Marty Stuart Brings Country Music, Country History To Paramount For Lions Show

This appeared in The Daily Progress - January 31, 2013

In the summer of 1927, a confluence of musical rivers and emerging technology came together in Bristol, Tennessee. Ralph Peer, a talent scout and record producer, had set up a makeshift recording studio inside a State Street hat company. In what has become known as the Bristol Sessions, he recorded Jimmie Rodgers as well as the Carter Family.

The musical maelstroms that swept down from the mountains and in from the cowboy-trodden plains created an all new tributary called country music. Since that momentous melding, countless people have enjoyed the sounds of that river and have been moved by its current.

Some folks, like Marty Stuart, have chosen to ride the river's rapids and melodic eddies. They are the musical poets who dip their pens in the inky flood of heartbreak, and snatch words from the roiling whitecaps of human existence.

"From the time I was a little boy, wherever there was music, I was drawn to it," said Stuart who grew up in Philadelphia, Mississippi. "The first sound I remember in my life was church bells. They made me cry, and I didn't know why."

"The second time I remember feeling the touch of music was when this tired, old raggedy circus came through the back roads of Mississippi. The high school band marched them through town, and the sound of those horns and drums just tore a hole in my heart."

"I couldn't understand what was going on, but that's when I knew music was touching me. The first two records I ever got were Flatt and Scruggs and Johnny Cash. That's when I shook hands with country music."

"I was five years old, and I knew I wanted to get up there and ride a train to go do that. That was my dream, and I did it."

Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives will continue the dream at 8 tonight when they perform in concert at the Paramount Theater. The Charlottesville Host Lions Club is presenting the show, which will benefit the Lions Club's local programs to help protect vision and hearing and assist people with vision and hearing impairments.

Stuart waded into his river of dreams with a cardboard guitar a neighbor gave him, and a five-and-dime phonograph he got for Christmas. The record player had four speeds: 78, 45, 33 and 16 revolutions per minute.

"The thing that helped, is that country music is pretty much a three-chord song-based structure," said the four-time Grammy Award winner and past president of the Country Music Foundation. "I would slow country and bluegrass records down to 16 rpm so I could get alongside them."

"That's how I learned to play. That, and by watching. I watched people play, and I was like a sponge. I could soak up fast what they were doing."

Stuart was still in grade school when he started performing with the Sullivan Family Gospel Singers. His blazing fast rifts on the guitar and mandolin got him noticed by Roland White, a mandolin master who played with Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass.

White was so impressed with the 13-year-old that he invited him to hang out with the band in Nashville during Labor Day weekend in 1972. The protective wing White extended to the youngster included a full-access pass to the court of country music royalty.

Stuart managed to talk his parents into allowing him to take White up on his offer. As the youngster stared out the window of the Greyhound bus during the 430-mile journey to the "Athens of the South," he couldn't have imagined what was about to happen.

"It was like being set in the middle of the Old Testament of country music," Stuart said of his initial trip to Nashville and meeting legends of country music. "I had access to all these guys and their stories, talent, weaknesses, humor and wisdom."

Flatt, who had made an indelible mark on country and bluegrass music with banjo picker Earl Scruggs, quickly realized the visiting teenager was a born troubadour. He liked the kid's polite manner, knowledge of country music history and proficiency on guitar and mandolin.

When Flatt offered Stuart a job with his band, Stuart remembers feeling like it was "a divine appointment." A few days later, he was on the performers' side of the Ryman Auditorium's gold curtain, about to perform on the Grand Ole Opry.

"The curtain opened, we played a fast song and I was on top of the world," Stuart remembered. "I couldn't believe where I was, but the other side of me felt totally at home. I felt like I belonged there."

"I had listened to the Opry for years, and it felt like an old friend. The Ryman was a cathedral to me. Walking in there with Lester was like walking into the Vatican with the pope."

Until then, Stuart had been learning to ply the currents of a river that has carried some to stardom and left others wrecked on its snags and shoals. That night, with a nod from Flatt, he was welcomed home.

"The moment was when Lester put me and Roland on to sing a song," Stuart said of his first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. "At the end of the song the crowd kept cheering, hollering and screaming.

"I thought I had done something wrong. I looked at Lester and said, 'What do I do?' He said, 'Do it again.' "
Four decades later Stuart continues to do it. In recent years, he has assumed the mantle of a keeper of the flame of country music, amassing a stunning collection of related relics.

Stuart's 2008 coffee-table book, Country Music: The Masters, contains many of the candid photographs he has taken through the years of the gods and goddesses of country music. It also documents some of the more than 20,000 items in his private collection, many of which are historically priceless.

"Probably Hank Williams' handwritten words to 'I Saw the Light,' or 'Your Cold Cold Heart,' " Stuart said when asked about some of his most precious items. "Johnny Cash's first black performance suit. The boots Patsy Cline was wearing when she lost her life."

Stuart is old-school country, and an expert navigator and lookout on this ever-changing river of the common man.

"From day one of the 'big bang' sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, in 1927, country music has been about evolution and people asking the same question: 'Where is this going?' " Stuart said. "When Bill Monroe showed up in the mid- to late 1930s singing like a woman and playing Jimmie Rodgers' songs fast, people thought country music was going to hell.

"And when Eddy Arnold came through, the people thought that all of a sudden we were trying to be Bing Crosby. But hillbillies have always wanted to be pop stars; that's how it is in our world. We want to be mainstream.

"But the heart, soul and roots of country music, to me, are still the empowering forces. It's still what gives it the deepest integrity, the most power and the longest reach.

"Somewhere in your lifetime, by way of circumstances, you will run face to face with the subject of country music. Jimmie Rodgers' subject matters are still current this very morning, according to my newspaper."

"That's where I feel I fit in after many years of searching and exploring traditional country music as a culture. That's where I chose to stand."

By David Maurer

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