Q&A: Marty Stuart

The music icon talks about his latest album, preserving country music and losing his hero, Earl Scruggs

This appeared in Cowboys & Indians - September 2012

Cowboys & Indians: We recently lost a country music legend, Earl Scruggs. I know this must have been especially difficult for you.

Marty Stuart: We were on tour when his son Gary gave me a call and let me know. It just happened to work out. We got off of the plane at 12:15 from Phoenix and went straight to the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and sang a song for his memorial. On a personal level, I lost the last of my old chiefs. The first two records I ever owned in my life were Flatt & Scruggs and Johnny Cash; and the only two jobs I ever had in my life were with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and Johnny Cash. Earl was just family, and as far as I can tell, the last of my old chiefs.

C&I: What sort of impact did he have on country music?

Stuart: It’s not just country music—it’s American music. He was absolutely one of the foundational figures and master architects of American music, alongside of Louis Armstrong and Jimmie Rodgers and those kinds of people. Everybody on planet Earth that plays a banjo is somehow directly linked back to Earl Scruggs. He took the banjo from being a comedic minstrel-type instrument and presented it in a light that was a force to be reckoned with, and he presented the instrument with such an integrity that it had to be dealt with. And he took it all the way to Carnegie Hall and beyond. So he has had a profound impact on our culture. It’s a great loss, but at the same time he left an incredible legacy that most people don’t have a chance to leave. It was a life well-lived.

C&I: Speaking of American music, you really get to the roots of country music with your latest album, Nashville, Volume 1: Tear the Woodpile Down.

Stuart: Well, traditional country music is a form of country music that I dearly, dearly love, and I’ve kind of re-dedicated myself to playing it over the past few years. As country music is getting more mainstream—which is wonderful, we need that—the more traditional country music is becoming an art form that is slipping away, and I just wasn’t ready to see that happen. So the idea, or the mission, it seemed to me was to draw a line around the culture—shore it up, represent it, and hopefully write something that will contribute to a new chapter of traditional country music inside this century. So Tear the Woodpile Down is dead center in the middle of that kind of mission.

C&I: A few friends joined you on this album, like Lorrie Carter Bennett of the Carter Family and Shelton Hank Williams, aka Hank Williams III. What was it like recording with Hank William Sr.’s grandson?

Stuart: Well, it was an honor. I love Shelton; he’s like family to me. And he can turn his beam in a thousand different directions. I know the traditional side of him and his family legacy is not something that he does very often, and I really considered it a personal treasure to have that recording with him because sitting next to him is a lot like sitting next to the soul of his grandpa. As a country musician, it don’t get any better than that.

C&I: You talk about your old chiefs, but you’ve positioned yourself as one of the last chiefs of traditional country music yourself. That must be quite the burden.

Stuart: Well, it’s not a burden—it’s a joy. It was a burden not doing it. And I felt like I found out who I really was and what my destiny and my real purpose was when I returned to traditional country music. I spent about 25 or 30 years away from it and when I came back home to it I thought, Wow, this feels so good. This touches my heart, and if nobody comes and if nobody listens, I know I’m doing the right thing. There’s a peace that fell about me when I went into that mission.

By Jennings Brown

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