Now Entering Stuart Country: Crooner Balances Flash With Creative Passion

This appeared in In-Forum Valley R & R - October 5, 2004

Marty Stuart has a flashy reputation. The singer/guitarist is almost as well-known for his haystack hairstyle and slim-lined, rhinestone-studded suits as he is for his own 20-year recording career.

So it came as a surprise in country music circles when the 46-year-old showman released the simply titled "Country Music" in 2003.

"Sometimes it pays to go back to the basics and spell it out again," Stuart says last week from his home near Nashville, Tennessee.

The singer had spent a few years prior compiling a photo project, working on a concept album and scoring films like "All the Pretty Horses." When time came to make a new album, he had a specific plan.

"I thought, 'I'm going to say something,' though I didn't know exactly what I was going to say. When I listened to country radio, when I looked around me, the one thing I felt was missing was country music," he says.

Country music is what fans will hear at the Fargo Theatre when Stuart and his band, The Fabulous Superlatives, take the stage Thursday.

The album was a hit and ended up on many critics' best-of lists at year's end. CMT talking head Chet Flippo gushed, "Country music's conscience grows in musical depth and breadth" and dubbed "Farmer's Blues," Stuart's duet with country legend Merle Haggard, "an instant classic."

Stuart appreciates the praise, but doesn't let it go to his head. He's been in the business since he was 13 and asked to pick mandolin on the road with country great Lester Flatt. After Flatt died in 1979, the country prodigy sat in with other icons like Doc Watson and Johnny Cash before setting out on his own.

Initially attempting to be a straightforward country singer, Stuart grew bored with the routine.

"That kind of alienated me from the standard over-the-counter career here in Nashville," he says. "All of a sudden I found out instead of being part of the mainstream culture, I was part of the counterculture, but I took pride in that."

From the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s, Stuart plucked out a string of hits and often paired with pal Travis Tritt as honky tonk revivalists.

His résumé puts him in the rare position as one of country's practicing historians. Though he hasn't always been a part of the Nashville system, he remains philosophical about Music City.

"Country music is always about evolution," he says, dating the music back to Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family in 1927. "When I hear certain songs on the radio I still hear classic themes, I still hear remnants of the original blueprint. To me, sonically, it doesn't compare to Hank Williams, but this generation and this culture probably doesn't want it to and that's all right."

He especially hears hope in the voices of Alan Jackson and Alison Krauss.

"I think the talent is there, I think the talent will always be there," he says. "What the corporate moneychangers do to let it in has been and always will be the issue."

He's also witnessed firsthand how country can cross over into pop culture and mass appeal. He recalls a bill with Kool & The Gang after the movie "Deliverance" hit screens in 1972. The Flatts-inspired soundtrack featured "Dueling Banjos," and that night the funk band played nine encores.

"He became a rock star by way of one show," Stuart says.

Stuart adapted his flashy style from performers he grew up seeing on TV, like Roy Rogers, Porter Wagoner and Cash.

"When I got to Nashville, when I was 13, all the things I saw in black and white were in living color right before my eyes. Those costumes were the most beautiful things I'd seen in my life," he says.

He backed up his style with substance, developing friendships with the designers who created the clothes, like Jamie Nudie.

"I became a champion for their cause. I realize on a couple of album covers I probably look like a clown, but I knew what I was doing because they wrote two or three books about my collection and the people who make the clothes," he says. "Cowboy couture is a celebrated art form and I'm glad I had a hand in it."

Currently Stuart has his hands in three albums and three book projects, including "Blue Line Hot Shots," a collection of pictures he took while on the "Electric Barnyard Tour" last year with Merle Haggard. The festival played back roads, indicated on maps with blue lines for two-lane highways as opposed to red, for the interstates.

"They're portraits of people that I've met along the way that have just enough Elvis in them to be hotshots in their hometown, but not enough to get out," he says. "But they're wonderful American characters and it's a photo study I'm absolutely in love with."

For as spread out as he is, Stuart says the experiences are what keep him interested creatively.

"It's a corny analogy, but it's kind of like an onion, the more you peel the more you uncover. I love the fact that my life is not one dimensional."

By John Lamb

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