Marty Calls Country Music Back To Roots

This is from the Assoc. Press - July 31, 2003

For a guy with a lot of imagination, country singer Marty Stuart sure didn't use much for the title of his new album: Country Music.

With its simplicity, Stuart is making a statement about the music he's played since he was a boy. Country, he says, has strayed too far from its rural roots, spit and polished until it's lost its soul.

"I thought, 'Well, a true country record in Nashville is a bit of a concept these days. I'll make an issue out of making true country music,'" says the 44-year-old singer, his dark spiky hair showing gray.

Many have expressed frustration with the state of country music; Stuart says he's doing something about it.

Besides releasing a no-frills country album, he's organized the Electric Barnyard Tour, a throwback to the traveling tent shows that brought Grand Ole Opry stars like Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe and Hank Williams into America's small towns.

Sponsored by the Waffle House restaurant chain, it pairs Stuart with country legend Merle Haggard, whom Stewart calls "the poet of the common man." It began last month with a half dozen shows in places such as Tulare, California and Klamath Falls, Oregon, and stops in other small cities that rarely see major tours.

"I wanted to do something that's purely American," Stuart says. "We're taking a world class country show with a very affordable ticket price ($25-$30) back to the working American who works hard all week and doesn't get a whole lot."

Charles Wolfe, author of A Good Natured Riot, a history of the Grand Ole Opry radio show, said the heyday of the Opry tent shows was the 1930s and '40s, before country stars had broad enough appeal to fill arenas and stadiums.

"They found out that instead of each individual person trying to book a school house or tiny theater, they could do better with a package tour," Wolfe said. "It would be a group of four or five performers and they'd carry around a big circus tent. There would be a caravan of cars, and the first people in the caravan would be roustabouts whose job was to pitch the tent."

Stuart got the notion to revive the tradition last year while road testing his new band, the Fabulous Superlatives. He says he saw a gap between the pop-oriented hits on country radio and the lives and tastes of the people coming to his shows.

"Demographics and research don't pay attention to those kind of avenues," he says. "But the heart of it is a lot of these people who are forgotten and overlooked anymore in research and marketing are the people who gave us an industry in the first place."

Most concert tours focus on major cities, where the venues and fan bases are large enough to sell plenty of tickets. The Electric Barnyard gets around that by using a portable stage that works at fairgrounds and ball fields. But mechanical problems led to cancellations, and organizers had to scramble to restructure the schedule.

The scope of the tour also was scaled back. Early dates included Opry singer Connie Smith, bluegrass artist Rhonda Vincent and alt-country groups BR549 and the Old Crow Medicine Show. Now, only Stuart and Haggard are mainstays, with supporting acts to be added later.

Still, the tour is a fresh face in a summer packed with big road shows by the Dixie Chicks, Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, George Strait, Kenny Chesney and Brooks & Dunn.

"It's a tough year, but they can be the only show in town in some of the places they've booked," said Ray Waddell, a journalist who covers the concert business for Billboard Magazine. "In a lot of places they're going, you can believe it's the biggest thing that hit in quite a while."

Stuart knows this as well as anyone. He grew up in Philadelphia, Mississippi, idolizing the country singers he heard on radio and TV. A child prodigy, he played mandolin with the Sullivans, a gospel act, by age 12 and toured with Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash before embarking on a solo career in the '80s.

He's had a half dozen Top 10 hits, including "Hillbilly Rock" and "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'," with Travis Tritt.

For his new album, his first in four years, Stuart returned to Mississippi - and to the music that inspired him. The 12 songs include Porter Wagoner's "A Satisfied Mind" and Cash's "Walls of a Prison." There's also a duet with Haggard called "Farmer's Blues" in which Stuart sings, "Who'll buy my wheat, who'll buy my corn, Feed my babies when they're born," and the blue collar "Too Much Month (At the End of the Money)" about the difficulty of making ends meet.

"I went to the very source of my heart," Stuart says, "to the things about country music that sparked me in the very beginning: Flatt and Scruggs, Johnny Cash, true country fans, true country music."

By John Gerome

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