Creatively Pardoned

This appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times - January 8, 2006

With his rooster haircut and flashy rhinestone-studded Nudie suits, country singer Marty Stuart made a flashy entrance onto the country music charts in the early '90s. Spouting a rebel attitude and a country rock aesthetic with deep roots in traditional country, he breathed new life into the genre. With songs like "Tempted" and "Burn Me Down," he scored half a dozen top 10 hits and four gold albums, as well as hit duets with fellow country singer Travis Tritt.

And then, as is often the way in Nashville, Stuart fell out of favor and country radio stopped playing his songs.

"I was a radio darling and then it just cooled," Stuart recalled. "It was like a curtain went down and I had to rethink the way I was doing things."

Since that time, Stuart has proved he was no flash in the pan. He's had no more chart-busting hits but instead has managed to form a solid, varied career and in the process become one of the more interesting characters in Nashville. He will perform two shows Jan. 15 at the Old Town School of Folk Music with his band the Fabulous Superlatives, featuring Kenny Vaughan (guitar), Harry Stinson (drums) and Brian Glenn (bass).

In 1999, Stuart drew a line in the sand with the compelling and ambitious concept album, The Pilgrim. He had one record left on his contract with MCA and he could either pander and try to get back on the radio, or he could "walk to his death honorably."

"I decided this was how I was going to make music from now on," said Stuart, in a conversation from his office in Nashville. "I felt it at the box office, and I felt it at the cash register in the record store. But it's leveled out, and I'm loving what I'm doing now more than anything I've done in my life. I feel creatively pardoned."

In 2005, Stuart, who is married to country singer Connie Smith, released two more distinctive albums off the mainstream Nashville track -- the gospel drenched Souls' Chapel, and Badlands, a musical telling of the story of the Oglala Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

But Stuart has also become a sort of country music Renaissance man; his interests do not stop at making music. As a diehard collector, he has amassed one of the biggest and most important collections of country music memorabilia and served six terms as president of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Also a writer and accomplished photographer, Stuart is compiling several books, featuring country singers, the Badlands and old church signs.

Stuart, who grew up in Philadelphia, Mississippi, has been performing since he was 12 ("I think I was born with a guitar in my hands"). Like his peers Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill, he has roots in country music that continue to define his music and his life. Somewhat of a child prodigy, he played mandolin early on with the Sullivan Family Gospel Singers. In 1972, he came to Nashville with the legendary Lester Flatt and the Nashville Bluegrass Band. He later joined Johnny Cash's band and the man in black became a mentor.

"We got to hang out with the people who invented the music and that was a really wonderful thing," said Stuart, adding that from Cash he learned to be "creatively fearless and morally good."

It was Cash who introduced Stuart to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1983, when his band performed a benefit concert there. The poverty of these Native American people and the integrity and dignity that surrounded their lives impressed Stuart, who continues to return there (he and Smith were married at Pine Ridge in 1997). His goal with Badlands was to tell the story of Pine Ridge and spell out some of the issues and problems and challenges that "no one outside the reservation pays any attention to."

"Do I think my record will change anything," he asks. "Probably not. It's simply a flag of awareness and hopefully a beacon of hope for these people."

Stuart, 47, has done studio work with a wide range of artists, from George Jones and Merle Haggard to Neil Young and B.B. King. His coming out as a solo artist began during a recording session at Sun Studios in Memphis for the album, Class of '55, which featured Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash.

"It was a magical week," said Stuart, who was a member of the studio band. "That was kind of the back door of being somebody else's musican and the front door of getting out there and figuring it out on my own. Experiences like this made me so much more ready for what I've been through in the last 20 years of my life. There's a lot to learn from people who were there before you."

Stuart has authentically explored many different musical styles. Recording a gospel album was a project he had been thinking about for years. Released on his own Superlatone Records, Souls' Chapel is an eclectic affair that is rootsy, reflective and takes Southern soul and rock to new heights. A highlight is "Move Along Train," written by Roebuck "Pops" Staples and featuring the mighty vocals of Mavis Staples.

"A lot of people talk about Lester Flatt raising me and Johnny Cash being my mentor but Pops Staples was as much an influence on my life as anybody," Stuart said. "He and his whole family have had a very powerful and positive effect on me."

Stuart first met the Staples when together they recorded the Band's "The Weight" for the 1994 album Rhythm Country and Blues. The friendship carried through to 2000, when he was a pallbearer at Pops' funeral, but the relationship with the family did not stop there. When Stuart got in trouble in June, 2004, for driving under the influence, the second such arrest in three years, it was Mavis and Yvonne Staples who came to his emotional rescue. The day after being released from jail, Stuart was performing at FitzGerald's in Berwyn when the sisters showed up with a gift.

"I was feeling worthless and just going through the motions that night," recounted Stuart. "And in walked Mavis and Yvonne toting this black guitar case. I thought they wanted me to put strings on Pops' guitar but instead they gave it to me. I considered it the most divine gift at the most divine time. It was God's way of saying put this in your hand and go on. I used that guitar all over 'Soul's Chapel.' "

Stuart sounds like a man reborn. He may not be on country radio anymore, but he's content to be as busy and as happy as he's ever been.

"My life is a full tapestry. It doesn't depend on one aspect to make it work or not work. I get up every day and there are books to work on, a collection to oversee, records to make and songs to write. I like being a part of it all. I've spent my whole life trying to get to this spot."

Stuart the collector now a curator

In the early '80s when the hip urban cowboy trends infiltrated country music and the old legends and styles were relegated to the pasture, Marty Stuart became their savior.

"I loved the costumes and the artifacts," said Stuart, who began collecting records, magazines and autographs at an early age. "And outside of the Country Music Hall of Fame, no one was doing anything to preserve and protect these treasures. I wasn't ready for that to happen. So I made it my mission to start seriously collecting."

Stuart has amassed a stunning collection, from clothing, autographs, guitars, boots and handwritten lyrics. About 10 years ago, he acquired a large collection of Hank Williams' personal effects from Williams' sister Irene.

"I went to dinner with Irene, and I could tell she wanted to talk about something," recalled Stuart. "Back at her house, she started pulling out original manuscripts of 'Your Cheatin' Heart,' " the death certificate, family pictures, boots, suits, hats and guns. I couldn't even speak. It was almost like coming face to face with the man."

What began as a small collection scattered around Stuart's house is now stored in a Nashville warehouse. Hopes are to find a permanent home for the invaluable artifacts. In the time being, Stuart is in the planning stages of a traveling exhibit, "Marty Stuart's American Journey," that will debut in the fall of 2007 at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville.

By Mary Houlihan

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