Still Superlative

Master instrumentalist and country legend Marty Stuart plays the Savannah Music Festival

This appeared in The Best of Savannah - March 20, 2007

At not quite 50 years of age, Grand Ole Opry member Marty Stuart has distinguished himself as one of the most capable and diverse talents in the fields of both traditional and contemporary country music.

From his earliest days as a dazzling, pre-teen guitar and mandolin prodigy, through his glory days as one of the leading figures in the short-lived (but highly influential) New Hillbilly movement of the 1980s that also included Dwight Yoakam and The Brother Boys, and into the present as leader of the aptly named Fabulous Superlatives, to many worldwide, Stuart’s name has become synonymous with high quality string-band and honky-tonk music.

There are also plenty of folks who know Stuart’s look, if not his records. His flamboyant Nudie-style stage outfits and shock of once-black (now more salt than pepper) hair serve nicely as a defiant visual trademark.

While his last record with The Superlatives (a live CD taped at Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium) found the group eschewing their amps for a stripped-down set of old-time bluegrass (something Stuart’s teenage tenure in Lester Flatt’s band more than prepared him for), their live shows vary according to their mood, and are some of the least predictable in a business increasingly known for homogenized stage patter by artists whose material is dictated by market surveys and image consultants.

Stuart — a past president of the Country Music Association who’s been married for years to legendary C&W vocalist Connie Smith— is a wandering spirit with several artistic irons always in the fire, so it should come as no surprise that our conversation drifted quickly to include a wide variety of creative projects on his horizon.

If you’ll give me a moment, I just need to get my recorder on so I don’t mis-quote you.

Marty Stuart: Well, that’s fine. I understand, and I appreciate it. I saw a great photograph one time — you’ve probably seen it, too. It’s a picture of President Nixon sitting at his desk. I actually recall seeing it in the bathroom at a recording studio. The caption says, “You can never be too careful.” (laughs)

Well, I’m sure Nixon could have learned to be a lot more careful when tape was rolling.

Marty Stuart: (laughs) You know it! Me myself, I’ve learned never to be careful. (laughs)

So, where are you calling me from?

Marty Stuart: Bed.

I must say I never expected to be talking to Marty Stuart in bed. I know that your band the Superlatives...

Marty Stuart: The Fabulous Superlatives.

Yes —the most Fabulous Superlatives— features the incredible Kenny Vaughan on guitar. I saw his punk trio play at a small club in East Nashville a few years ago.

Marty Stuart: (laughs) Kenny’s got a thousand bands, and they’re all good.

You’ve been in many, many bands yourself over the years, but this group seem to be the most versatile you’ve fronted. This exact lineup has been the same all along, right?

Marty Stuart: We’ve been together goin’ on five years. We have a deal where if any one of us leaves, we all quit. I could just never imagine the Fabulous Superlatives being anybody other than who they are right now. I started my first band when I was nine, and without question, this is the best band I’ve ever had — simply because they’re modern masters in every sense of the word.

How did you come to put this group together?

Marty Stuart: I had taken a couple of years off the road, and it was time to suit back up and go back to work. I’d bumped into Kenny somewhere along the way at a Nashville event, and actually, I’d never met him before. I’d seen him play on TV a bunch, though, with Lucinda Williams. We had a bite to eat one day, and I just said, “You go find us a bass player and I’ll try to find us a drummer.” So, I called Harry Stinson. People had been trying to get him back out on the road for years, but he had gotten really burned out from his time with Steve Earle. He’d really dug down deep, just playing close to home and being with his family.

But it turned out he was willing to go back out on tour! Kenny had seen Brian (Glenn) play with Billy Walker at the Grand Ole Opry, and so we were kinda holding out. I knew Harry and I could sing together, so we staged this audition at a church over in West Nashville for a few days. A couple different bass players tried out, but the minute Brian came in and sang, we knew that was it.

I took him down in the basement and asked him what his daily rate was. He said, “I don’t have one,” and I said, “Well, you do now!” From that day on, I knew we had the makings of a truly great band.

What was the audition process like?

Marty Stuart: When I’m trying to find people to play with, I tend to look for more of a feelin’. My heart winds up speaking for me. Finding the right player is like seeing an old friend. “Well, there. Where have you been?”

Have there ever been difficult times where someone had to be coaxed into staying and keeping the band together?

Marty Stuart: Not one. Never, never, never, never. There has not been one cross word between us. See, the other important aspect of all this is that this band wasn’t founded on, “Hey, we gotta be the cutest guys on the block and have a radio hit.” It’s way beyond that for us.

This group is more about being musical statesmen and cultural missionaries. We held hands and prayed on it and asked for divine guidance on top of the pure joy and pure love and respect that you find between great players. When you take all that cantankerous crap out of it and insist on making it just about the music, it’s absolutely amazing what can happen.

How rare is it for you to have been involved in a project that’s been a success right off the bat?

Marty Stuart: Well, I’ve been a part of other people’s bands as a sideman. I think one of the best I was ever a part of was with Doc and Merle Watson and T. Michael Coleman. Wow, that was heavenly. That music was off the chart, that’s how special it was. And I was only with them for about six months! But it was a magical combination.

Sometimes those things happen and they last for a whole tour, or just for one incredible night. But never like this. This is the office. The guys. The club. I don’t know how we could find ourselves in this position if we tried. We just don’t pay too much attention to the outcome. We just do. And I gotta say that I see a lotta people followin’.

Do you mean people who are trying to play the same sort of music, or just aiming for a similar internal dynamic in their groups?

Marty Stuart: Both! (laughs) I mean, I’ve noticed that when the Superlatives play certain places, the wings are always packed with other players who are watching the band really closely. Then later, I’ll see people change their bands to reflect the structure we have. I’m not bragging about it. That’s the just the truth and the focus of the deal. See, we put a lot of thought into streamlining our stage setup.

For instance, we noticed that when we started playing at the Grand Ole Opry, it seemed like Harry was a million miles behind us, because everybody there plays drums behind that big Plexiglas shield. We’re a lot more like a jazz combo who works best being up close, right next to each other. Playing that other way, we lost our groove. So, Harry invented this cocktail-type drum so he could stand right up there with us.

We also got rid of a few mics so we could gather together like a gospel or traditional bluegrass group. These days, I see more and more acts that are following that lead.

When did you last play in Savannah?

Marty Stuart: I know I haven’t played there with this band. To tell the truth, I can’t remember when the last time was I was in Savannah. A friend of mine who used to run the Ryman came down there and helped get the Lucas Theater going, and I dropped by once and kinda poked my head in the door and checked the place out to wish him well. I can tell you one thing, though: I’m really looking forward to coming and playing that town. I dearly love Savannah.

What in particular do you love about it?

Marty Stuart: Well, that Southern atmosphere. Oxford, Mississippi, actually comes to my mind. They both share that sort of creative, literary charm. It just drips off the trees down there. Plus, you know you can always get a reputable glass of iced tea in either place! (laughs)

I have a book of your photography, and a lot of folks may not know that’s a passion of yours as well. Have you considered doing a follow up to that book?

Marty Stuart: I’m actually putting the finishing touches on the next one. It’s called "Country Music: The Masters." I’m doing an artist’s proof in June that’ll be a few thousand copies, all hand-bound and hand-signed.

I also have a Tennessee State Museum exhibit coming up around the same time that’s called Sparkle and Twang: Marty’s American Odyssey. It should be between 5,500 and 6,000 square feet of music memorabilia from my personal collection.

Will the new book be all portraiture?

Marty Stuart: It’s portraits of artists, people, places and things. Treasures of country music from the golden age. From Jimmy Rodgers and the Carter family up through the death of Johnny Cash.

It’s interesting you set those bookends of country music’s golden age. Do you feel that when Johnny passed we saw the end of an era?

Marty Stuart: Well, not so much. It’s still alive and well. I mean, I’m married to one of the greatest country singers ever, and I just produced a new album by Porter Wagoner for a punk rock label called Anti- Records.

Are you trying to do for Porter what Rick Rubin did for Johnny Cash, and Jack White did for Loretta Lynn — introduce these amazing talents to a new generation of listeners?

Marty Stuart: The answer is probably yeah. But it’ll go deeper. You know, I played on just about all of those American Recordings. I was there from the get-go, when I saw that career being redesigned.

But there’s a big difference between Cash and Porter. Cash really was a pop star. He knew how to move the mechanics of stardom and he was truly a masterful showman. He understood that it would be cool to stick a Nine Inch Nails song on his setlist.

Porter, on the other hand, is a pure, pure, pure country guy. He couldn’t sing a pop song if his life depended on it! He’s a remnant of the old cloth. One of the Hank Williams guys. To me, his pop appeal is that he simply won’t go there!

What Jack did for Loretta, well, good for them. It was cool. But with this project, I ran as far in the other direction as I could. I didn’t want to try and make a rock star out of Porter, ‘cause he’s already been one for years.

He’s a secret rock star.

Marty Stuart: Exactly. He’s not overexposed in that world. I took him to the Grammys one time and he just walked out on stage and melted the crowd. We opened for Neko Case a little while ago. Just the two of us on stage. He did “Satisfied Mind” and “Rubber Room”, and the kids loved it.

Then Billy Bob Thornton and Dwight Yoakam came out and joined us for a few songs. Dwight actually played bass, and he’s never played a bass in his life! (laughs) We did “Green, Green Grass of Home” with Billy Bob on drums.

So is Porter all amped up? Is he ready for what may come from all of this?

Marty Stuart: Oh yeah, man. This is his fiftieth Anniversary at the Grand Ole Opry, and he’s 80 years old this year. He’s havin’ a ball. Plus, he’s an old showman. He knows a victory lap when he sees one.

What will your Savannah setlist look like?

Marty Stuart: We have about 150 songs and we throw darts at ‘em every night. I can safely say that the Superlatives’ show will be an absolutely perfect reflection of Savannah, Georgia. It will be a concert based in tradition, but with its own unique and quirky elements. Beyond that, it’ll be filled with mysterious charm and integrity (laughs), and a touch of zaniness — courtesy of your wondrous hosts for the evening.

By Jim Reed

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