Voices: Marty Stuart

This appeared on Gaither.com - April 19, 2007

One of Marty Stuart's earliest memories is of music, church bells, ringing across the fields in Philadelphia, Mississippi. That southern Philadelphia where Stuart grew up was a crossroads of sorts, "it was a tri racial town, black, white, and red," he recalls, and a place where blues music from the delta, southern rock and soul from Memphis, and country music from Nashville all crossed paths. They still do, in Stuart's music. He's been on a creative roll of late, releasing a gospel album, a bluegrass album, and an album the lives of Native Americans. There's a collection of duets coming up, and he's producing a record for Kathy Mattea.

If you're still thinking of Stuart as the guy with the big hair and the tight jeans who sang "Hillbilly Rock" and "The Whiskey Ain't Workin,' " he is all of that. Mainstream country and outlaw country are part of who Marty Stuart is, and they are also part of what leads him to work on the edges and fringes of things these days, and to do that with confidence and a sense of humor. He started off in bluegrass, joining a gospel band the summer he was twelve and was soon working with bluegrass masters Lester Flatt and Vassar Clements.

"I came out of Mississippi playing the guitar and the mandolin," he says, "I had access to a lot of people, who were really cool about showin' and passing it on." Johnny Cash would also become and remain a mentor, opening doors to music and to thinking about American history which still resonate with the younger man. In the course of all this, there was a lot of living, and a lot of music, to encounter. "I heard those church bells drifting across the air in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and the next thing I know, I have a record player. and then I have a guitar, and the next thing I know I have a band, then I'm playing in church, then I'm on the Grand Ole Opry, and then Lester Flatt dies, and the next thing I know I'm in front of Bob Dylan and Doc Watson, and then there's Johnny Cash, and next thing I know I'm marrying Cindy Cash, and the next thing I know I'm divorcing Cindy Cash, and the next thing I know -- it just got faster and faster and bigger and bigger and it went from the top of the world to the bottom of the world, from the top of the world to the bottom of the world again, it hit this side and it hit that side, but it's always moved, like a cyclone across the earth," he says.

That cyclone helped clear the way for Stuart to get back to the roots of his music. "The truth of the matter is that it took thirty five years of train riding, hard living, lot of drugs and alcohol, a divorce, financial ruin and disaster, several wrecked cars and several broken hearts -- I'm glad God didn't let me out of His sight because I let him out of mine for a long time," Stuart says. What he has now is a deeper understanding and compassion for the voices of history, and the joys, sorrows, and changes of life. The gospel album, Souls' Chapel, the bluegrass album Live at the Ryman, the Native American project Badlands, and the duet collection Compadres are none of them direct results of that, but they all are expressions of where Stuart's been and perhaps, where he's going.

That transition between past and future began in Memphis. As he was recording at the historic Sun Studios, word came that Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, had died. "I took a walk around the back streets of Memphis, and I came up with a song called The Pilgrim," Stuart says. "I brought it back and showed it to the band one time. We cut out the lights in the studio and recorded it, we had a take, and we turned the lights back on and I put my mandolin in the car and drove back to Nashville for Monroe's funeral. That was the beginning of something that changed in my life, that's when I quit tryin' to be a part of the parade I felt out of step with," he says. That song became the title cut for his next record, and after that release was done, Stuart took a break from touring, concentrating on his writing and thinking about what his new direction might be.

He made a decision to spend some time playing back roads and county fairs rather than big arenas and top clubs. "What I started seeing once again was wonderful, incredible characters. The spirit of America is very much alive. You just have to dig a little deeper to find it," he said. That digging deeper led to a return to his bluegrass and song writing roots, with a live concert recorded at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, which includes some of his best known hits. It also led to Souls' Chapel, a collection of songs of hope and spirit that where faith and doubt sometimes go hand in hand, and to Badlands, an unflinching look at the history and present of the Lakota people of Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and through their story, that of other Native peoples. Stuart was recently made a member of that tribe, and given a Native name that means young man who helps people. "Now I'm from Mississippi, that's poor country, but up there was the first time I had encountered people who had absolutely nothing except their integrity and their dignity," he recalls. He has been involved with the the people of Pine Ridge for more than twenty years, and was first introduced to them by Johnny Cash.

Johnny Cash, Mississippi, bluegrass, mandolins, mainstream country, personal faith, a respect for history, and a love for back roads -- and hillbilly rock, too. Where ever his path takes him next, Marty Stuart will be drawing on those authentic connections.

By Kerry Dexter

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