The Holy Trilogy

Marty Stuart's three latest albums show amazing range and new dedication to his craft

This appeared on Cincinnati CityBeat - January 18, 2006

Try mentioning to Marty Stuart that it's slightly intimidating to interview him. He's played with Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash (for a time, he was even married to Cash's daughter Cindy) and as such he can trump your intimidation without blinking.

"One time I wrote a song and played it for somebody and they said, 'That's really good. You need to play that for Johnny Cash,' " Stuart recalls en route to Nashville for a songwriting session. "I said, 'I don't think so ... that's kinda like showing Mt. Rushmore your rock collection.' Some of the most intimidating times were when I was married to Cindy and was John's guitar player; by proxy, I was in the circle.

"He would have these mighty guitar pulls at his house. They'd have dinner, and then you'd have to sing for your supper. There'd be Shel Silverstein and Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, and here I am just learning how to sing and I could get by on the guitar and the mandolin, but I was trying to be a songwriter. They'd stick the guitar in my hand and say, 'Whattya got?' I'd stick it back and say, 'Nothin.' "

It's been a long time since Stuart has handed back a guitar with nothing to offer. He left his Mississippi home when he was 12 and apprenticed as a mandolin player with the legendary Lester Flatt as a teenager, ultimately becoming a member of Johnny Cash's band and family. He remained close to Cash after divorcing his daughter and then embarked on a solo career that found him pursuing commercial success with an almost single-minded zeal.

Although successful, that pursuit proved to be unsatisfactory, so Stuart retrenched and came out with one of the most provocative country albums in recent memory, a song cycle of love and betrayal called The Pilgrim. The 1999 concept album was a bold move that met with great critical acclaim but fell far short of sales expectations. Regardless of its weak sales, The Pilgrim was a crossroads for Stuart.

"It was a matter of taking the bridle out of my mouth," he says. "I liked that record, but I called intermission after that record. I wanted to do anything but put on cowboy clothes, get on a bus and play music."

After The Pilgrim tanked, Stuart took three years off from playing music, keeping himself busy with other diversions. He traveled with second wife/Country legend Connie Smith, scored films, wrote a book, staged art exhibits of his photographs and wrote for and produced other artists.

In 2002, Stuart found himself ready to return to his music making endeavors and put together the staggeringly talented trio that backs him up, a group he aptly named the Fabulous Superlatives, made up of veterans Kenny Vaughan on guitar and Harry Stinson on drums, and the relatively unknown but deeply experienced Brian Glenn on bass.

"When I did suit back up and put the Superlatives together, I had a lot of trouble in my mind following (The Pilgrim)," Stuart says. "I was doing a session one day with Cash, and I said, 'You've made lots of brilliantly deep records that weren't on anybody's radar except yours. I'm having a tough time following this Pilgrim thing.' He said, 'The only thing I can tell you is that your next record has to come out of your heart like that one did, or it's just a wasted work. Once you make a record like that, you can't go back and live with yourself.' And he was right."

And so began Stuart's reinvention. He charged his booking agent with the task of assembling an itinerary that would take him and the Superlatives exclusively to small venues in backwater locales. Following this trial by small jury, Stuart and his new band fashioned an impressive album, 2003's Country Music. By Stuart's own account, the album was not completely successful; he acquiesced to Columbia's wish for radio singles and regretted it. Country Music was a fine start, nonetheless.

Country Music's tour was the next step in the process. Teaming with Merle Haggard, Connie Smith, Rhonda Vincent, BR549 and the Old Crow Medicine Show, Stuart created the Electric Barnyard Tour.

The old-fashioned country revue barnstormed across the country, playing fairgrounds, racetracks and other outdoor venues in rural communities. This back-to-the-earth approach ultimately helped to coalesce two studio projects that had been forming in Stuart's mind for years -- a Gospel/Blues record called Souls' Chapel and a powerful Roots/Country album called Badlands, a tribute to the Lakota tribe that Stuart had befriended back in the '80s -- and actually resulted in a live Bluegrass jam album, Live at the Ryman.

Souls' Chapel came out last summer under Stuart's new deal with Universal South on his own Superlatone imprint, while Badlands came out weeks later on the parent label. Both have been critically acclaimed and commercially well received. Next month will see the release of Live at the Ryman, the recorded document of Stuart and the Superlatives' kamikaze one-night Bluegrass concert in the midst of the Electric Barnyard circuit in 2003. With the live album, Stuart's de facto trilogy will be complete. While they're very different musically, Stuart identifies the thread that connects them all.

"I call this my church house trilogy," Stuart says. "Souls' Chapel really was music from the Mississippi Delta, which to me is a church within itself. The Delta is the church of American Roots music. The Badlands is a cathedral without a top on it. And the Ryman has been called the Mother Church of Country Music, but to me it's the Mother Church of American Music. If you can think it up, it's been done there. In my mind, this is kind of a spiritual odyssey as much as anything else, and I had the settings of three churches to make it in."

By Brian Baker

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