Marty Stuart Heads For Home:

Country artist finds fresh inspiration in the rich sounds of his native Mississippi

This appeared in the Detroit Free Press - September 1, 2004

"Sometimes the pleasure's worth the pain," Marty Stuart sings resignedly during the opening moments of The Pilgrim, the acclaimed but little-heard country concept album he released five summers ago.

It's a line that could be applied to the last few years of his up-and-down Nashville career. Talented traditionalist Stuart has had the pleasure of making the best music of his life, but he's had to endure the pain of standing by helplessly and watching as country fans turned their backs on it and embraced more radio-friendly fare by Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw.

"There's the heart, and then there's the chart," Stuart, 45, says laughingly of his decision to make very personal and honest-to-gosh country music at a time when Nashville is neck-deep in lightweight country-pop.

Things were different in the early '90s. Nashville was in a more country frame of mind then, and Stuart tracks like "Hillbilly Rock," "This One's Gonna Hurt You (For a Long, Long Time)" and "The Whiskey Ain't Workin' " (the latter two recorded as duets with Travis Tritt) were the toast of Music Row. But as the decade wore on, Stuart's sound and his steadfast devotion to country's roots wore thin with fans and radio.

The Pilgrim, a brilliant song cycle inspired by an ill-fated love triangle Stuart heard about while growing up in Philadelphia, Mississippi, featured distinguished guests like Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris and Ralph Stanley, but radio and country fans barely noticed it after its June 1999 release. Country Music, a solid 2003 follow-up that includes fine covers of little-remembered tunes like "A Satisfied Mind" and "Sundown in Nashville," hasn't fared much better.

Stuart is philosophical when comparing his successes of a decade ago to the present.

"The goal back then was fame, fortune and hits," says the singer, who married '60s country star Connie Smith, 63, in 1997. "But I got the Cadillac. I got the Telecaster. I got the gold record on the wall. All that is fine for a season, but it's the lasting impression I'm working on now."

Look homeward, Marty

Stuart has responded to Nashville's current indifference toward his music by turning inward and looking homeward to Mississippi.

"It comes into perspective for me when I take it back to Mississippi," the artist says. "Look at what came out of Mississippi: There's Elvis, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, the Staple Singers, B.B. King, Tammy Wynette, Jimmie Rodgers. The kings and queens of everything came out of the Delta down there. It's where I fell in love with country music and the original themes of country music that have been cliched: cheating, drinking, trains, mama.

"I just went back down there to plug in to the original feeling I had for country music, and I found it's still there. I wanted to hit the heart and soul of country music and not necessarily line it up with the industry of country music," says Stuart, who made headlines earlier this summer after being charged with drunken driving and spending a couple of days in a Nashville-area jail.

He views Mississippi -- and especially the University of Mississippi at Oxford and its Center for the Study of Southern Culture -- as a future cultural hot spot. He's even hoping to get an Oxford-based "Austin City Limits"-type TV show off the ground in the near future.

"It's wildcat territory," says the singer. "The town is ready the way Austin was. You have the entire palette of music royalty to base this thing off of. Blues music. Rock 'n' roll music. It's all there. The Southern renaissance is set to happen.

"It just needs a reason to beam up and go to the nation. You can stick around and wonder what's going to happen next (in Nashville) or you can keep moving. I prefer to keep moving."

By Greg Crawford

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