Marty Stuart Is Still Walking A Defiant Line

This appered in the Chicago Tribune - January 13, 2006

Risk is routine for Marty Stuart, so when he plays with Otis Clay at the Old Town School of Folk Music this weekend, he'll be right at home--even though he's never played with Clay or at Old Town before.

The pairing of a Nashville maverick and a soul-music veteran might seem unlikely, but not in the world of Robbie Fulks--who booked Stuart and Clay as part of his adventurous "Secret Country" series at Old Town--or for Stuart himself, who has devoted his career to embracing the unconventional.

"When I was a boy, there was a little 1400-watt radio station in my home town [in Philadelphia, Mississippi, during the '50s and '60s] that would sign on with country music, play an hour of gospel at noon, devote the afternoon to Top 40 and rock 'n' roll, and late afternoon to soul, then sign off with easy listening," he says. "I was getting blasted by New Orleans music, Delta music, Memphis music and Nashville songs, and so I was at a perfect spot for the beacon to hit me, from all directions. That followed me into my professional life."

Stuart's thrilled to share a stage with Clay. "I've never met Otis, but I like his work," Stuart says. "We're both livin', breathin' human beings who play music, so we've got a lot to talk about. I love unlikely pairings. When I played with Lester Flatt, we played shows with Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke. If the audience is open to it, it could be magic."

In a career that has taken him from childhood mandolin-playing prodigy to sideman for Flatt and Johnny Cash to a solo career that has encompassed everything from mainstream country to neo-traditional bluegrass and a collaboration with the Staple Singers, Stuart has discovered that the path least taken is usually the most rewarding.

He learned from the best. Cash was his longtime friend and mentor, and onetime father-in-law. "He was fearless," Stuart says. "There may not be anyone but him into a record, but he would make it anyhow. In the '60s, he got in his mind that it would interesting to make a record in which he'd take a tape recorder and play tour guide while stoned walking through the Grand Canyon. He was out of his mind [on drugs] at the time, but he also saw something beautiful there, and he had to do it. He did do it. It's not like he had a choice. That's the way I feel about the things I'm doing lately."

Stuart is in the midst of releasing three albums on his newly formed label, Superlatone. They include a collection of gospel songs, Souls' Chapel; a bluegrass concert recording, Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives Live at the Ryman; and Badlands, a series of songs about Native Americans in the tradition of Cash's brilliant 1964 protest album, Bitter Tears.

Stuart has had a two-decade-plus relationship with the Native American community, since touring with Cash's band in the `80s, which frequently played on reservations.

"I remember playing a show at the St. Francis Mission [in Kettle Falls, Washington] and John played a song from Bitter Tears called `As Long as the Grass Shall Grow,'" Stuart says. "It talks about the treaty that was agreed upon, smoked upon, shook hands upon, and the words in the treaty were that the agreement would last as long as the grass shall grow, as long as the moon shall rise. Of course, the minute the ink dried, the treaty was broken. It's a powerful song. And there was an elder in the tribe, and he started from the back of the auditorium and walked slowly to the front as the song ended. John just kept playing, vamping on the chord until the elder reached the stage. And the elder just raised his fist in the air and started crying. And from that moment on, I was in. I got the picture. It melted me."

Badlands is his tribute to that community, a social history, political statement and bold piece of storytelling: "Do I think `Badlands' is going to save a culture and sell 10 million records? No. But do I think that's one of the records that I'll be proudest of? Yeah."

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