Riding The Ghost Train

This appeared in The Herald Scotland - January 26, 2011

In the booklet that accompanies Marty Stuart’s latest album, Ghost Train, there’s a liner note by the country singer, musician and songwriter himself that endeavours to encapsulate his life story.

It is, by necessity, a précis.

This is only a CD booklet, after all, and it would take several volumes to go into full detail about a career that began at the age of nine, saw Stuart join country music legend Lester Flatt on the road at the age of 13, work with Johnny Cash, fulfil the prediction he made to his mother as a kid and marry country music heart-throb Connie Smith, drive drunk, go to jail, get sober and generally live the sort of life that’s portrayed in a million country songs.

“I turned 50 a couple of years ago,” says Stuart, down the line from his office in Nashville, “and you reach the stage when you have less time left than you’ve already lived and you start to think about what you might leave behind.

“So that idea of a legacy was on my mind at the time we made Ghost Train – that and capturing the immediacy of the two, three-minute country song. Look at all the classic country songs from Hank Williams onwards – it’s the same in pop music – and they all tell the whole story in less than three minutes, and I love that.”

Ghost Train succeeds mightily in achieving his aim. It’s music that, to use his own phrase “comes right ’atchya”. But then, Stuart has been studying the form for almost the whole of his life.

He began playing in a group with two like-minded boys of the same age in his home town of Philadelphia, Mississippi, just as Beatlemania and the invasion of British music was taking hold of America.

“Everybody else was listening to the Beatles and the Stones,” he says. “But I liked the Carter Family, Johnny Cash and Buck Owens, hardcore country, and I found these two guys from my neighbourhood who felt the same. We were playing electric guitars, three nine-year-old grade school kids, at shows around town, church fetes, that sort of thing. We probably sounded awful but I knew then that this was what I wanted to do.”

If the other two boys, with whom Stuart is still friends, went on to become a carpenter and a salesman, Stuart stuck to his vision. By the age of 12 he was playing guitar and singing with a Pentecostal church-style gospel group whose itinerary included bluegrass festivals. It was at one of those that Stuart took the step that put him on the professional track.

“We crossed paths a few times with Lester Flatt and I always got chatting to Roland White, Lester’s mandolin player whose brother, Clarence, was in The Byrds at one point,” says Stuart.“Roland casually invited me to Nashville to hang out and spend a weekend on the bus with Lester’s band, if my mum and dad would let me, and that led to me, at 13, turning full-time professional and basically living my dream.”

Being in Flatt’s band was like joining the US Air Force, he says, both in terms of the discipline of working in the country music business and the extracurricular opportunities that presented themselves. He grew up quickly, he concedes, but he learned priceless practical lessons about running a band and musical ones too, about songwriting in particular.

“Lester was a great teacher,” he says. “But he was also a great songwriter and although by the time I joined him he was living off the songs he’d written years before, it meant I was in the midst of lots of great material. I developed a pretty keen sense of what makes a good song from being around people like that and it helps a lot because you learn what ideas of your own to keep and work on and what ideas to let go.

“That’s a great thing to have, especially in a town like Nashville because Nashville’s a song town. It’s not for nothing that when you sit down and write a song together they call that a Nashville handshake.”

Stuart took the lessons learned from Flatt into a successful solo career that’s included Grammy nominations and his own television show. Before that, he worked with his other great mentor, Johnny Cash, whom he regarded as family. He and his wife, Connie, were next-door neighbours of the Cashes and had an all-too-clear view of the day he’ll never forget, when Cash’s house burned to the ground.

“I was over at my office working on some songs when Connie phoned me and told me what was happening,” he recalls. “I can’t remember how I got home – I must have driven – but we stood on our lawn watching this house that had so much history literally going up in smoke. I’d spent a lot of time over there with John, writing, playing, singing, listening to stories. There must have been so much music in that building’s walls and suddenly, it was all gone, and you know, fire’s bad enough but there’s a horrible sound that goes with it. I’ll never forget that sound.”

Stuart toured and recorded with Cash for five years during the 1980s – he was married to Cash’s daughter Cindy before he got together with Connie Smith – and also worked with guitar icon Doc Watson and bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements before forming his own band. The latest grouping has been together for 10 years, with only one change in personnel.

Judging by Ghost Train, they thoroughly merit The Fabulous Superlatives name that Stuart gave them.

“We’ve toured together, recorded, done TV shows, and written songs together and having been in the business so long, I can tell you, these guys are great ambassadors for our style of music,” says Stuart. “I know I can depend on them 100% and even after all this time together, I get a real buzz when I step out on stage with them.”

By Rob Adams

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