Keeper of the Flame
|This appeared in Inside WSM - July 2000|
|It was September 19, 1991. I had traveled to Bean Blossom, Indiana with a TNN crew to cover the Bill Monroe Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival. Marty Stuart was there along with folks like Johnny Paycheck, Emmylou Harris, Jim Ed Brown, the Kentucky Headhunters, Larry Sparks, James Monroe and, of course, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys.
As Marty finished his set and walked offstage, he leaned over and told me to come by his bus when I had a moment. At the time, he was traveling in Ernest Tubb's Green Hornet and he thought I might like to see how he had preserved the interior of the bus. The last time I had been on that bus was when Ernest was still alive, and I wondered if the memory might be a little painful. I shouldn't have given it a second thought. Marty, in his own unique style, had treated the Texas Troubadour's bus with dignity and respect. If you didn't know it as Ernest's bus when you got on, it wouldn't take long to figure it out.
Marty gave me the full tour. Although he'd added a few modern touches, the spirit of Ernest was alive and well. After looking through the bus, we sat down up front. Marty put an Ernest Tubb tape in the machine and dimmed the lights, and we just sat there, listening and remembering our country music hero under a full Kentucky moon. E.T. would have been proud.
That's how Marty Stuart is. He is the link from country music's past to its present. The first time I met Marty was at a taping of the early morning Martha White Show on WSM. Marty was probably 15 or 16 years old at the time, and I had just started working for WSM. That taping took place in Studio "B" in the Knob Hill building. Marty had been working for Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass since he was 12 years old. There he was with folks like Grant Turner and Lester. It was obvious that Lester thought a lot of "Little Marney," as he called him, and their relationship seemed more like father and son. I introduced myself to Marty after the show and that was the beginning of a friendship based on our love and respect for the pioneers of country music.
Marty would later go on to work with Doc and Merle Watson, Jerry and Tammy Sullivan, and Johnny Cash before working his way up to a solo career. He was Johnny Cash's son-in-law for a time when he was married to Johnny's daughter Cindy. They were divorced in the mid-80's. He finally signed with MCA in 1989 and joined the WSM Grand Ole Opry in 1993.
Several hits later, in 1997, he married a lady he had met in 1970 at the Choctaw Indian Fair in his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi. He was twelve years old the night of that show, but he told his mama he would someday marry her favorite singer. On July 8, 1997, Marty Stuart and Connie Smith got hitched.
Today, Marty continues to carry on the heritage of country music's past. His recently published book of photography, Pilgrims: Sinners, Saints and Prophets, is a treasure chest of the soul of country music. In this book, you get a rare glimpse of artists throughout the eyes of someone who was practically born backstage.
Marty's words and candid pictures make you laugh and cry. There is a picture of Lester Flatt on his last tour, with his oxygen tubes wrapped around his face. The picture is titled simply "Dedication." There are candid photos of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, George Jones, a whole series on Bill Monroe, characters you don't know but would like to, fire and brimstone preachers, and a picture of Connie Smith on that fateful night in 1970. More than anything else, the photos tell a lot about Marty Stuart and what's important to him.
In his latest album, The Pilgrim, Marty bares his soul with an honesty that is all too rare in today's country music. I suspect the line "Face the fact that you're a circle in a world full of square" from the song "Hobo's Prayer" may be more about Marty than hoboes. There are a lot of lines like that throughout the CD.
I think Hank Williams would be proud that Marty owns his Martin D-45 guitar. Lester Flatt would want no one else to have his Martin D-28. Marty still draws inspiration from his massive record collection he started when he was thirteen. All these things are priceless treasures to Marty, a part of that link to the foundation of country music that Marty holds so dear. Whether he's belting out a honky tonk duet with Travis Tritt, performing at the Opry with the Rock & Roll Cowboys, or playing bluegrass mandolin on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium with Earl Scruggs and LeRoy Troy, Marty does it with style and enthusiasm that is contagious.
I've often wondered how Marty's mom and daddy Hilda and John Stuart let their 13-year-old son go on the road so early in life. Hilda has told me that it was a tough decision, but Marty was so determined in his music that they realized their son would not be happy any other way. John said at the 1991 Bean Blossom Festival, "Marty is doing what he always wanted to do -- travel and play his music." Marty is very close to his mom and dad and his sister Jennifer. Marty even describes himself as a "card-carrying momma's boy." As long as there's a Marty Stuart around, country music, rhinestones, and a healthy respect for the legends and founders of our music is here to stay.
By Keith Bilbrey
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