Ramblin' Rhodes: Stuart Joins Longtime Pals Little Roy & Lizzy For Festival

This appeared in the Augusta Chronicle - April 28, 2015

It is rare to see Marty Stuart at a bluegrass music festival these days. However, he got his musical start performing at such outdoor events in the 1970s playing mandolin for Grand Ole Opry legend Lester Flatt.

But he and his band, His Fabulous Superlatives, will take the stage for a 90-minute show at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, May 2, at The Little Roy & Lizzy Music Festival at Elijah Clark State Park, 10 miles east of Lincolnton, Georgia.

One reason for his accepting the festival appearance is because of his long-time friendship with festival co-host Little Roy Lewis, the banjo-playing wizard who was the spark plug of The Lewis Family bluegrass-gospel music group for more than 60 years until the group disbanded.

His first exposure to bluegrass and gospel music stars came growing up in his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Stuart once told his RFD-TV cable show viewing audience, “The first live music concert that I ever saw in my life … my mama took me and my sister to see The Lewis Family Gospel Singers. The first family of bluegrass gospel music. And I fell in love with those people that night. They’ve been my friends ever since.”

Stuart began crossing paths with The Lewis Family many times during his early performance years with The Sullivan Family of Alabama and later with Flatt’s Nashville Grass group.

And that’s how I came to know Stuart by going to bluegrass music festivals in the 1970s with The Lewis Family.

Stuart has been generous – telling people including his band – that I gave him his first national publicity with a cover story about him and Flatt for Virginia-based Bluegrass Unlimited magazine in September 1978.

He just had released his first solo album With A Little Help From My Friends album on Ridge Runner Records. He was only 19 years old and had been traveling with Flatt for six years.

For that article, Stuart talked about his new religious way of life, which had come about after several years being chased by female bluegrass groupies known as “snuff queens,” taking illegal drugs and, in general, growing up faster than the average teenage youngster.

“I’ve learned to respect God a whole lot,” Stuart said. “He’s the biggest thing in my life now. A lot of people who saw me and knew me well a few years ago may think what I say now is a bunch of crap. I was reckless then. The drugs, the snuff queens and other things had turned me into a punk bluegrass figure. I learned what drugs and being an unstable person can do to you. Now, I have peace of mind and that outweighs money.”

Beside the John Lennon/Paul McCartney-composed title song "With A Little Help From My Friends," Stuart covered on his debut solo album other non-bluegrass, non-country numbers such as "Kansas City," "Dock of the Bay," "Mystery Train/Tiger Man" and "Big Boss Man."

That was Stuart’s initial personal statement that his own music career would be diverse; embracing all kinds of music.

Since Flatt then was in failing health and had undergone open heart surgery, Stuart already was looking ahead to his own future.

“When Lester quits or says ‘I’m ready to go home,’ I’ve got to start thinking of Marty Stuart,” the teenage musician said. “I feel like I’ve worked with the Rolls Royce of bluegrass music. I feel like I’ve worked with the best. I’d like to take what I’ve done and add to it. One of the biggest things I’ve learned from working with Lester is staying real and honest. I figure you can apply that to anything you do.”

Stuart began playing full time with Flatt’s band when Stuart was 13 years old. Flatt not only took him into his band as a guitar player but also into his house, becoming a father figure to Stuart.

“In March of 1973, Roland (White) left Lester to form a band with his brother Clarence. Rather than finding a new mandolin player, Lester told me to go ahead and play the mandolin. I moved in with Lester in the summer of 1975 and I stayed with him for two years until my parents moved to Murfreesboro, Tennessee.”

Although Stuart is known for his mandolin playing, he told me then that he actually prefers playing the guitar.
“I think I get more soul into a guitar,” he said. “A guitar’s my first love. God bless Bill Monroe, though. He can put a lot of soul into mandolin playing. Right on stage now (indicating a performance in progress) is one of the best mandolin players I’ve heard, Bobby Osborne. He probably plays more mandolin on the bus than on stage.
“Jesse McReynolds and Roland White are also great mandolin players. I was influenced in my guitar playing by Clarence White. You shouldn’t copy anybody, but I think I have a lot of Clarence White’s flavor in my playing.”

In that conversation in 1978, Stuart said he was not sure of what the future held for his musical career, but he said as far as his personal life is concerned he would let his faith be his guide.

“I feel confident about my life, because I feel like if He wants it for me, then it will happen. In the Bible it says, ‘If you are close to me, I’ll give you the desires of my heart.’ I believe that.”

Well, the future held a lot in store for Stuart including recording and producing many great albums, touring with Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, becoming a Grand Ole Opry member in 1992, marrying fellow Opry cast star Connie Smith, having his photographs on display in major museums, hosting a popular cable TV show, recording hit duets with Travis Tritt, becoming known for his extensive collection of country music memorabilia and performing hundreds, if not thousands, of shows.

Stuart has more than fulfilled the desires of his heart. He always has been such a funny, generous, loving and talented guy. And I bet he will feel right at home being back in Georgia once again for The Little Roy & Lizzy Music Festival.

By Don Rhodes

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