The Gospel According To Marty

This appeared in The Journal of Country Music - 1992

That Marty Stuart has the goods was never in doubt. These days, though, there's an I Will Not Be Denied quality about him that seems to come from his sense that he's on the brink of something. The Clarence White beard is gone, record company woes seem to be a thing of the past, and he's assembled a team behind him that's in tune with what he's trying to accomplish.

Stuart's self-appointed role has been that of making new music consistent with the broad sweep of country's past. Nearly every country performer pays lip service to the music's early stars, but Stuart does more than that; it is, after all, one thing to toss a knowing allusion to Ernest Tubb into your song, it's quite another to have Tubb's tour bus in your driveway, as Stuart does. And in a music that cherishes the verbal tradition, he's a walking reliquary of anecdotes. Even those who've already heard his Lester Flatt post-heart attack story still spill Coke over themselves when he reaches the punchline.

Stuart is passionate about many things; chief among them is what he perceives as the dilution of real country music. "There's a comedy tape that Tommy Collins did called 'The Pissed-Off Preacher'," he says with a characteristic nod toward something that almost no one has heard. "The preacher gets up and he says, 'Good morning. I'll get right to the sermon. Your flowers are so lovely, but I'm tired of so much shit going on around here.' When I started on my new album, I listened to the radio and people were going #1 with bubblegum music. I've pictured myself in the middle of Sixteenth Avenue with my guitar saying, 'This belonged to Hank, this bus belonged to Ernest, and these songs belong to me.' "

Stuart's hillbilly pedigree has been come by honestly. He was born in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1958. His early musical education was courtesy of the Columbia Record Club. "My granddad was an old-time Mississippi fiddle player," he says. "My uncle had a bit of James Dean about him and he loved Johnny Cash, and my dad loved Flatt & Scruggs and string music. We got Lester and Earl and Johnny Cash from the Columbia Record Club on the same day and, about a week later, a cousin gave me Meet the Beatles. I said, "Nah!' "

Stuart got his first guitar when he was 9 and, as he says, got the feeling that "this shovel fit my hand real good." He would go to country music shows and ask to carry the stars' guitars. He worked tent shows and revivals with the gospel stringband The Sullivan Family, witnessing the talking in tongues--all of this while most kids his age were still watching Saturday morning cartoons. When he was 12, he went to Bill Monroe's Beam Blossom Festival, and he remembers "Lester Flatt was such a hero. I stood by his bus all afternoon waiting for him to come out. It was a walk of an eighth or a quarter of a mile from his bus to the stage, and I walked behind him, studying him. I knew I belonged in that world."

It's part of Marty Stuart lore that he invited one of Flatt's band, Roland White, to his house for supper when the Flatt show was playing near Philadelphia. White returned the favor by inviting him to Nashville and taking him out to a gig in Delaware with the band. On the bus, Flatt heard Stuart play and set about bringing him into the band. He joined as a mandolin player when he was 13, remaining with Flatt until the veteran performer's death in 1979.

"Lester's last year was a great education to me," says Stuart. "He was a wealthy man. He didn't need to perform, but he and his wife had split up after forty-three years, and he's had open-heart surgery. Life just fell apart on him, and the only thing he had left was the applause. He didn't want to play festivals and auditorium shows; he wanted to play little schoolhouses where he and Scruggs started. We played shows some nights in places where there was a wood stove in the middle of the floor to keep it warm. I loved that. It was like going back to the source."

From 1980 until 1986, Stuart worked with Johnny Cash. They met when Stuart saw Cash's phone number in a producer's address book and called to ask him to participate in a tribute to Flatt. "Cash was my man," he says. "He could sing a song about a train, and I could jump on that train and believe." Stuart was alternately and sometimes concurrently a supporting act, back-up guitarist, son-in-law, photographer, and producer.

At a precociously early age, Marty Stuart had made the transition from adoring fan to fellow performer. He didn't find it in the least upsetting that some of his idols not only had feet of clay but torsos of clay as well. "Nah, we all have feet of clay," says Stuart dismissively. "What made it all right about someone like Johnny Cash was that he was the first to admit it. When he screwed up, he'd raise his hand and say so. Guys like Cash, they were in the cotton field one day and a star the next. No one was handing out instruction books on how to do that."

The down side of being an industry kid is that Stuart has evolved in public and, unlike many of his heroes who seemed to emerge with a fully-formed style, his artistic dead-ends are on public display like a presidential nominee's old girlfriends. "It's like I started in the mail room and worked up," says Stuart, "and I do regret I've had to work it all out in front of the public because there's some embarrassing tapes that'll get released sooner or later."

Excluding an obscure 1979 album on his own label, the earliest sampling of Stuart we have is a 1982 album for Sugar Hill, recently re-released on CD. It was, as Stuart says, a back porch record. "I'd been working with Cash and I missed playing acoustic music. The most fun I'd ever had onstage in my life was with Doc and Merle Watson, so I brought in Doc and Merle, and Earl Scruggs and Johnny Cash. I knew they all loved each other." The album, Busy Bee Cafe, has a convivial feel and an almost complete absence of commercial gloss; in fact, the bass is the only electric instrument. The spiky character of Stuart's later work isn't there, but it's no youthful indiscretion either.

After Stuart left Cash, he set about hustling a major-label deal. Among the first stops was Columbia Records (now Sony Music), where he was signed by Rick Blackburn (now boss of Atlantic-Nashville). It should have been a spiritual homecoming to join Columbia because so many of Stuart's heroes, such as Cash and Flatt & Scruggs, had recorded for the label. Instead, he was confronted with the world as it is. "I thought it was the natural place for me to be, but Don Law [Columbia's head of country A&R from 1951 to 1967] wasn't there. There weren't any creative geniuses, and there wasn't any loyalty. If you're selling, you're selling--if you ain't, you're out. They gave me a quarter million dollars to learn the record industry, so I don't have any real regrets, though I wish they'd stood beside me through at least one more record. It was a good cold shower."

The Columbia deal yielded one quick hit, "Arlene," in 1986 and Stuart was touted for Next Big Thingdom. When it didn't happen, Columbia canned his second album and cast him adrift. Stuart's hard feelings aren't buried too deep, and he points out that there were five songs on the album that went on to become hits for other people: "Don't Tell Me What To Do," "Above and Beyond," "One Woman Man," "Be Careful Who You Love," and "The Great Divide."

"I turned it in, and they said it was too country. CBS will release it one day and I'll stand by it. Technically, it's not as good as the records we're making now, but you can see what I was swinging my fists trying to do."

Stuart stayed in Nashville, but went back to Mississippi periodically for a little spiritual healing and regeneration. He started working again with The Sullivans, who make the kind of country gospel music that used to appear on Starday Records about thirty years ago. Born of brush arbor meetings, the Sullivans' music has a heart-on-its-sleeve honestly and integrity that could make Megadeth walk on their knees to Lourdes. Stuart later repaid some of his debt to the Sullivans when he produced their album, A Joyful Noise, which--in the absence of Starday Records--appeared on the CMF's label in 1991. Stuart's spiritual odyssey that led him back to The Sullivans and their music was movingly recounted in his liner notes. "In 1988," he writes, "I was spiritually and emotionally burnt out. One day I found The Sullivan record I had purchased eighteen years earlier. I hadn't played it in as many years. I listened to it again and it made me feel good inside. That same day, after almost of year of no contact, Jerry Sullivan called and asked me if I might know where he could find a mandolin player to work with his group that weekend. 'Yes,' I replied. 'Me!' It was the first offer I'd had in a year and it took me back to the place where I first started playing music--the church."

Having rediscovered his spiritual center, Stuart felt more confident in mapping out his commercial direction. He had his moment of epiphany in the Country Music Hall of Fame. "I looked at Hank Snow's suits, Merle Travis' guitar, and Roy Rogers' boots, and I thought: This is where I'm comfortable. I understand this end of it. It's the bubblegum music people have been trying to get me to make that I have no passion for. I got into country music because Buck Owens made me smile and because Bill Monroe made me holler." It was then that he decided to stand or fall with his vision of Hillbilly Music.

Moments of insight like that usually founder on the nuts and bolts of following up, but Stuart has never lacked chutzpah. He bought Billboard, checked the records he liked and found that MCA's Tony Brown had produced most of them. "I knew Tony. He had been with Elvis when I was with Lester, so I called him and said I wanted to make a tape. Tony wanted to put me with Richard Bennett, which was okay with me because Richard had put the twang back into Nashville on Steve Earle's Guitar Town. The other reason I liked MCA was that they were sticking with Patty Loveless even though she hadn't had much success up to then. Artist development was real important to me because I had so much knowledge, and I needed to refine it."

The challenge that Stuart faces is to make music that's different--but won't alienate the stern God of Radio. By accident or design, Johnny Cash and all of his heroes had been different, but radio-friendly. "You must have radio and I love radio," says Stuart, "and it's okay to innovate. Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, Waylon Jennings...those people didn't break the rules so much as just kept going with them. Nobody was doing that, so somebody had to do it--and I was bored!"

Stuart is also trying to make records as "live" as possible in the age of the endless overdub and the deep six-figure studio budget. "We sure do spend a lot of time spittin' on them and buffin' them up--to make 'em sound rough!" he says. He plans to do what the stars of yore did: hone material on the road, then bring his road band into the studio and capture the feel they've worked up on the road.

It's a theme that Stuart returns to endlessly: old is new again. "It's been told to me that I spend too much time in the past," he says, "and when my future kicks in, I'll take that into consideration. In the meantime, it's been a great place to wait around, but I ain't trying to stand at the edge of town beating a drum and trying to summon Hank Williams back to the country line."

Country music's current resurgence doesn't surprise Stuart. The way at which the pop market is manipulated for the greatest gain in the shortest time invites his disdain. "Everyone's amazed that country's doing such good numbers right now, but I've been waiting on this since I was a kid. But if we don't watch it, it'll slip away from us again. When I was in the sixth grade, Johnny Cash came to Jackson, Mississippi and my mom took me to see Cash. It was like going to see the Lord. The next day I got laughed at, but now I notice at our shows with Travis Tritt that there are a lot of people under 30 years old and a lot of 'em say, 'I hated country music till I heard you or Travis or Garth Brooks.' I'm really proud to be one of those who can bring this new crop of people in, but when I've got their attention, I'm gonna play 'em 'Swinging Doors' and move them on down the trail. I'm like Tom Petty and Wynton Marsalis, carrying something forward."

Stuart attracted heavy airplay with the singles drawn from his first two MCA albums, Hillbilly Rock and Tempted, but his appearances with Travis Tritt and their duet on "The Whiskey Ain't Workin" have brought his music before more people than ever before. "When I looked at Travis' crowd, I thought they were gonna look at me like I was Roy Acuff," he says, "and even if was five years older, I don't think I could pull it off, but right now I can balance both worlds."

Stuart's attachment to country music's past is represented in one of the best-stocked private collections of hillbilly memorabilia. "Here's what I'm holding out for," he says only half jokingly. "We'll buy the Barbara Mandrell Museum across from the Country Music Hall of Fame, we'll build a walkway across, and we'll call it the Marty Stuart Wing. What I have no interest in is building a podunk tourist trap. I couldn't put Hank Williams' guitar or Johnny Horton's fishing lure into a place like that. I don't own those things. I'm in charge of them for now. I'm holding great pieces of Americana, and they need to be given back."

In general, historians make lousy musicians, tending to awkward genuflection toward to the past. Stuart is a keeper of the key, but he's a musician first--and a musician with both ears to the ground. In the studio, he and producer Richard Bennett trade references to arcane songs and thirty-year-old guitar licks, but when the RECORD button is pushed, they're very much in the here and now. Between playbacks, Stuart is as likely to tell a Grady Martin story as he is to talk about the Wal-Mart esthetic. He loves the underbelly of American culture and hillbilly glitz; witness the album credit given to his couturier, Manuel of Hollywood (successor to the late lamented Nudie). He is clearly no urban cowboy who gets the last train to Scarsdale. This is his culture. He loves it, and he's proud to be a part of it.

"The star thing," as Stuart calls it, is something different, though. He's worked for it since he was 13 but, at the same time, he says it "needs to be treated with all the irreverence it deserves. There's a difference between singers and stars. Star is a role. That happens to be what I am. I'm not a brain surgeon--I am a country star. I take it seriously--and I don't. Everywhere the bus stops, someone knows Marty, but it's real important to me that Marty stands for something."

By Paul Kingsbury

Return To Articles Return To Home Page