Marty Stuart Is Keyed Up To Create A New Chapter For Classic Country Music

This appeared in the Columbia Daily Tribune - September 20, 2012

Marty Stuart gets called a lot of names these days.

Wherever you see ink spilled about the 53-year old singer, you will likely see terms such as “missionary,” “ambassador” and “crusader” applied. Stuart doesn’t deny he has a mission — he sees it as a righteous one, a pursuit that’s close to his heart. He is not preoccupied with making hit records but rather preserving and furthering the elements that once made country music one of America’s purest, greatest art forms.

A charismatic singer and peerless showman, Stuart has both tasted mainstream success and found himself fitting in with the giants of the genre, playing in bands with Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash. Yet, for all his victories, Stuart realized more than a decade ago that he was playing in the wrong key. He found himself filling up venues and "playing loud country music pretending it was rock 'n' roll just to get young people to come."

"The louder I played and the more I pranced around, the less authentic it felt to me," he said. "It just felt like a gag."

Starting with 1999's The Pilgrim, Stuart made a dedicated effort not only to anchor himself to the heritage of country music but to speak up for it, an endeavor he has ratcheted up in the past couple years.

"The idea was to throw a lasso around the culture, see what was still left of it, shine it up, protect it, love it, honor it," Stuart said. "But the most important part was" to "create a new chapter for it, hopefully."

The missing ingredient in much of today's country music is authenticity, Stuart lamented. As a teenager picking along in Flatt's band, he watched as truly original artists were "encouraged to bring their culture with them to the microphone," representing the heartbeats of their hometowns as they sang and played. Now, artists are often encouraged to "check your individuality at the county line," he said. Stuart fears that rather than existing as a unique collection of people and places, modern country music looks like "the same town everywhere you go," something akin to a big-box store approach to music-making.

Knowing critique without creation is an exercise in futility, Stuart has sought to write songs that echo the history of country music while offering something fresh and relatable. "At the end of the day, it is truly about the song," he said. "Without the song, you don't advance. Without the song, there's nothing to say."

On Nashville, Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down, released this year, Stuart went back to country music's "original blueprint," as delivered by founding father Jimmie Rodgers. He tried to pull at the same threads Rodgers did — "love, rambling, cheating, gambling, heartache, struggle, the hardworking man … cowboy tales" — then "adorn the songs with music that's like-minded."

"Those things were a true reflection of America and the human condition," he added. "… If you pick up your newspaper this morning, those themes are just as relevant this morning as they were in 1927," when Rodgers' first recordings were released.

Mining immediacy and inspiration from those who treaded trails before him is something at which Stuart has grown more and more adept. He is the caretaker of a vast collection of country music memorabilia, more than 20,000 items in total, ranging from Hank Williams' handwritten lyrics to suits and boots worn by the likes of Cash and Patsy Cline. Stuart can't help but feel something when interacting with those items and hopes his songs can continue the conversation those artists started. "The music we're making in the band these days sounds as if we stepped straight out of the collection into the 21st century," he said.

He hopes that as his songs unite the vintage and modern, the historic and forward-thinking, they will spark hope for a younger generation of artists, helping them see a way forward that consists not of fitting in with the rest of popular music but carrying on in the footsteps of their artistic fathers and mothers. Until new torchbearers step up and assert themselves, Stuart remains a missionary. "I have to just keep firing missiles over the bow," he said resolutely.

By Aarik Danielsen

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