Finding Redemption

After second DUI, Stuart turns to church for inspiration for Souls' Chapel

This appeared in the Johnson City Press - September 19, 2005

The question is bound to come up and Marty Stuart doesn't look at all uncomfortable when it does. Will people think it disingenuous of him to release a collection of spiritual songs a year after being charged with his second DUI?

"I watched Johnny Cash go through the same thing," says Stuart, who was married to Cash's daughter Cindy and played in Cash's band during the 1980s. "Where better for people like me and Johnny Cash to get our lives right than in the church house?

"I had two DUIs. But thanks to the church I had another chance to get it right. Some of my greatest Bible heroes were incredible knuckleheads. If you don't believe it, check in on David, check in on the apostle Paul. You can start there."

He pauses a moment, nods and asks, "Fair enough?" Fair enough.

Stuart's new album Soul's Chapel is an ambitious, inspiring piece of work. Don't look for yet another reading of "I'll Fly Away" or "Amazing Grace"; these 12 songs are an amalgamation of black gospel, Delta blues, country and early rock n' roll. The vocals, at times a lush four-part harmony, rise in sudden swells, the electric guitars echo swampy and dark.

"It's all about dynamics," says Stuart, whose disheveled pile of dark, graying hair rivals Lyle Lovett's for the most distinctive 'do in country music. "When the vocals go up, the music comes down. When the vocals aren't there, the music comes up.

"I caught the dynamics one day in a visit to Preservation Hall in New Orleans. There were no microphones, but you could hear every note played. I said, 'Some day I'm going to apply that to a record.' Ten years later I found a place to do it."

Stuart, 46, says the sound is largely a reconstruction of what he remembers hearing in the piney flats around Philadelphia, Mississippi when he was a kid.

Half of the songs are covers, two of them -- "Somebody Saved Me" and "Move Along Train" -- are by fellow Mississippian "Pops" Staples of the Staple Singers.

"Everybody equates me with Lester Flatt or Johnny Cash," says Stuart, who began playing in Flat's bluegrass band when he was only 13. "But Pops Staples was one of the most meaningful, inspirational mentors I ever had. We were very close. I was a pallbearer at his funeral.

"I thought that hands down he was the coolest human being I'd ever seen. I've been around them all, and Pops had more cool factor than James Dean, Bob Dylan, Marlon Brando and Johnny Cash all wrapped into one."

Staples' daughter Mavis adds her soulful voice to the slow, bluesy groove "Move Along Train." But it's the six other songs on Souls' Chapel that show Stuart's grasp of the idiom. He wrote or co-wrote all of them, and they blend seamlessly with the standards. Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives -- drummer Harry Stinson, bassist Brian Glenn, and guitarist Kenny Vaughan -- worked them up on the road and began including them in their shows.

"We were booked to play in my church one morning and I said, 'Let's do two or three of these songs and see how they work. Somebody sang 'How Great Thou Art' and 'Let us Ever Walk with Jesus' and then we got up and sang a couple of these and they felt like they all came from the same book," he said.

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