Marty Stuart

"Don't sweat the small stuff"

This appeared in ESP Magazine - May 19, 2004

Philadelphia’s not generally known as a town famous for raising mandolin players. But when that town is Philadelphia, Mississippi, there’s enough musical material floating around on the airwaves to make a youngster want to grab an instrument and join in.

The music of choice for a young Marty Stuart was not the blues that was so prevalent in the Mississippi in the late 50’s when Stuart was born, but the bluegrass music he heard on radio and on records. By the time he was 13, Stuart was proficient enough on mandolin to be offered a job with Lester Flatt. Stuart hit the road — and stayed there. He played with Flatt for eight years, joining fiddler Vassar Clements and Doc Watson when Flatt died in ’79.

Stuart then became part of the Cash family, marrying Johnny’s Cash’s daughter Cindy and playing in Cash’s band for six years. When Stuart left to go solo, he called on his former employers and bandmates to help him out in the studio. His first solo release, Busy Bee Café in ’82, featured Cash, Doc and Merle Watson, and Jerry Douglas as his studio band.

Stuart got his first hit with “Arlene” in ’85, breaking into the big time with his 1990 hit “Hillbilly Rock.” It was a genre-changing event for Stuart, going from a straight bluegrass/ classic country background to a honky-tonk sound that was contrary to what Nashville was pushing.

Stuart maintained that what he was doing was traditional country- not the homogenized pap that Nashville claimed country had to be. He hit with “Little Things,” and the title cut from his follow up album, Tempted, then teamed up with Travis Tritt for a couple of hit duets, “ The Whiskey Ain’t Working” and “This One’s Gonna Hurt You ( For A Long, Long Time.)”

Stuart committed what many thought was career suicide with the release of ’99’s The Pilgrim. It was a concept album of traditional country. “I want it to be the kind of album that musically starts at the extreme roots — sitting on the Carter Family’s front porch — and moves from there to bluegrass to folk music to rockabilly to honky-tonk to hillbilly rock to 21st century country music,” Stuart told Sun Media just before the album’s release. But it was too radical for Nashville at the time — long before the “Oh Brother” project reset Nashville standards. Even guest appearances by George Jones, Earl Scruggs, Pam Tillis and Emmylou Harris couldn’t save it.

His label dropped him over it. But instead of looking at it as a mistake, Stuart says it was a matter of standing up to his convictions, telling the Calgary Sun that he knew it would be ahead of it’s time and be a commercial disaster, but that he really didn’t have a choice because “when God gives you something that divine and that inspirational, you have to record it.”

Since then, Stuart has ventured into film scoring All The Pretty Horses, and producing an album for Billy Bob Thornton. Through it all, Stuart has held on to a keen sense humor while learning from his past employers, especially Johnny Cash. “Don’t sweat the small stuff, “ he says Cash instructed him, adding a warning to those who would follow too closely in the man in black’s footsteps: “if you’re on drugs, so is your hair.”

By Grant Britt

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