Marty Stuart - Country Renegade

This appeared in Hustler Magazine - December 1986

Marty Stuart jerks his van and his band inside it through stop-and-go traffic in downtown St. Louis. Traffic has started to get to him and so has the pressure of the performance he must give in a few hours. Stuart's killer instinct is on the rise. He needs that instinct. When he hits the stage of the Fox Theatre tonight, executives from his new record label will be in the audience to judge his show. Stuart means to impress them. If he ever gets to the Fox Theatre, that is. Traffic stinks.

An old green Toyota, one the paint died on years ago, shoots out of its lane and cuts off Stuart's van. Marty's killer instinct takes over. He plays bumper car with the Toyota, letting his van roll ahead, picking up enough speed to solidly jolt the offending Toyota. The car's driver flips his finger at Stuart and jumps into the street with blood in his eyes. He wants to fight.

Stuart's drummer, Jody Maphis, unfolds from the van with a Coke in his hand. Maphis is a big fellow. With Maphis looming over him, the Toyota driver decides he doesn't want to fight after all. Maphis doesn't want to fight either. He wants to pour his Coke over the faded hood of the Toyota. "Hey!" barks the driver. "You poured Coke on my car."

Maphis looks at him, "Would you prefer Pepsi?" he asks.

Marty Stuart likes that kind of spontaneity. He's pretty spontaneous himself. Spontaneous enough to shoot a hole through the bottom of his Jeep to let rainwater drain out. Spontaneous enough to start an important show with a spur-of-the-moment fiddle solo, even if he hasn't picked up his fiddle in months.

With blue-black hair on the brink of overthrowing the bandana that holds it off his face, Stuart looks spontaneous, as if he fell out of bed and pulled himself together five minutes ago. His beard won't be tamed; even after a close encounter with a razor, he looks like he could use a shave. He is 27 years old, but a couple of zits have spontaneously erupted on his face. Marty Stuart can't help it. He is spontaneous. And spontaneity, he says, is just what country music needs.

"There are a lot of cut-and-dried formulas," Stuart says as he reaches under his black sweatshirt to scratch himself. "We're going to need some new Merle Haggards, some new George Joneses, but we need some new balls of fire, too." Balls of fire: That's where Marty Stuart comes in.

What is Marty Stuart all about? He's all about putting Jerry Lee Lewis' hillbilly hellfire back in country music. He's all about shaking up people like Little Richard did the first time he hollers, "Awop-bop-a-loo-mop/Alop-bam-boom." Marty Stuart is all about music that makes you spontaneously throw your hat in the air, get happy feet and start speaking in tongues.

He looks you straight in the eye when he tells you this, as if to probe for signs of dishonesty. If you don't stand up to his scrutiny, he gets antsy and sputters his words. Look away too long and he cracks his hands together to regain your attention.

"To do what I want to do, you have to dare to be different," says Stuart. "The people who always mattered to me were the ones who took a dare, who took a chance and, for better or worse, hung on to what they were all about. I know I'm a shock to a lot of people, but that's what I'm hoping."

Marty Stuart's shock treatment might be just what country music needs. Country music, he says, is slowly boring many of its one-time admirers to death and attracts precious few, new fans. "Songs just kind of lay there," Stuart says of Nashville's current output. "Musicians tend not to explore new areas. [Record companies] put it out, stamp it 'product' and figure out a way to market it."

What gives Marty Stuart the right to put down the state of country music? Well, he has a fairly thorough education in his subject. In 1972, at the ripe old age of 13, Stuart landed a job playing guitar, mandolin and fiddle for Lester Flatt, the lead singer of the fabled Flatt & Scruggs bluegrass powerhouse. Stuart later graduated to a band led by a first-generation, former pill-popping rockabilly singer named Johnny Cash. Along the way, Stuart filled in the gaps in his schooling by touring and recording with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Doc Watson, Vassar Clements and Bob Dylan.

In September 1985, when Marty Stuart last played the Fox Theatre in St. Louis, he didn't have to worry about winning over the audience. The Stuart was a sideman for Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. Then he only had to play the right licks and sing a few harmonies in tune. For Stuart, the gig couldn't have been easier. Cash and Waylon carried the show. Even if Stuart's fingers had stumbled over a dozen bum notes on his guitar and his voice had cracked on every harmony, the audience wouldn't have cared. They came to see Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.

Stuart has returned to the Fox Theatre, but this time his job is tougher. Tonight he is the frontman. Tonight he has to do much more than play and sing the right notes. Tonight he has to go onstage and open the show for Hank Williams Jr., the gun-welding Rambo of country music. The crowd has come to see Hank Jr. -- Bocephus, as he calls himself. They don't know Marty Stuart, and they don't want to know him. They wear their feelings on their t-shirts: "If you don't like Hank Williams, you can kiss my ass."

Along with the Hank Jr. partisans, another group has come to the show: a clutch of executives from Columbia Records. Stuart is their newest act and they want to make sure he lives up to their expectations. Stuart can't afford to disappoint them.

The house lights fade. A local disc jockey steps into the spotlight. "Are you ready for this?" he bellows. "Are you ready for Bocephus?" The audience rumbles positively. The the disc jockey has more to say. "He's got an opening act." The positive rumbling stops. Groans hang in the air. From their seats 16 rows in front of the stage, the record company bigwigs glance over their shoulders at the suddenly hostile crowd. For Marty Stuart, it is time to put up or shut up.

With a fiddle under his arm, Stuart walks onstage in his black-and-white rhinestone-covered jacket and turquoise cowboy boots. He lifts his fiddle to his chin and launches, unaccompanied, into "Sally Goodin," an old-time fiddle tune. Some in the audience clap along. They fall silent at the end of the tune, however, unsure if they have the stomach for what looks like an entire program of solo fiddle scraping. Stuart's show teeters on the edge of disaster. The record executives squirm in their seats.

Stuart puts down his fiddle and picks up his electric guitar. His band cranks out "Long Train Gone," a song Stuart wrote. The rhythm section pounds out a high-powered hillbilly backbeat. Stuart squeezes out a string of chicken-pickin' guitar licks. No one in the audience has heard the song before, but it starts to carry them with the force of a runaway train. By the last chord, the entire audience is on Stuart's train, and they don't want to get off. They clap long and loud. Sixteen rows in front of the stage, the record executives stop squirming.

Stuart moves in the for the kill. He jumps into "Arlene," spitting out lyrics about a cotton-picking Mississippi farmgirl and the way her body shows through her sweat-soaked t-shirt and jeans. Yowling and twanging, Stuart drags Arlene into a secluded corner of the cotton field.

Soon after Arlene surrenders, his set ends. Applause doesn't linger once Stuart leaves the stage, but he has survived his baptism of fire. The record executives and the Hank Jr. fans are satisfied.

Backstage in his trashed and stripped bare dressing room, Stuart is in a self-congratulatory mood. "The response was good," he says, leaning back and swinging his immaculate cowboy boots onto a chair. "The adrenaline was really high out there." But something is amiss. A pink wad of gum clings to the toe of one of Stuart's splendid cowboy boots. "I was trying to show you off my boots," Stuart laughs. He picks off the gum and drops it on the floor. "See there, you can't take anything serious."

Not even the opening number of a big show. "I kept telling everybody I was going to start with a fiddle tune," he says. "They asked, 'What?" I said, 'I don't know.' A couple of minutes before we went on, I said, 'Sally Goodin.' That's what performing is all about. If you have a trick up your sleeve you know is just what the doctor ordered for that audience, you have to pull it out."

Marty Stuart has collected musical tricks up his sleeve all his life. His first memory, in fact, is of the sound of chimes drifting through the evening air in his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi.

He also remembers dropping in on his neighbors Welch and Thelma Moore whenever they sat down at their piano to play and sing. "Welch saw how much I loved music," recalls Stuart. "He bought me this yellow plyboard guitar with cowboys painted on it."

Marty's father bought him an electric guitar when Marty turned nine. With a couple of friends, he learned by ear to play songs that still define his musical taste, classic country songs like Buck Owens' "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail" and Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." At the same time Marty immersed himself in the bluegrass music of Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe, applying what he learned to a different instrument: fiddle.

Marty knew when he started third grade that he wanted to be a professional musician and, ultimately, a bandleader. His parents supported his aim, taking him to nearby fairs and faraway concerts where he could just see and hear country singers. "Just to see people rolling out of a big bus in cowboy hats and sparkling suits and pulling out amps and guitars -- it was like: 'Yeah! That's really what I want to do.' Going to school was mandatory, but I had to try and figure my way out."

At age 12 Marty got the instrument that took him out of school and put him on the path to country stardom. An eccentric and evidently none-too-bright neighbor bought an electric mandolin but couldn't get it working, even after plugging it into a wall socket. The neighbor never tried plugging his electric mandolin into an amplifier. He eventually gave up the instrument and sold it to Marty's father who didn't learn to play it either. Marty got the mandolin and he mastered it handily.

When school let out that summer, Marty turned professional. He joined the Sullivan Family, a bluegrass-gospel group that specialized in performing at Pentecostal churches. "The Pentecostal congregations really were into serious worship, and they came expecting to feel the Holy Ghost and the Holy Spirit," Stuart says. Sometimes the Sullivan Family's music drove the congregations into glossolalia, speaking in tongues. Marty saw the music transport the worshipers into a frenzy of happy feet and dancing in the pews.

One weekend when Marty wasn't helping the Sullivan Family summon the Holy Spirit, the Stuart family drove to Bill Monroe's bluegrass festival in Bean Blossom, Indiana. Marty wandered through the crowd at the festival, carrying his mandolin from one jam session to another, making all the contacts he could. At one particularly hot jam, Marty met Roland White, the mandolinist for Lester Flatt's band. Marty's mandolin playing impressed Roland and he invited the youngster to visit him in Nashville.

But the summer of impressing big-time bluegrass stars like Roland White and performing with the Sullivan Family ended, and Marty had to go back to school. "That called for me cutting my hair, getting up at seven in the morning, studying at night and kind of putting music on the backburner. That didn't sit well. That didn't sit well at all after a summer of applause and people saying, 'Hey, you're coming right along' -- pats on the back, you know. I was really into that. So I went back to school with the wrong attitude."

Marty's attitude came out in the open in history class. "I had a book open with a country music magazine lying flush in it. I got involved in it, and I let the teacher get away from me. The teacher came up behind me and she slapped the book out of my hands and onto the floor. She said, 'If you'd get your mind off that trash and get it into some history, you might make something of yourself.' "

The teacher had some words about Marty's grooming and punctuality too. " 'Your hair's too long,' she said. 'You've been late so many times. Go to the principal.' Man, it just all came down like a big snowball. I stood up, and the only thing I remember saying is, 'I ain't really as interested in learning about history as I am in making a little bit of it.' "

Stuart turned his back on the teacher and walked out of the classroom, but he didn't go to the principal's office. Instead, he marched home and called Roland White in Nashville to take him up on his invitation.

"I said, 'Roland, I really would like to come if this would be a good time.' He said, 'How about next weekend? We're going with Lester up to Delaware.' "

Now Marty had to convince his parents. "I had this whole package ready for them when they came home. And they said, 'Oh, no. You've got to go to school.' And I worked hard, man. And they finally agreed. I got Roland back on the phone and he assured them that it would be okay, that he'd see after me.

Stuart went to Nashville, got on Flatt's bus and spent most of the trip to Delaware trading mandolin licks with Roland White. Flatt heard them playing and what he heard was good -- good enough to persuade him to let Marty play a few tunes onstage.

"We did four or five shows that weekend," Stuart smiles. "They gave me a big white hat, and I fit right in. On the way back -- I'll never forget it -- Lester said, 'If we could work something out with your mama and daddy about your schooling, you could go to work with us.' "

Working something out with Marty's parents was no easy task. But after they satisfied themselves that Flatt would make a suitable guardian, they enrolled Marty in a correspondence course and let him join the band. So Marty made good on his plan to escape school and the history teacher who caught him reading a magazine in class. The history teacher called him years later asking for free tickets to the Grand Ole Opry. "I didn't return her call," Stuart smirks. "Hell with her."

Marty had escaped one kind of school, but he had started in another. "I came to Nashville with the hopes of having a solo career," he remembers. "Lester was a great starting school. On Saturday nights, when we'd work the Opry, my peers were Roy Acuff, Grandpa Jones, Lester, Ernest Tubb, Stringbean, people like that. They took the time to sit down and explain things.

But Marty's new teachers didn't have to teach him a moral code to keep him from getting hooked on pills, booze and the other temptations of a musician's life. "My mother and father started me really early with their beliefs in right and wrong," proclaims Stuart. "I came from a good foundation, and I just have to remember the basic things they taught. Not that I lived up to all of them, 'cause I certainly didn't. But I just have to get up and try again."

There was one lesson, however, he would learn only from Lester Flatt. "He taught me how to be myself, because Lester was what he was. He didn't change if the President was in the room. He didn't change if he was peeling apples in front of an old country store."

Flatt died in 1979 and Stuart lost his teacher, friend and guardian. But he carried on as he thought Lester would have wanted, producing a tribute album to him and touring with fiddler Vassar Clements and guitar virtuoso Doc Watson.

Stuart made the rounds in Nashville, too, lining up the allies he needed to fulfill his ambitions for a solo career. He met two of his strongest supporters while delivering a guitar to a recording studio owned by Jack Clement, the producer of Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and Johnny Cash's "Ballad of a Teenage Queen."

"The door swings open and there's Johnny Cash sitting, twitching in a chair, playing rhythm guitar for Jack Clement." Stuart says, "Clement had on a top hat. He was drinking olive juice and playing dobro and gurgling out 'Wabash Cannonball.' I said, 'Yeah! This is my kind of joint.' "

Clement handed him a mandolin and Stuart quickly proved himself a worthy accompanist. Soon afterward Johnny Cash began calling Stuart to play on his record sessions. Cash later gave him a steady job in his touring band.

Stuart quit Cash's band in 1985. "I had to start throwing some coal on my own career and get things motivated a little bit," he says. "It was a big decision to dump a great job and go for nothing but hopes and dreams, but I felt I could pull it off."

Stuart circulated tapes of his own music among executives of Nashville's record labels. Two executives at different labels liked what they heard -- but not enough to sign him. So Stuart took matters into his own hands. In fall 1985, he breezed past the receptionist guarding the offices of Columbia Records and into the office of Rick Blackburn, general manager of Columbia. "Have you got five minutes?" Stuart asked?

"I've got three," said Blackburn.

"Good, 'cause I need all three of them," said Stuart. He sat down and told Blackburn that Nashville's music bored young listeners. Blackburn nodded. His market research had shown him for years that very few young people bought country records.

Stuart smelled a record deal. "My high-powered hillbilly music is exactly what those young record buyers want," he told Blackburn. Little dollar signs rang up in this executive's eyes. Then and there, Marty Stuart got the record deal he had pursued since 1972.

"Before I got a record deal, it was a real big thing with me to get one," Stuart reminisces. "After I had it, I realized it was just a matter of Rick saying, 'Okay.' I went home and told my wife, Cindy. I said, 'Nothing to it.' "

Getting a record deal and hanging on to one, though, are two different problems. The top-20 success of Stuart's first single has started his career with a bang but, unless he delivers the young record-buyers he promised, his career will fizzle. Already, the pressure bothers him. "Everybody has a dark side, right?" he half tells and half asks. "I just have to watch it. I can get myself in more trouble than anybody else can. I'm prone to fall down all over myself."

When his dark side surfaces, and it surfaces more often now than ever before, Stuart returns to the moral code his parents taught. "As long as I can feel I have a line of communication with God and some peace of mind, I can usually get out of most anything," he says. "That's basically how I face hard times: faith -- blood and guts when you're going through the middle of it. It's usually me that does me wrong and not other people. When that happens, I have to face up to myself and figure out whatever it is that's going wrong and repair it."

For such intense self-examination, Stuart goes out in the woods. "That's the alternative to city life. When I get too far above myself, I have to get back in touch with what I'm all about. And then when I come back and crank the car, I'm usually in fine shape to take on whatever else might come around."

Like being interviewed for Hustler, for instance. "I can honestly say that I don't think I've ever bought Hustler, but I really don't have any reservations about being in Hustler," admits Stuart. "Face it. It exists the same way the New York Times exists. The people that read that book are no better than you or I, and they're no worse than you or I. I'm in this business to relate to my fellow human beings. If it happens to be through Hustler, so be it. I just ask that you consider my beliefs and don't lambaste me too bad for having strong religious convictions. I think a lot of religious people mean well, the same way a lot of people in that [Hustler] office mean well. I respect them. The only thing I ask is that they respect me."

Through his years with Lester Flatt, Johnny Cash, Doc Watson and all the other musicians he has worked with, Stuart has learned the importance of respect, especially for the cannibalistic tendencies of the music business. He knows better than most the price the business can exact, particularly after his abbreviated plane ride with Rick Nelson a few months before Nelson died.

"I got a seat in Rick Nelson's airplane. It had been Jerry Lee Lewis' plane. I was talking to Rick and we were talking about the plane being Jerry Lee's, and I said, 'This thing must have a whole lot of uncertain karma about it.' We just kind of laughed. We got buckled in and got ready to do down the runway. We got to the end of the runway and the pilot gave it full throttle. And the engine I was sitting over, it just popped. That was it. I said, 'Where's the door?'

"They towed us back to the hangar. Gas and water had leaked down on the magnetos. One of the mechanics cautioned us about that plane. He said, 'I'm glad you weren't in the air when that happened, boys.' "

When the mechanic readied another plane for takeoff, Stuart declined to board it. Rick Nelson flew to California only to die several months later in the plane that couldn't get off the ground with Stuart on board.

Marty Stuart's instincts and his luck seem to be in good working order. But has he the charisma to put his music across to the young record buyers who ignore boring country records?

Someone who should know thinks Stuart has what it takes. "I've been a Johnny Cash watcher for 28 years," testifies Jack Clement, who produced classic rockabilly records in the '50s for Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. "Now I'm a Marty Stuart watcher."

By Andrew Roblin

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