Marty Stuart: Country's Renaissance Man

This appeared in Country Standard Time - December 2005

Marty Stuart can't be accused of sitting on his duff at this stage of his career, letting his creative juices fall by the wayside and living on past laurels. Nor is he the type of musician to put his finger in the air and follow what may seem commercially viable at the moment.

In fact, Stuart is in the midst of releasing three albums in less than six months, all on his own label through Universal South Records. As if to prove he still has something left in the tank, Stuart also explores different types of music and themes on each album.

At the end of August, he released Souls' Chapel, a gospel-based disc recorded with the likes of Mavis Staples aboard and influenced by The Staples.

In October, he referred back to his great interest in Native American culture with Badlands, a series of 13 songs devoted to Native Americans.

Looking ahead, Stuart is putting out Live at the Ryman in February 2006, a bluegrass album recorded at the Mother Church of country music, a recording not even expected to see the light of day.

"I fell in love with the Lakota people," says Stuart during a question-and-answer session in Nashville, explaining the genesis of Badlands.

Stuart indicates he knew no bounds in putting the album together, "If I could think it up, I could record it."

The disc includes several instrumentals and a wordless song, "Hotchkiss Gunner's Lament," featuring Connie Smith, Stuart's wife.

Badlands looks back on the history of the tribe, including the Battle of Little Big Horn, along with current issues such as casinos on reservations.

The songs tackle a number of political issues. Perhaps most poignant is "So You Want to Be an Indian" on which Stuart sings, "So you want to be an Indian/...But if you want a taste of hell on earth/come hang around with me."

Musically, Stuart uses his backing band the Fabulous Superlatives consisting of monster guitarist Kenny Vaughan, veteran drummer Harry Stinson and bassist Brian Glenn. Stuart opts for a country sound, which tends to be acoustic based with Native American influences such as drums.

Stuart has been going to the Badlands region of South Dakota where the Lakota live for about 20 years. Stuart says on his web site that if Badlands "has a grandfather," it is Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, which Cash put out in 1964. The album explored the difficulties Native Americans faced.

And there is a connection between the two albums. While Stuart was once Cash's son in law (Stuart married and eight years later divorced Cindy Cash, Johnny's daughter), the producer of Badlands was John Carter Cash, the only child of Johnny and June Carter Cash. Stuart covered one of Johnny Cash's songs, "Big Foot."

"He was probably as close as one could be to being an Indian without actually being a blood Indian," says John Carter Cash of his father in an interview from Nashville where he lives.

Stuart first visited Pine Ridge Reservation as a member of Johnny Cash's band when they played a concert there. The event had a profound effect on his view towards Native Americans and their problems.

Aware of the poverty faced by the Lakota, following the show, Stuart walked out of the bus and was followed by kids. Stuart took out his big red suitcase filled with custom cowboy clothes, ' boots and money, unzipped it and dumped the belongings on the ground for the kids to take.

John Carter Cash says he became involved in the project because "Marty and I have known each other for years and years. Marty got involved with the Lakota Indians and their life and what they were doing through my dad. My father always had a great passion for the Lakota people. Marty learned to love the folks up in South Dakota..."

"My studio is actually right across the street from Marty's house. I did a record called The Unbroken Circle - The Musical Heritage of the Carter Family. (Dualtone) Marty came over for that. It was just a very comfortable atmosphere in the way that we worked together. We had a good time. Marty called me last year and asked me if I'd like to go with him to South Dakota and meet the folks up there and do a sweat (a spiritual cleansing ritual). We went there and Marty asked me to help him with the project and come in as co-producer."

Stuart became so involved with the Lakota tribe that he even has a Lakota name - O Yate' o Chee Ya'ka Hopsila ("The man who helps the people").

"He is adopted into the Lakota tribe...he is now family," says Lakota medicine man Marvin Helper on the "Badlands" disc.

Not only does the album showcase Stuart's musical skills, but also his photography abilities. The inside of the CD jacket is filled with about 35 small photos, mainly of Lakota people, but also some scenery.

"My mom was a shutterbug," says Stuart, explaining how he first got a yen for photography. "She shot from the heart. She knew when to hit the button...I was just carrying a (camera) and notepad with me everywhere I went."

Stuart's interest in photography also led him to put together a book, Pilgrims, sinners, saints, and prophets, in 1999 of his photos.

For Souls' Chapel, Stuart says, "We listened to everything. "The Staple Family has always been like my family."

Stuart calls Souls' Chapel, "one of the records I'm most proud of."

As for the live bluegrass album, that was not even anticipated by Stuart. "I had no idea we were being recorded," he says of the July 24, 2003 show.

Following the Ryman show, the soundboard person (recordings of shows are made at the soudboard for the artist) handed Stuart a tape of the show. "What is this?" Stuart recalls asking, being told, "'It's what you just did'."

The disc is a mixture of bluegrass chestnuts like "Orange Blossom Special" along with Stuart favorites "The Whiskey Ain't Workin' Anymore" and "Hillbilly Rock."

Stuart's love of bluegrass goes back to his youth. He started playing with the Sullivan Family, a bluegrass gospel group when he was 12. By 13, he became a member of Lester Flatt's band. After six years with Flatt, he broke up his band due to health reasons. Flatt died the following year.

Stuart released a bluegrass disc in 1979, something he does not look back at with fond memories. "It sucks like several of my records," he jokes.

Stuart played with late fiddler Vassar Clements and guitarist Doc Watson before hooking up with Johnny Cash in 1980.

Interestingly, the first two records Stuart ever owned were The Fabulous Johnny Cash and Flatt & Scruggs Greatest Hits.

"Working with Johnny Cash was like getting instruction in a lot of stuff," Stuart says.

During this time, he released Busy Bee Café, in 1982, but his commitment to Cash prevented him from spending more time on his bluegrass career.

He landed on Columbia, releasing an album four years later. "I cut two records with Columbia and one came out," says Stuart.

The problem was Cash or rather Stuart's reaction at label executive Rick Blackburn dropping the Man in Black due to "demographics and numbers," according to Stuart. "I went in there and told Rick Blackburn off in no uncertain (terms).


In relating the story, Stuart says he was told by another label employee. "'I don't know what you did, but you just lost your deal'. I don't regret that."

Three years later, Stuart resurfaced on MCA with Hillbilly Rock. The title track began a string of hits for Stuart with "Western Girls," "Little Things," "Till I Found You," "Tempted," a few duets with Travis Tritt, "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'" and "This One's Gonna Hurt You (For a Long, Long Time)," and "Burn Me Down."

But while continuing to generally put out good music, the charts were not as receptive to his music. He has not enjoyed a top 20 song since 1992.

"It's always been a push and pull," says Stuart of his career. "1990 was no different. I had a new shot, a new opportunity to get in front of the world...I found myself in a position of riding around in Ernest Tubb's bus, wearing rhinestones, (dating) Connie Smith. I thought (I was) defending traditional country music. At the end of the day, I found if I was following my heart, I was in great shape."

This isn't the first time Stuart has taken a left turn in his career. In 1999, he put out The Pilgrim, a concept album about a down and outer from Mississippi. Great music, but not so great at the cash register. At the time, Stuart said he did not care because he was recording the music he wanted to make.

He went back to Sony Records where he had recorded a self-titled album in 1986 and came out with Country Music in 2003. The music was fine, but the mass audience wasn't there.

Three albums in six months is quite a lot for any artist, but what was the interest of Universal South Records in going along with the program? Label executive Tony Brown has a long history with Stuart. He produced some of his key albums, including Honky Tonkin's What I Do Best, Tempted and This One's Gonna Hurt You.

"He tried to play the radio game again, and I was going 'radio's so fickle'," says Brown in a telephone interview from Nashville. "They're always looking for the next big thing. So (fellow Universal South head) Tim Dubois loves Marty Stuart as much as I do. He's a country music treasure. He knows more about the country music artists that are the legends and the backbone of this industry than almost anybody."

"He came to see Tim and I," Brown says. "He said, 'I've been watching Emmylou since she got away form playing the radio game, I watched while Willie's done and what Cash has done'. He said, 'I want to cut a gospel record, a bluegrass record and an album called Badlands. I want to do some good quality music in this format, and I want to do it with you guys'."

According to Brown, Stuart wanted his own imprint label meaning he would own the album, but Universal South would distribute it.

"It's really about quality music, and it's music that's meant to be admired by the mainstream," says Brown. "If not, that's fine too. It's good music."

Finances certainly entered into it.

"The cost is what makes it prohibitive for anybody to do that," says Brown. "He said 'I know'. He already had this live album recorded at the Ryman. It's just live, no fixes. He already had started Souls' Chapel and played us a couple of things. Hell, I'm in the gospel music hall of fame, so I loved it."

"All of the things that he was saying, we put our pencils to it. The thing that keeps an A&R person (the record company people who sign new artists) or a record person like myself and Tim going is you have to be just a little bit idealistic. I remembered when I produced that Lyle Lovett (debut)...It was like blind faith. I loved it so much."

"I think that just Marty fits into that class of people," says Brown. "We want to be a part of it. If we watch our spending, this will work, and if we get lucky, we'll have an Oh Brother or something. I don't think anyone would figure Oh Brother would sell seven million."

"We just figure it's going to be a fun ride...This business is not about being genius. It's about a gift when something is good as opposed to mediocre. A lot of luck is involved, you know, right place, right time. That's what happened with Gretchen (Wilson), Big & Rich...Maybe this is going to be Marty's deal right here where he really shines."

"This is more than just about record sales. This is for him a statement and sort of a tip of his hat to the legacy of country music, and we want to be involved in it. If we thought we were going to lose our ass, we wouldn't do it. We figured we'd make some money, and if (we caught) lightning in a bottle like that moment with Oh Brother, I think that could happen very easily."

Stuart doesn't spend all of his time on solo projects. He has worked with his wife, the great country singer Connie Smith. "She's such a great singer," says Stuart, adding, "She's as country as it gets."

In recent years, Smith also hit more of the gospel music circuit where she has enjoyed much fan support.

The two have been writing songs together and occasionally perform as well. Smith clearly is quite proud of her husband. The night prior to a question-and-answer session at the Americana Music Association conference in September, Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives put on a high energy, very well-received show at a Nashville nightclub with a beaming Smith in attendance with her daughter obviously enjoying the performance.

While Stuart says that Smith does not offer many ideas about his music to him, "when she does, I listen to her. Writing is the thing we feel we naturally do together."

Stuart, 47, is 17 years younger than Smith, who looks far younger than her age.

Stuart apparently had his eye on Smith for a long time. He recalls Smith playing the Choctaw Indian fair in his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1970 when he was 12. "That was a big night for me, 'he says. "I got my mama to buy me a yellow shirt so she would notice me. On the way home that night, I told my mom 'some day I'm going to marry that girl'. It took me 25 years, but I did."

The two married at Pine Ridge Reservation.

Stuart also devotes time to his vast collection of country music memorabilia - everything from instruments to clothing. The Country Music Hall of Fame and other museums often use items from Stuart's collection for exhibitions.

Stuart says he decided to buy country items "instead of buying stocks and bonds."

He sure has done a lot of buying because he estimates that he has about 20,000 items in his collection.

One of his prized collection was the acquisition of many Hank Williams items in 1996. Stuart was contacted by Williams' sister, who was very concerned that the items find a good, respectful home, according to Stuart. After they met, Williams gave Stuart the collection.

"These things are spiritual beacons," Stuart says of his collection of items. Stuart indicated it was his mission to preserve country memories. "No one cared about Nudie suits," he says, referring to the clothing made by Nudie Cohen several decades ago.

Stuart talked about the possibility of having a nation-wide tour showcasing his country collection, although the seemed to be in its nascent stages.

Music, collecting and a deep knowledge and respect for country all are part and parcel of Marty Stuart.

In the introduction to Stuart's Ryman album, broadcasting legend Eddie Stubbs describes Stuart as a country music's renaissance man."

John Carter Cash's perception of his friend is that "Marty doesn't fit into anyone else's mold other than his own. He follows his own heart. The heart leads and the spirit leads and the body and the musicianship follow. Marty doesn't live by any standards so to speak set by the modern music industry."

By Jeffrey B. Remz

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