The Circle Will Be Unbroken

This appeared on - September 3, 2009

Here’s the dirt on this weekend’s Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival from News Journal editor Peter Bothum, who reveals that this year’s headliner, Marty Stuart, started his career right here in Delaware at the age of 13…

These days guitarist Marty Stuart is all about old-school country music, and he gets pumped talking about the classic figures, the showmanship and the vintage Nashville studios and haunts.

But bring up the first-ever Delaware Bluegrass Festival, which took place on Labor Day in 1972, and Stuart revs up like he was back in his heyday, ripping up the stage in a rhinestone-studded Nudie suit.

Because it was there, in Bear, that Stuart’s career started at the ripe old age of 13.

On Saturday, Stuart, now 50, comes full circle, when he and his current band play the since-renamed Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival, which has moved to Woodstown, New Jersey, since its First State start.

Stuart returns with his own catalog of hits, backed-up by an all-acoustic version of his band, the Fabulous Superlatives.

“It’s kind of neat having this circle being completed here,” said retired Superior Court judge Carl Goldstein, co-founder and director of the festival.

While the circle started in Delaware, the story begins in Stuart’s hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi. The young Stuart had become obsessed with country music, thanks to the sounds of Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. Studies took so much of a backseat to music that they were practically in the trunk.

“I was a sorry excuse for a student,” Stuart said last week during a break from a recording session in Nashville. “I got kicked out of school for reading a country music song roundup magazine. I told my teacher, ‘I’m more into making history than reading about it.’”

He threw himself into music. He had been playing bluegrass shows with the Sullivan Family Gospel Singers when his dad took him to a Bill Monroe festival in Beanblossom, Ind. There he met Roland White, a mandolin player in Lester Flatt’s band.

A few months later he invited White and some of the other band members back to his house when they were in town. White asked Stuart’s parents if Stuart could come along on a tour with them, and off he went.

Stuart was supposed to come up to the Delaware bluegrass fest for one weekend, but Flatt heard Stuart playing in the back of the bus, and also must have been impressed by Stuart’s performance during a festival-ending group jam that included White, Flatt, Bill Monroe, The McLain Family and Melvin and Ray Goins.

“It was a big, big event, and all of the sudden here I am in the middle of it. It was kind of like going to Oz,” Stuart said. “At the end of the weekend, sitting in the middle of that field, he offered me a job. It was the weekend that changed my life.”

Goldstein remembers that day in 1972 well. To say the 13-year-old Stuart was a crowd-pleaser would be an understatement, he says.

“At the time, nobody had heard of Marty. But when you see a 13-year-old playing as well as a 30-year professional, it kind of gets your attention,” Goldstein says. “You looked around and thought: What’s going on here? He was pretty accomplished, even at that age.”

Stuart’s original plan after playing in Delaware was to ride the bus back to Nashville with the other musicians and go back home to Mississippi. But after sharing the stage with country music legends, that plan was crumpled like a setlist at the end of a show.

“I felt like I belonged,” said Stuart, who did manage to return to the First State in 2006 for a show at the Bottle & Cork, in Dewey. “I kind of had a sense when I stepped on the bus to go to Nashville, that I was going to Nashville to stay.”

And that’s exactly what he did. The job Flatt offered Stuart was to play mandolin and guitar in his band at the Grand Ol’ Opry.

“Walking into the Grand Ol’ Opry with Lester Flatt was like walking into the Vatican with the Pope,” Stuart said.

Although Stuart got religion that day, he did spend a while wandering the valleys of partying hard and chasing hits and fame instead of music with deeper meaning.

He owns up to his role as one of the neo-traditionalists – like Dwight Yoakam and Travis Tritt – who pushed country music toward a more mainstream sound where hooks and radio play and flash were all that mattered.

His 1989 debut, Hillbilly Rock, features tunes (especially the title track, “Me and Billy The Kid” and “Western Girls”) that boasted a decidedly contemporary sound up front with the traditional country-western bounce drifting under the sheen. He went on to write and work with the likes of Tritt, who Stuart says he admires for his ability to hit whatever target he trains his eye on. In other words, he can bang out a simple hit or a timeless tune.

“I listen to country radio right now, and I think, ‘I contributed to that,’” Stuart said. “At that moment in time it was about kicking the doors down and getting ourselves known and getting the bank account together. We did it with volume and we did it with dazzle. At some point I thought: I’m starting to feel like a cartoon.”

These days, Stuart is a revivalist, and has now trained his talents on old-school country music. He’s working on a record in the old RCA Studio B, which during its glory days hosted sessions by Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Waylon Jennings, Eddy Arnold and country music pioneer Ernest Tubb.

Today, the building is essentially a museum owned by Mike Curb, of Nashville label Curb Records. But Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives brought it back to life as a studio by simply coming in, setting up their basic gear and control board and going to work.

“That room woke up so fast. It’s a magic place,” Stuart said. “It’s really intimidating. It’s like visiting the White House. You have to get beyond what went down there. We have really meditated on that as a band and as an engineering staff.”

The tunes are being recorded in one take, like they did back in the Sun Studio days, with Stuart and his band playing the song live until they get it right.

The album Stuart is working on now is the latest project in an eight-year mission during which he’s explored the roots of American music. During that span Stuart has dug into bluegrass, Mississippi Delta gospel music and even made a record based on the lives and stories of a Native American tribe. The 2005 album Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota features songs written by Stuart after he was guided through the lands of the Lakota Sioux of the Dakotas.

Those jaunts into genres and themes with rich histories led Stuart back to the bedrock of country music. In addition to the album-in-progress, Stuart has also launched a show on RFD-TV called The Marty Stuart Show, a 30-minute program featuring music by Stuart, his band and his wife, Connie Smith.

Guests such as John Rich, from Big & Rich, and other popular country artists come in for performance segments, huddling around a big microphone like they used to do back in the day.

“Who I am more than anything? The thing that I love,” Stuart said of his return to his country roots. “I’m going to help save it and give it another life.”

By Ryan Cormier

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