Marty Stuart: Building On The Foundation Of Country

This appeared on - July 29, 2010

There aren’t many areas of American roots music that Marty Stuart hasn’t explored since he came to Nashville as a teenaged mandolin player in Lester Flatt’s band. With solid runs as Johnny Cash’s guitarist and a hit-making solo country artist, Stuart has had one of the most eclectic careers of anyone in Nashville. He’s equally adept at bluegrass, gospel, blues and more, but country music is where his heart is, and the genre is better for it.

Stuart is one of country music’s great ambassadors, with an outgoing personality, an encyclopedia-like knowledge of country history and, most importantly, talent to spare. Even at the height of his mainstream popularity, when he was scoring Top 10 hits like “Tempted” and “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin' ” with Travis Tritt, he never strayed too far from, or changed up his style to fit in with, mainstream country radio. As one of his own songs said, “That’s country, and baby that’s my style.”

While recent years have seen him recording bluegrass, Delta gospel and a song cycle about the Native American people, his latest album, Ghost Train (The Studio B Sessions) is pure, unadulterated country. Available August 24, 2010 on Sugar Hill Records, it is a return to Stuart’s favorite type of music, but it’s not meant as a tribute to times gone by. To Stuart, creating a modern traditional country album isn’t so much about establishing a link to past times as it is building on the strong foundations of country music.

“It was designed to house a lot of vines,” he explains. “The vine of honky-tonk, the vine of bluegrass or folk music or pop-country. It’s just that the strand of traditional country music has grown really dim. It looked to me like it was in danger of slipping away, and it’s much too precious to let slip away.”

With a collection of songs, some new and some classics, Stuart took his band, The Fabulous Superlatives, into one of Nashville’s most revered recording studios – RCA Studio B. From about 1957 to 1977, it was the home to numerous music legends, country and otherwise. Waylon Jennings, Chet Atkins, Dolly Parton and Elvis Presley all recorded there. Connie Smith, Stuart’s wife and one of country’s great singers, called it home for more than nine years.

“It was the first place I ever recorded in Nashville, when I was a kid with Lester Flatt. I guess I was about 13 or 14 when I went there for the first time,” Stuart says. “Sonically, it’s one of the most magical places I’ve ever made music in.”

Bridging the Generations

While it’s the first straightforward country album he’s recorded since 2003’s Country Music, Stuart has been busy promoting the music with other venues. The Marty Stuart Show, broadcast on RFD-TV, has revived the variety show format and featured country legends, contemporary stars and left-of-center artists. It’s helped expose the music to viewers who may never have heard it otherwise.

“There are people coming out of the woodwork who thought this kind of music was gone forever, so I’m making a lot of new friends,” Stuart says.

Stuart sees himself as a bridge in country music, where he gets to encourage young artists and pass along the history and traditions of country music. At the same time, he says, “I can see the old folks home. I get to shepherd the elders home at this point in my life, with dignity. Porter Wagoner comes to mind.”

Stuart produced Wagoner’s last album, Wagonmaster, which came out in 2007. He died less than five months after its release but lived long enough to see the positive reviews the album received as well as the renewed interest in his music.

“We stood on the stage of Madison Square Garden to open for a rock and roll band called The White Stripes,” Stuart recalls. “To watch the reaction on those kids’ faces, who barely knew who he was, but they dug him, they loved him.”

Stuart and Wagoner had been friends for years, but they became especially close during the making of the record. Stuart speaks fondly of those final years of Wagoner’s life.

“Just to watch him come back to life,” he says, “to go from being kind of a sad old fella sitting in his recliner to getting new suits made and being the absolute, top-of-the-heap Wagon Master one more time. To watch the life it put back in his bones, that’s my favorite thing.”

“We just had a lot going on, and all of a sudden, he was gone,” he recalls. “Really quickly, very little time to say goodbye.”

A couple of months later, Stuart was flying to Alaska for a concert, and he wrote “Porter Wagoner’s Grave,” about a down-and-out man who found redemption after a conversation with Wagoner’s ghost.

“For a long time, I didn’t think [the song] was very good, kinda corny, and just something I did to entertain myself,” he said. “But the more I lived with it, I thought, ‘You know, I think he’d like this, and I think I could sit in front of him and do this with a straight face.’ That’s what made me decide to go ahead and put it on the record.”

Another departed country legend is well-represented on Ghost Train. “Hangman,” a song from the point of view of an executioner, is the last song ever written by Johnny Cash, Stuart’s long-time mentor and one-time employer. The two men were neighbors, and Stuart paid Cash a visit to talk about a recent trip he made to Folsom Prison. Stuart had part of “Hangman” written, and the two finished it off that afternoon. It was the last time he ever saw Cash, who died four days later.

Of course, the down side to being a bridge for country music means saying goodbye to old friends.

“It goes back to my first boss, Lester Flatt, and having to say goodbye to Lester in 1979. It’s been a series of goodbyes ever since,” he says. Fortunately, he adds, he can always put on records, watch old videos, or talk to friends and share stories to help ease that pain.

“All of us can live in a place and pretend that we’re just all on the road somewhere, and we’ll see each other later,” he says. “Which we will.”

Deep and Abiding Love

The presence of these two somber songs should not indicate that the entire album is a dark, brooding affair. Like country music itself, Ghost Train alternates between heartbreaking and joyous, salutes rebels and hard workers alike, and celebrates finding love with the right woman and getting the hell away from the wrong one. A couple of instrumentals showcase Stuart’s ability on the electric guitar (“Hummingbyrd,” so named because Stuart’s electric guitar once belonged to ex-Byrd Clarence White) and mandolin (“Mississippi Railroad Blues”). Ralph Mooney, the legendary steel guitarist, gets to show off on an instrumental version of Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms,” a song he co-wrote.

“He’s one of my best friends, and he’s my all-time favorite country musician,” Stuart says of Mooney. While planning the record, he traveled to Texas to spend an afternoon with Mooney and convince him to appear on the record.

“Ralph loves real hard-core, traditional country music, and I thought when he heard “Drifting Apart,” he’d like what I was up to and might consider being a part of it.” While he was there, the two also banged out “Little Heartbreaker,” a steel-driven uptempo tune that fits in well next to Stuart’s radio hits.

Throughout the album, Stuart’s love of country music is plainly evident.

“In my opinion, [country music] is the sum total of our struggles, our triumphs, our tragedies, our heartaches, our victories,” he says. He credits the RFD-TV show for helping to put his focus back on traditional country. “It gave me a place to stage the music and to stage my point of view,” he explains. “All of a sudden, I’m making the kind of music that I love the most, which is traditional country music. I have a place to play and an audience to play it for. As long as I have that, I can strut.”

With Ghost Train’s impending release, Stuart is planning on getting back out on the road, but he’s got plenty of other projects to keep him occupied as well. He is producing an album for Connie Smith, finishing up another Delta gospel album, starting a follow-up to Ghost Train, and preparing three more books. They will be follow-ups to his photography book, Country Music: The Masters. Unfortunately, a Marty Stuart autobiography – which would surely be a page turner – will have to wait.

“I don’t have time to do that!” he says with a laugh. “Let me get a little further down the line first.”

By Sam Gazdziak

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