Bluegrass Legend Behind Pretty Horses

Stuart delights in melding various border rhythms

This appeared in the Edmonton Journal - January 14, 2001

Here's a question for the Show Biz edition of Trivial Pursuit, circa 2010:

In the year 2000, Marty Stuart was to Billy Bob Thornton what Bernard Herrmann was to whom?

A) Karl Childers
B) Angelina Jolie
C) Alfred Hitchcock
D) Laura Dern

If your immediate answer was A, B or D, you know way too much about the oft-married writer, director and star of Sling Blade, and not enough about film history.

Herrmann, of course, was responsible for some of the most memorable soundtracks in the history of the medium, many of them for the master of suspense. Stuart, one of the true giants of contemporary country music, recently composed the music for All the Pretty Horses and the long-delayed Daddy & Them, and he backed up a Thornton-led country-rock band that also included Earl Scruggs, Peter Frampton, Travis Tritt, Andy Summers, Billy Gibbons and actor Matt Damon.

Not that the fledgling soundtrack composer and Grand Ole Opry stalwart would ever consider putting himself in the same league -- or even the same trivia question -- as the man whose music added so much to such Hitchcock classics as Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest and The Trouble With Harry. Still, his contribution to All the Pretty Horses was nominated for a Golden Globe and is impressive both as a piece of orchestral music and an evocation of a cowboy tradition shared by the United States and Mexico.

In Thornton's film, Matt Damon and Henry Thomas play displaced Texans who cross the river to Mexico in search of adventure and the cowboy way, only to find themselves in a heap of trouble.

"I hadn't read Cormac McCarthy's novel, but, when I was stepping up to the plate, I realized that I was sticking my foot into the same bear trap everybody else was," recalled Stuart. "The book has an incredibly passionate following, and there were a lot of expectations. The thing that worked on my behalf was that the time frame, 1949-51, is a period in American history that I dearly love."

"I loved the music and the romance of what America stood for at the time."

In Thornton's film, Matt Damon and Henry Thomas play displaced Texans who cross the river to Mexico in search of adventure and the cowboy way. In addition to some extraordinary horseflesh--and a lovely senorita portrayed by Penelope Cruz--the two find themselves in a heap of trouble.

"The thing that was interesting to me, first of all, was that it was elegantly shot, but there also was a simple, yet dignified elegance to the characters..........even in poverty, even in the hard times," said Stuart, a native of Philadelphia, Mississippi, who left home as a boy to pursue a dream of his own. "When Matt Damon was kicked off the family ranch and denied that tradition because his divorced mama decided to sell it, he went to Mexico. I left home when I was 13 to play music with a national touring act."

Stuart first played the Opry as a young teen, and, by the time he was 22, he had picked and toured with such country legends as Vassar Clements, Doc and Merle Watson, and Johnny Cash. His eclectic musical tastes also complemented the work of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young and Billy Joel.

In the '80s, Stuart--like every other bluegrass musician in America not named Bill Monroe--had to avoid more than his fair share of potholes. In 1990, however, his hit album Hillbilly Rock put him back on the fast track that would lead to Grammy and Country Music Association awards, cable specials and the presidency of the Country Music Foundation.

Three years ago, he married singler-writer Connie Smith, a fellow member of the Grand Ole Opry. They wre together recently in Hollywood for the gala premiere of All The Pretty Horses. Stuart actually finished work on Daddy & Them before he undertook the All the Pretty Horses soundtrack. He'd played bit parts in The Hi-Lo Country and Fire Down Below, but wasn't thrilled by the prospect of becoming a Hollywood hillbilly.

"Connie and me went to see Sling Blade, at a matinee screening in Nashville, and I think we were the only two people in the place. I was mesmerized, not so much by the acting, but by the writing. I thought, 'I'm in the presence of some of the finest Southern writing in years.' It felt like Faulkner."

On the set of Primary Colors, he ran into Thornton, who "came up to me and said, 'I was just in Memphis, at Sun Records, and they played me that song of yours, "The Pilgrim," ... we've got to make music together,' " Stuart recalled, with a smile. "I thought it was just one of those Hollywood handshakes. Then, I bumped into him at a function at the Autry Museum, and he asked if I would act in Daddy & Them.

"I said that I wasn't an actor, but we got together on the music. One thing led to the next."

The scoring session for that film ("white trash at its finest ...") basically amounted to Stuart and his band jamming three options for every key scene, and Thornton picking the one he liked.

"So the job description on All The Pretty Horses from Billy Bob was, 'Oh, pretty much the same as on Daddy & Them.' " Stuart says. "But then I got a call from Harvey Weinstein the next day and he said, 'It's Elmer Bernstein. We want big!' " The Miramax chief was referring to the famous film composer whose credits include To Kill A Mockingbird."

Stuart continues, "So I had to come up with a way to satisfy both Billy Bob and Miramax. The answer was in the film." Along with fellow composers, and Nashville veterans, Kristin Wilkinson and Larry Paxton, Stuart envisioned a sound that was "Buddy Holly & the Crickets, in the middle of Santo and Johnny, in the middle of an orchestra."

They studiously avoided anything that would sound like references to the jangling guitars of the Bonanza theme, the mysterious vibes of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly or generic mariachi music. Because the film bridges the metaphorical distrances between the New Weat and Old West, oil-patch Texas and cattle-country Texas, the United States and Mexico, the score also had to look beyond both Nashville and Hollywood and embrace various border rhythms.

"I'd try putting electric guitar cues in there, and it would spit them right back at me, so I had to go back to the classic sounds. I wanted the elegance of Spanish music, and the elegance of American music at its finest. I listened to Bernard Herrmann, because he so understood the art of doing this."

"It was a challenge, but I did manage to sneak in some bluegrass things that they thought were orchestral.......and a Bill Monroe tune."

More than anyone else, Stuart allowed, "The man I thought about was Owen Bradley, a great arranger who produced all of Patsy Cline's records, which were very orchestral. When you think about the string lines in "Sweet Dreams" and those kinds of songs, he had a way of making them so pure and sublime that Juilliard had to take a look at the charts. At the same time, some guy driving down a back road in Alabama in his pickup could get it."

Stuart's "Marty Party" fans needn't fear that he's going Hollywood on them, however. "Do you remember a John Prine song called 'Sabu Visits the Twin Cities'?" Stuart asks. "The song was about keeping things in perspective. Horses is a danged old cowboy picture. In six months, you'll be able to rent it for $1.95."

By Gary Dretzka
Chicago Tribune

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