin & Co. unveiled a limited edition, signature model Marty Stuart acoustic guitar. He is only the third entertainer to be so honored. The Gene Autry edition was presented in 1994, followed by the Eric Clapton edition in 1995. Martin is donating a portion of the proceeds of the guitar's sales to one of Stuart's favorite charities, the Oglala Lakota College District Learning Center Fund.

And as if he wasn't busy enough with all that, Stuart also found time to write two songs and appear in a cameo role for the movie "The Fire Down Below," starring Steven Seagal. He also appears regularly on TNN's "Prime Time Country" and is a guest star for many other specials.

The history of country music and its performers are a vital part of Stuart's career. When he appears onstage, he uses instruments that belonged to Clarence White, Hank Williams Sr., and Lester Flatt. He loves to talk about the people he's worked with and loved. "A few minutes spent with Minnie Pearl could change your life," he says softly.

But it's the future that excites him. Perhaps no other performer could get away with the topper song title of all: "The Mississippi Mudcat and Sister Sheryl Crow." To have bridged the generations from Lester Flatt to Sheryl Crow is more than enough for most artists in a lifetime. But the 38-year-old singer / songwriter / musician gives the impression that he has only just begun to enter probably his most creative period.

He probably said it best himself. "You could spend your whole life chasing a trend, chasing the latest dance craze or the latest fashion craze in country music, but I prefer to keep one foot on a classic while we're innovating into the 21st century. It's a fun game for me and I love it."

By Danny Procter

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