Marty Stuart Is A Man Reborn With Souls' Chapel

This appeared in the Chicago Tribune - September 2, 2005

On his first gospel album, country artist Marty Stuart doesn't scrimp on either the electric twang or the Good News.

"It's kind of like the Ventures meet Jesus," says Stuart with a laugh, calling from Nashville.

Released on his new Superlatone Records label, an imprint of Universal South, Souls' Chapel hit store shelves Tuesday. The album is a moving return to form for one of country music's finest contemporary players. The joyful noise Stuart makes is rootsy, earthy and inspirational, not poppy or preachy.

"I had no desire to beat anybody over the head with a Bible," he says. "The Bible is my favorite book, and if anybody happens to land there, great. But the gospel music that means the most to me is music that is informative, it's uplifting, it's about hope, encouragement. It's fuel to go on in a very unsteady world."

Stuart, 46, has experienced plenty of ups and downs himself. A professional musician since age 12, he's played with a number of bluegrass and country music legends.

An early '90s hitmaker who scored six top 10 hits and four gold albums, Stuart has continued to record critically acclaimed albums but has long been off the commercial country radar. In the last several years, he has grappled with two highly publicized drunken-driving arrests.

New beginning ........

Today Stuart sounds like a man reborn. Cut live in the studio in Hendersonville, Tennessee, Souls' Chapel moves from stripped-down, harmony-heavy numbers to rocking, crank-up-the-amps testifying. Stuart's band, the Fabulous Superlatives, includes guitarist Kenny Vaughan, who has also logged time as sideman to roots music darling Lucinda Williams.

One of the disc's highlights is the haunting "Move Along Train," a gospel number written by Roebuck "Pops" Staples, the late patriarch of the legendary gospel group the Staples Singers. The song features the powerful vocals of Pops' daughter, Mavis Staples.

A longtime friend of the gospel family, Stuart has deep ties to the Staples. In 1994 he recorded a version of the Band's "The Weight" with the Staples for the compilation CD Rhythm, Country & Blues, and he was a pallbearer at Pops' funeral in 2000.

"Marty is our baby brother now," says Mavis Staples on the phone from her Chicago home. "He's a family member."

Mavis' influence on Souls' Chapel went far beyond a musical one. Stuart says that at one of the lowest points in his life, it was Mavis and her sister Yvonne who gave him the needed inspiration to go on.

In June 2004, just as Stuart was beginning work on Souls' Chapel, he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol , his second such charge in about two years.

"I left home when I was 12 years old, and by the time I hit my early 40s, I had developed a fantastic appetite for a rock 'n' roll lifestyle," Stuart says. "It started out as fun, and somewhere along the way it became a problem. Well, I got arrested for it three years ago, went and got help, meant business about it. And somewhere along the way, I did what I knew I shouldn't do."

Stuart, after all, says he had been clean and sober for two years, but after the 2003 death of his hero and mentor Johnny Cash, he briefly fell off the wagon.

"Both of the arrests were very public," he says. "I was embarrassed; I was in shock. Especially the second time it was like, how did this happen? We were in the middle of bringing [Souls' Chapel] to life. I just felt totally unqualified; I felt totally powerless, totally worthless. And I felt like a pure hypocrite that would stand up there and sing about Jesus, at the same time coming out of a jail cell. . . .

"At the same time, it was just a great reminder of how serious the problem is, how you can never take your eye off the problem. But once again, God had a chance to do some work in my life. He sent a couple of angels."

After Stuart was released from jail, he played a gig at FitzGerald's in Berwyn, and Mavis and Yvonne Staples drove to the roots-music club to surprise him. The two presented him with a gift: Pops Staples' oldest guitar.

"When they gave me that guitar, the worthlessness went away," Stuart says. "Being handed Roebuck Staples' guitar was a mighty gesture. I took it as a divine gesture."

"We all cried that night," recalls Mavis Staples. "It was like the Lord sent us over there to lift up our baby brother."

Stuart indeed sounds uplifted on Souls' Chapel. The record teems with Southern soul, electric guitars that move between slinky and snarling, and an abiding lyrical faith in salvation.

Deep roots ....

Stuart's musical and spiritual roots have always run deep. Born in Philadelphia, Mississippi, he was a child prodigy on guitar and mandolin. By age 12 he was on the road with gospel artists Jerry and Tammy Sullivan, touring Pentecostal churches in the South.

The following year he joined the band of bluegrass legend Lester Flatt, and later logged a stint playing with Cash. The man in black became a father figure to Stuart, and for a short time an actual father-in-law during Stuart's brief marriage to Cash's daughter Cindy. Today, Stuart is married to country singer Connie Smith.

With deep roots in traditional country combined with a rock 'n' roll flair, Stuart blew like a fresh musical wind onto the country charts in 1989 and the early 1990s, charting such country-rock hits as "Tempted" and "Burn Me Down" as well as hit duets with country singer Travis Tritt. At the time, Stuart cut quite the figure with his rooster-haired coif and flashy vintage Nudie suits.

"There was a time when I was a radio darling, then all of a sudden it was like a light went off; they just kind of froze me out," he says.

Still on solid ground ....

But Stuart has continued to make solid records, including the critically acclaimed 1999 concept album The Pilgrim, and has kept his hand in a number of projects. He's a writer and noted photographer. A longtime preservationist of the genre's history, he also owns one of the most impressive private collections of country music artifacts in the world, including some Hank Williams handwritten song manuscripts and Patsy Cline's makeup case.

Stuart doesn't bemoan his loss of stature on the charts and instead embraces his current freedom to make music without commercial restraints. "I feel like I have been pardoned from commercial country music," he laughs. "Once I escaped the commercial confinement of Music Row, I got out into an arena where I can let my musical interests and my musical knowledge run wild."

Stuart may not be a fixture on country radio anymore, but he's busier than ever. Besides Souls' Chapel, Stuart has two more upcoming releases on Superlatone Records: a live concert CD recorded at the Ryman in Nashville and the Native American-themed CD, Badlands.

"I thought about Ella Fitzgerald's `Song Books' collection, when she made an entire series of Gershwin songs, the bop numbers, the swing numbers," he says. "She got to be Ella Fitzgerald in a lot of different directions. And that's the concept behind Superlatone Records: If I can think it up, I can do it."

By Chrissie Dickinson

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