Country Star's Present Is Immersed In The Past

This appeared in the Boston Globe - September 24, 2011

As the last century came to a close, Marty Stuart was still living the life of a mainstream country star. He had been involved in the business since the age of 13, when he began playing mandolin in Lester Flatt’s band, followed by a stint touring alongside Johnny Cash.

He struck out on his own in the mid-1980s, carried by the neo-traditionalist wave that surged over country radio with the likes of Dwight Yoakam, Patty Loveless, and Steve Earle. Stuart began offering what he called “hillbilly rock,’’ an amalgam of energized honky-tonk and rock ’n’ roll that he rode well into the ’90s.

Then things changed. As Stuart tells it, speaking from his Nashville home on a recent morning, after a decade-plus of mainstream success, he began to feel that he had lost his way.

“I think I ended up in the middle of no-man’s land, in the weeds,’’ says Stuart, who performs at Indian Ranch in Webster today after a long absence from the outdoor venue. “It wasn’t country and it wasn’t rock ’n’ roll; it was just an exploration, without a compass anymore.’’

Sick in his heart and his soul, Stuart concluded he had to find another way. “I had money in my piggy bank, and I had cowboy clothes, and I could go out and buy a new car that day if I wanted to,’’ he says. “But if I played my new song for Hank Williams, would he be convinced?’’

The compass that he lit upon to reorient himself was traditional country music.

“The thing that drives me, traditional country music, is timeless - its people, its treasures, its images, its songs,’’ Stuart says. “It’s a precious piece of American culture, of our story as an American people.’’

Stuart, who turns 53 later this month, became a full-time conservator of that music and of that piece of American culture. He decided, basically, to “go back to the beginning, to the roots of it all,’’ as he puts it. “I just wiped the table clean of all the success I had had commercially.’’

Stuart turned that corner with The Pilgrim, his remarkable 1999 concept album that relates a love story shot through with betrayal and redemption. The critics loved it; the marketplace ignored it. But for Stuart, the record was his line in the dirt, the first expression of his attempt to adopt a longer view.

He waited four years to make his next record and named it with a statement: Country Music. It was the first he made with his band, the Fabulous Superlatives (“the band of a lifetime,’’ he says), which has become an essential part of his enterprise and will be appearing with him today at Indian Ranch.

A burst of activity followed in 2005, with Stuart and his cohorts releasing three records in the space of a little more than a year: Souls' Chapel, a sublime, Staple Singers-channeling collection of Mississippi Delta gospel; Badlands, a somber, haunting, sometimes angry exploration of the past and present state of the Lakota Sioux tribe; and a bluegrass record, recorded live at the Ryman Auditorium.

There had been plenty in Stuart’s music prior to his retrenchment that was strongly rooted in traditional country. But when you listen to the records he’s been making since his change of heart, there’s a notable difference. There’s a gravity to the music that wasn’t there before. His latest release, last year’s Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions, may be his most explicit musical act of preservation yet.

“I needed a setting, and Studio B [the legendary RCA studio in Nashville where the record was made] was the setting,’’ he says. “It is the cathedral of country music.’’

As for its songs, Stuart feels that the most truthful thing he can say about them is that they were “lived through.’’ “Hangman’’ is a rueful rumination on that occupation that he wrote with Johnny Cash four days before Cash died. There’s also a recitation-style tribute to the late Porter Wagoner and a love song he wrote and sings with his wife, Connie Smith, whose new album Stuart produced. Maybe most impressive of all, the album features the songwriting and playing of legendary steel guitarist Ralph Mooney.

“I kept hearing these tapes that Moon was making with people, and they didn’t sound so very good,’’ Stuart says. “I thought, ‘Moon cannot leave this earth sounding like that.’ So I flew to Texas, we worked it out in his garage, and he came to Nashville and recorded. That was his final recording.’’

Making records has only been one avenue for Stuart’s pursuit. He is a collector of country music memorabilia and artifacts, with a collection that now numbers well in excess of 20,000 pieces.

“As I saw it, the treasures - Hank Williams’s boots or Johnny Cash’s guitar - those kinds of things were slipping away,’’ Stuart says. “So I went after the treasures and threw a rope around them as best I could.’’

He has also published his photographs of artists from country’s past: “I saw that the music itself and the people who make it are going away. So I started taking pictures of it.’’

Stuart views the TV show he’s been doing on the RFD-TV cable network for the past three years as the “bull’s-eye’’ of his efforts. His show uses the format of the half-hour country variety programs hosted by Wagoner, the Wilburn Brothers, and many others in the 1960s as its template and takes off from there. It’s done with a bit of a wink, but for Stuart, the show is “a soapbox, a theater, where we can stage traditional country music again and not only honor the past, but most importantly, lay in the future.’’

Touring is yet another outlet. In fact, Stuart’s abiding concerns are behind his performance today.

“For the last five or six years, I’ve been telling my booking agent that I want to work Indian Ranch. He says, ‘Why?,’ " Stuart remarks with a laugh. “When I was growing up in Lester Flatt’s band, there was a circuit of these Sunday afternoon mom-and-pop country parks that kept the music alive throughout a certain period. I believe Indian Ranch is the last man standing.

“So when my agent asks, ‘Why do you want to do that?’, I tell him it’s because it’s a part of American history,’’ Stuart adds. “Indian Ranch really needs to be regarded as an American treasure. I’m going to weigh in on that; that’s the purpose in me coming.’’

By Stuart Munro

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