Speaking of Chicago...with Marty Stuart

This appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times - November 2, 2001

The last time Marty Stuart was in town was last December for Pops Staples' funeral. He joined Yvonne, Cleo and Mavis Staples in a version of the Band hit "The Weight," a song he sang with the Staple Singers in 1993.

"Pops Staples was, is and always will be my hero," said Stuart in a phone conversation from his Nashville home. "And the fact that I got to be a part of his funeral was a humbling experience."

It's been a while since Stuart performed a concert in Chicago. After 29 years on the road living on a tour bus, the renegade country singer took more than a year off to concentrate on other projects. He scored the movie "All The Pretty Horses" for his friend Billy Bob Thornton, as well as Jordan Brady's "Waking Up In Reno" and Faye Dunaway's "The Yellow Bird."

"I just tired of all the deli trays, green rooms and generally life on the road," said Stuart. "So, I decided it was time to try some other paths."

A child prodigy on mandolin and guitar, Stuart played with Lester Flatt when he was a teenager and, by his early 20s, had joined Johnny Cash's band.

"It was like this 'Wizard of Oz' world that went from black and white to technicolor in one day," recalled Stuart. "You can't do much better than starting out with one of the master architects of American music."

In the '90s, Stuart made a name in Nashville. Dressed in elaborate Nudie suits and a rebel attitude, he mixed classic honky with his love of bluegrass. While he played on the outskirts of country-pop, Stuart never lost his enthusiasm for the music he grew up with.

In 1999, Stuart recorded "The Pilgrim," an ambitious and complex song cycle about a love triangle that, according to many critics was his crowning achievement. Gathered on it are performances by country roots artists such as Cash, Emmylou Harris, George Jones, Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs.

"I knew it wasn't going to be a commercial success and it did get me kicked off my label," admits Stuart, who currently is working on songs for his next album. But he has no regrets. "It holds the heart and soul of country music, so, in my mind, it was a total success."

Stuart has a collection of guitars once owned by his idols--Cash, Flatt, Scruggs, Carl Perkins and Hank Williams. "When I play them, there is a magical, timeless quality to the experience," said Stuart.

Stuart also purchased Williams memorabilia from the legendary singer's sister Irene. He contributed photographs and other items for use in the recently released book, "Hank Williams: Snapshots from the Lost Highway," for which he wrote the preface.

What are his favorite items in the collection?

"The handwritten lyrics for 'Cold, Cold Heart' and 'Your Cheatin' Heart,' " said Stuart. "You don't need much more inspiration than that."

Speaking of Chicago, Stuart had this to say:

Favorite venue: House of Blues. There's a great vibe there.

Favorite hotel: My bus.

Favorite restaurant: It was a soul food joint that I was taken to after Pops Staples' funeral, but I can't remember the name.

Favorite food: There's nothing better than a Chicago hot dog at the airport.

Favorite team: The Bears. They're winning, aren't they?

Most memorable Chicago performance: Years ago at Amazing Grace with Lester Flatt and John Prine. When I really want to get into Chicago music, I listen to early Muddy Waters and all the Chess recordings, but most of all, I listen to Prine. He sings a black-and-white postcard of Chicago.

The best thing about playing Chicago: The audiences. You know they come to hear the music.

Favorite night spot: Checkerboard Lounge. I've had some great nights there.

Favorite activity while in town: Simply walking around the city. It's such a beautiful place, especially in the summer when it really comes alive. It's the heart of America.

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