Country Music Pilgrim, Marty Stuart, Takes In Two Worlds

This appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution - November 27, 2005

"I first went on the road to play music when I was twelve years old. Some parts of America still had dirt floors. You could buy gas for twenty-four cents a gallon, and most every town still owned its own soul."
— MARTY STUART, Pilgrims: sinners, saints and prophets — A Book of Words and Photographs

Marty Stuart looks like a country singer. Dressed in pointy boots, tight jeans and a billowy black shirt, he greets guests at his room at the Renaissance Hotel in Nashville, where he's holed up before a performance at the annual Americana Music Association awards.

Most striking is his salt-and-pepper bouffant, a flamboyant do that nods over his forehead as Stuart tells stories in a lilting Delta drawl that often takes on the dramatic cadences of a hipster evangelist.

"My 12th year on this earth was spent playing bluegrass festivals, Pentecostal churches, camp meetings, and a George Wallace campaign rally," Stuart says. "The first night I was away from home, I was at a Pentecostal church. Like so many other people in the South, I got my start in the church. It was just as natural as anything else."

Stuart was born in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1958 and began his musical journey as something of a child prodigy, playing the mandolin with the Sullivan Family Gospel Singers from St. Stephens, Alabama. He came to Nashville in 1972 with the legendary Lester Flatt and the Nashville Bluegrass Band, first stepping onto the stage of the Grand Ole Opry at the age of 13.

For six years, during the 1980s, Stuart toured the world with Johnny Cash, a man he calls his mentor. He also married and divorced Cash's daughter, Cindy. Helped save the Ryman Auditorium (the original home of the Opry) from the wrecking ball. Amassed one of the biggest and most important collections of country music memorabilia. Served six terms as president of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Since 1986, Stuart has fashioned an eclectic and somewhat eccentric career as a singer, songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist, putting out a sporadic string of solo recordings and collaborating with everyone from Dolly Parton and Andy Griffith to the Dixie Chicks and Billy Bob Thornton. Though he's had six top 10 hits and received four Grammy awards, Stuart's music, which rambles between bluegrass, rockabilly and traditional country, hasn't always been easy to pin down — or easy to sell. And his latest burst of projects probably won't do much to change that.

A productive year

In August, Stuart released Souls' Chapel, a collection of rocking old-time gospel tunes, illustrated with his black-and-white photographs of church signs. Earlier this month, Stuart released Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota, an ambitious concept album about the lives of Native Americans in South Dakota that spawned a CMT In the Moment documentary. Both are on his recently launched Superlatone Records imprint. And along with a live album set to come out in February, Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives Live at the Ryman, they mark Stuart's recent return from an extended break from recording.

"It was time for intermission to be over," Stuart says. "I purposely called intermission in 2000. I'd been going for 27 years, and it was time to cool. As Little Richard says, 'Let the house cool down.' So I pulled the curtain. I produced, I scored, I did everything other than take it seriously. And then I said, 'Now it's time to go back at it.' "

The music on Souls' Chapel is rooted in Stuart's days with the Sullivan Family and Lester Flatt. But its great grace notes come from Pops Staples and the Staple Singers, the gospel-soul group that Stuart joined in 1994 to perform "The Weight" on the Rhythm, Country and Blues compilation.

Though Souls' Chapel was conceived as a testament to his Christian faith, during the early phase of its development, Stuart was arrested and jailed for drunk driving in Hendersonville, Tennessee, not far from his home. "And it wasn't the first time," he says. "I was trying to walk the line and live the sober lifestyle. But I messed up and got instantly busted for it. It was like God saying, 'I told you so.' "

Vote of confidence

Stuart says the shame and the humiliation were almost too much to bear, making him question whether he should be singing gospel music. But then, just one day after he got out of jail, something happened. Mavis and Yvonne Staples showed up backstage at Stuart's concert in Chicago. And they brought along their late father's guitar, the celebrated instrument that Pops can be heard playing on such soul-stirring hits as "I'll Take You There."

"I thought they wanted me to put strings on it or something," Stuart says. "And they bequeathed it to me. It was like being handed Excalibur — it was such an instrument of life. He was a man of God, and that guitar was his flashlight. So to have that guitar hung around my neck when I could barely hold my head up — it was a weighty matter, and I didn't take it lightly."

The Delta and Nashville are key places in Stuart's heart and mind. South Dakota is another place. Badlands tells the story of the Oglala Lakota people around Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, an area infamous as the site of the massacre at Wounded Knee. Stuart first traveled to Pine Ridge in the '80s for a benefit concert with Cash's band. He's been going back ever since, saying he's been "adopted" there, and immersing himself in a world of sweat lodges and Native American dance. In fact, Stuart and country singer Connie Smith were married on the reservation in 1997.

"The first date I took Connie on outside of Nashville was to a sun dance," Stuart says. "I said, 'If this doesn't scare her off, I have a chance.' And her little Pentecostal hands just went up in the air, and I said, 'Great.' "

Inspiration from Cash

Though Badlands is historical and topical, with songs detailing poverty, grief and broken promises, it also has a hopeful side. Stuart says he struggled with the idea of the recording for years, going back to Cash's 1964 album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian for inspiration, enlisting Cash's son, John Carter Cash, as co-producer, and covering Cash's little known song "Big Foot."

"Marty Stuart is like a brother to me," says John Carter Cash. "Not only is he amazingly talented and inspired, but he truly cares about the history and importance of music."

Still, it was a meeting with a mysterious man on a Nashville street corner that Stuart says finally moved him to go forward.

"I was walking down Broadway," Stuart says. "And this Native American came up to me — a drunk, a homeless guy — and he said, 'You're Marty Stuart.' I said, 'Yes.' And he said, 'This belongs to you.' He handed me something wrapped in red felt. I opened it up, and there were these eagle claws inside. But when I looked up, he was gone."

Those sorts of signs and wonders — in Native American symbology, eagle claws have a legendary power — seem to follow Stuart wherever he goes. And though he admits he still struggles to stay true to his beliefs in the face of living what he calls "the rock 'n' roll lifestyle," Stuart sees no contradiction in playing popular music and proclaiming the Gospel.

"It is preaching outside the church," Stuart says, "And I like that. In my favorite review of Souls' Chapel, one pop critic wrote: 'Gospel music without being [a jerk] about it.' That's the ministry of this record."

As to reconciling Christianity with Native American ritual, once again, Stuart finds convergence where others might find conflict.

"Some of the greatest spirituality you can have in your life is to come out of a sweat lodge and look at the stars," Stuart says.

"It feels to me like a totally harmonious thing. What they are doing is from the right perspective — done with the right heart."

By Bob Townsend

Marty Stuart hasn't seen the Cash film Walk the Line. But "no" is the emphatic answer he gives when asked if any movie could ever capture the Johnny Cash he knew. Stuart, who played in Cash's band in the 1980s, still lives in the house he bought next door to Cash's house in Hendersonville, Tennessee. He shared some memories of and reflections on his mentor:

• "Years ago, we'd sit around the coffee shop, speculating on this among the band," Stuart says. "We talked about how you could find a guy who could imitate Elvis or Frank Sinatra or one of the Beatles, but you can't run out and find a Johnny Cash impersonator who can really get the job done. Whatever Joaquin [Phoenix] did, I'm sure he researched it well and did it with all his heart, but there you go."

• "One of my favorite sides of Johnny was his sense of humor. He was a total clown. And he had a really sick and warped sense of humor that no film could ever capture. I miss that very much. I'll see some really strange, dark, sick thing and I'll say, 'Oh man, I wish I could pick up the phone and call him, because he could do 10 minutes on that.'"

• "He was a man of contradictions. One year, for Christmas, he gave me a poem that he worked on for a week. It was called 'Don't Make a Movie Out of Me.' Six months later he told me that he was excited that somebody was fixing to make a movie about his life. I said, 'But what about the poem?' And he said, 'Oh yeah, that was good too.'"

• "Fall disappeared and winter appeared in Nashville this week. The leaves are gone. And when I stand in my orchard, and look next door, there's a house that's just really quiet and really still and kind of eerie. Sometimes the leaves hide the truth. But the truth is, my old friend is gone. And I miss him."


Backed by his Fabulous Superlatives -- drummer Harry Stinson, bassist Brian Glenn and guitarist Kenny Vaughan -- Marty Stuart has released two new discs (both on Superlatone Records):

Souls' Chapel is ostensibly a collection of classic and original gospel songs. But rousing doses of blues, country and soul make it as rocking as anything Stuart has ever recorded. The infectious modern spirituals of the Staple Singers are the obvious touchstone as the Superlatives join Stuart in heavenly harmonies. And on the guitar rave-up "Way Down," you can hear the swinging strains of lesser-known gospel greats such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The set opens with a percolating cover of the Staples' "Somebody Saved Me," and features Mavis Staples on a mighty rendition of "Move Along Train," written by her father, Pops.

Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota is a topical concept album that honors the Oglala Lakota people and their history and heroes, including Red Cloud, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. It can be a challenging listen. But Stuart's obvious passion and first-hand knowledge of Native American culture comes through in the hard country title track and haunting story songs "Trip to Little Big Horn" and "Wounded Knee." And there's a rollicking version of "Big Foot" by Johnny Cash that's both a tribute to Stuart's musical mentor and the Lakota elder he celebrates.

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