Country's Renaissance Man

This appeared in The Birmingham News - June 18, 2006

You may not hear him on the radio, but Marty Stuart is one of Nashville's busiest stars.

He put out three albums in the past year and is about to release three more; has published an acclaimed volume of his music-themed photographs; is working with the University of Mississippi on an upcoming TV show about country music; has his own new recording imprint called Superlative Records; and presides over one of the nation's largest collections of country music memorabilia, which he plans to send on a national tour in 2008.

"Other than that, I haven't been doing anything," Stuart, 44, says from his home in Nashville. Tonight, with his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, he'll make his City Stages debut with an 8:55 p.m. performance at the Stage.

Known for his cowboy boots, sequined jackets and a shock of salt-and-pepper hair that stands at attention, Stuart has never been a country superstar in the Shania Twain sense of the word. The sought-after songwriter, producer, musician and hillbilly showman built his career on a firm foundation his genuine love of country music and his devotion to the heart and soul of the genre.

He's also a creator and experimentalist. The best way to describe him might be "innovative traditionalist."

"Country music, like everything else, is about evolution," Stuart says. "It's always been a reflection of blue-collar America, the earthiness of America. As America has become more homogenized and what I mean by that is everywhere you go you see the same set of chain stores, theaters and circumstances so has country music become more homogenized.

"But that's just on the surface. Once you go beyond the chain stores, you still find lots of character in America, and in country music. You have the obvious, which is the Top 40 play list, and then you have what's beyond the obvious, and that is where you find the heart and soul, the creativity and innovation. So it just depends on which side you want to walk on."

A prodigy:

The latter path has served Stuart well. A bona fide hillbilly guitar prodigy, he went on his first music tour in 1971 with the Sullivan Family Gospel Singers from the north Alabama town of St. Stephens.

"They were Pentecostal bluegrass singers," Stuart says. "We played back roads churches, bluegrass festivals and George Wallace campaign rallies."

Young Marty was disappointed when the tour ended and it was time for him to return to Mississippi. Right away, his smart mouth got him kicked out of school. Lester Flatts, the bluegrass legend he met on tour with the Sullivans, invited him to come to Nashville and join his band. Marty was 13.

"I don't think my parents would have let me gone out with Ozzy Osbourne, but with Lester, it was kind of like living with a country preacher. It was a very structured thing, from my school work to my bank account. I lived with Lester and his wife until Mom and Dad could relocate to Nashville."

During his time with Flatts, Stuart played the Grand Ole Opry and shared other stages with Emmylou Harris, the Eagles and Gram Parsons. He briefly toured with Bob Dylan. After Flatts died in 1979, Stuart joined Johnny Cash's band and later married Cash's daughter, Cindy.

In 1986, Stuart made his solo debut on CBS records and garnered an Academy of Country Music Awards nomination for Best Male Vocalist. Three years later, he scored a Top 10 hit with "Hillbilly Rock" and became a country sensation in his own right. In 1992, his duet with Travis Tritt, "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'," won a Grammy.

Young love:

In the years since, Stuart has continued to make his own records, as well as record with such diverse performers as B.B. King, Hank Thompson, the Staple Singers, Ralph Stanley, Doc and Merle Watson and others. For nearly a decade, Stuart divorced in 1988 from Cindy Cash has been married to Connie Smith, 65, a country music sweetheart from another era.

"Connie came to my hometown, Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1970 to play at the Choctaw Indian theater," Stuart recalls. "I was 12 years old, and I fell in love with her that night. I told my mother I was going to marry her.

"Years later, we were both single, I started writing songs with her. My heart asked me, `Do you remember what you said?' Never in my wildest dreams did I think life would bring us together the way it has."

In the last 25 years, Stuart has amassed the largest acknowledged private collection of country music memorabilia in the country. He owns Johnny Cash's first black stage , Patsy Cline's boots, Hank Williams' hand-written manuscript for "Your Cheatin' Heart" and hundreds of other items.

"I collected some on the road, and some things I bought. I've always been historically minded, and in the 1980s, this stuff was going to thrift shops, yard sales and Japan. Our culture was slipping away from us. When I started making any amount of money, instead of buying stocks and bonds, I bought American culture."

Stuart plans a national tour of the Marty Stuart Collection starting in Memphis in 2008. Meantime, he's continuing to experiment with new sounds and ideas, while echoing country's old-time sensibilities. Last year's "Badlands" recording focused on the lives of South Dakota's Lakota Indian tribe. His newest release, "Country Music," was inspired by a lengthy stay at his grandfather's farm in Mississippi.

"I'm in the middle of a wonderful era of creativity," Stuart says. "It feels pretty good."

By Kathy Kemp

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