Stuart And His Musical Roots Go To 4th Bluegrass Festival

This appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - August 20, 2006

Marty Stuart, who lives northeast of Nashville, Tennessee has many ties with his next-door-neighbor state of Arkansas. He has played all over the state and he will return to Eureka Springs on Friday to perform in the fourth-annual bluegrass festival. Doc Watson will perform on Saturday; both performances are at The Auditorium.

Tim Crouch, a friend of Stuart's from Strawberry, invited him to participate in the festival. Crouch will also teach a fiddle workshop and help judge this year's band contest.

"I love what's going on up there. It's a great musical scene. It's a great cultural scene, he says.

Unlike most musicians, Stuart sounds awake and animated during a 9 a.m. phone interview from his home in Hendersonville. He says he's naturally a morning person.

"I'm a 24-hour-a-day person, actually," the 47-year-old says of his energy. Stuart was born in the central Mississippi town of Philadelphia. His paternal grandfather was an "old-time Mississippi fiddle player," and his mother played piano at church. More importantly, his parents were music lovers. For his dad, it was country and bluegrass; for his mom, gospel and country. "Music was just always there," he says.

Stuart got a toy guitar when he was two. In his very young years, he discovered the music of Johnny Cash, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. In 1970 and 11 years old at the time, he attended a Johnny Cash concert, met a member of Lester Flatt's band, got a mandolin and secured the autograph of a 28-year old Connie Smith, his future wife. Then at 12, he started playing mandolin for the Sullivan Family Gospel Singers. At 13, he joined Flatt's band as guitar player.

Working professionally at his young age was "like running away with the circus," he says. Though his parents allowed him to tour with Flatt, he didn't see his family for about a month. He remembers the joy of seeing the family car as he came over the hill at a bluegrass festival in Heber Springs.

Becoming part of Flatt's band, he also felt a bit like he was joining the Navy. "There were old, old veterans. Their level of professionalism was beyond belief," he says. "I had to go from being a little kid building model cars to thinking like a 60-year-old person."

The mandolin player left Flatt's band after a few months to play elsewhere and Stuart took over that instrument. The year Flatt died, Stuart met Johnny Cash. The next year, 1980, he joined Cash's band. Stuart soon released his first album, Busy Bee Cafe, and produced a gospel album for Cash.

Stuart has had six top-10 hits, one platinum album and five gold albums. His breakthrough album was Hillbilly Rock. In 1989, with the infectious title track landing in the top 10. Following hits included "Burn Me Down," "Tempted" And "This One's Gonna Hurt You," a duet with Travis Tritt.

The first of Stuart's four Grammy Awards came in 1992 for his vocal collaboration with Tritt on "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'." The last was in 2002 for best country instrumental performance on "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," with Earl Scruggs and other artists.

Stuart enjoys the "instant gratification" of performing live, the bond with the audience. "I love making records very much. But when I make a record, it's like sending music into space, in the world," he says. "With live performances, I can look at people's faces, their feet, their bodies, and tell if the music's connecting."

With a career that started with bluegrass and country music legends, Stuart has long been interested in music history. He has served as president of the Country Music Hall of Fame's board of directors. He also saw the changes happening in country music and began collecting artifacts before they were lost.

"I saw it as American culture," he says. "They represented who and what country music was to America at that point in time." The decision to start his collection, which now numbers about 20,000 items, came after he saw the first Hard Rock Cafe in London. The walls were filled with costumes and guitars from The Who and The Rolling Stones.

"I really just set out on a mission to find it, preserve it, set it aside and protect it," Stuart says. "It's warehoused, archived and curated."

Portions of the total collection have been displayed at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and other locations. A large exhibit titled "Sparkle and Twang: Marty Stuart's Americana Odyssey" is planned for June at the Tennessee State Museum.

Visitors might see Cash's first black suit, Jimmie Rodgers' railroad lantern, the boots Patsy Cline wore when she died in a plane crash and Hank Williams' handwritten lyrics for "I Saw The Light" and "Your Cheatin' Heart."

Stuart has finished Compadres, a follow-up to his earlier gospel album, Souls' Chapel. His next album will be Compadres, an anthology of his collaboration with artists including Flatt, Cash, B.B. King, Old Crow Medicine Show, Loretta Lynn and Stuart's wife, Connie Smith.

Stuart also plans to publish two coffee table books -- Long Journey Home, a pictorial documentary of his journey with text he has written, and Country Music: The Masters, with photographs he has taken during his time in the music business. "I've always carried a camera with me," he says.

Stuart's most recent album is Live at the Ryman, a bluegrass recording released earlier this year with his band the Fabulous Superlatives. The Eureka Springs festival stop is one of six bluegrass concerts he agreed to do this summer. He considers himself low on the totem pole of true bluegrass legends. "I'm a bluegrasser by proxy from a long time ago," he says.

By Michelle Parks

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