Marty Stuart: An Emerging Country Historian

This appeared in the LA Chronicle - April 4, 2006

If you could project Marty Stuart's mind onto a screen, it would probably look like a night shot of Las Vegas during a power surge. The man never stops thinking. Lately, the 47-year-old former wunderkind has been riding a volcanic burst of creativity. Besides his usual performances, Stuart, who owns a private collection of more than 20,000 Country Music artifacts, is also working on four albums and six books.

Early in 2005, Stuart established Superlatone Records with the backing of Universal South Records. The first product of that alliance was released in August, Souls' Chapel, a collection of gospel tunes, six of which he wrote or co-wrote. The album, produced by Stuart, features his backing band the Fabulous Superlatives consisting of bassist Brian Glenn, drummer Harry Stinson and guitarist Kenny Vaughan.

Then in October came Badlands, a heartfelt cry on behalf of the American Indian, a project for which Stuart supplied all the songs but one and co-produced with John Carter Cash. On February 7, 2006, Superlatone released Live At The Ryman, a bluegrass album featuring two of Stuart's compositions, "The Whiskey Ain't Workin' Anymore" and "Hillbilly Rock" plus a mixture of bluegrass chestnuts including "Orange Blossom Special."

The Mississippi native plans to release four more CDs in 2006. These include another gospel record, a compilation of duets he's recorded throughout 20 years, a collection titled Mississippi and another called Country Boy Rock 'N' Roll.

"My whole thing about it is that when creativity comes, you must bottle it and go with it," Stuart said. "I've gone seasons where it's totally dry, and God didn't have a word to say. But it seems like He's talking a lot with me right now, and I'm happy to be the recipient of it."

Tony Brown, who jointly heads Universal South with Tim DuBois, said he believes that Stuart's artistry will pay off. "I think people forget that when Marty and I were doing records together at MCA, we sold close to 4 million records with him," Brown said. "Marty, now that Cash has passed on, carries on that same kind of artistic integrity. He's a treasure and a musicologist. He knows more about the Grand Ole Opry and about musicians and about instruments than probably anybody else that's ever been in the Country Music industry."

Brown believes Stuart has the same clear artistic vision that enabled producer T Bone Burnett to create the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, a work that reminded Country Music of its roots while selling 7 million copies.

Books in the pipeline include Long Journey Home, a photo documentary by Bill Thorup, who's been shadowing Stuart since the early 1980s, and for which Stuart will write the text; Blue Line Hot Shots, Stuart's pictures of "eccentric characters on the backroads;" Country Music: The Masters, which covers the "golden era" of Country Music that Stuart began photographing when he was 13; Signs Of Our Times, pictures of church signs across America with "snappy sayings on them;" The Marty Stuart Collection, photos of some of the singer's most remarkable music memorabilia; and Badlands, portraits of the Lakota Sioux and their surroundings on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

There was a time, Stuart said, when all he wanted to be was a Country singer who wore a cowboy suit, picked three-chord tunes and kept his thoughts to himself.

"But it didn't work out that way for me," he admitted. "My brain was so diverse and my interests were so diverse and my trails seemed to be so eclectic . I just finally said one day, 'You know, I'm going to go with this. I don't care where it takes me. Whoever can keep up, fine; whoever can't, see you later.' It's a blessing and a curse at the same time."

As much of the world knows by now, Stuart turned professional at 13, when he began touring with Flatt. He subsequently worked with Johnny Cash and Doc Watson before going solo. But he was never just a simple troubadour. He also produced other acts, wrote movie scores and systematically enlarged his collection of Country Music memorabilia.

"It started in my bedroom in Mississippi when I was a kid with Country Song Roundup (magazines) and a picture of Bill Monroe," he explained. "Bill Monroe gave me his mandolin pick the first time I ever met him, way before I came to Nashville. . I carried it to school with me every day. It was like having kryptonite in my pocket. So that started it. When I got up here (to Nashville), they would send most of my paycheck from Lester Flatt home. I got to keep like $30 a week to eat on. I'd usually take about $5 of that $30 and go to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop. I really went crazy about collecting in the early '80s."

Stuart numbers among his treasures Hank Williams' handwritten lyrics to "I Saw The Light," "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "Cold Cold Heart." He owns one of Cash's guitars and the original lyrics to "Folsom Prison Blues," Jimmie Rodgers' railroad lantern (a gift from late Grand Ole Opry star Hank Snow), and boots worn by Gene Autry, Patsy Cline and Bob Wills. He has Cline's makeup case, along with her hand-drawn design - never sent - for a dress she wanted the famous tailor Nudie to make for her.

To the great misfortune of Country fans, many of Stuart's finest "acquisitions" exist only in his memory. They include working with Cash, Andy Griffith and Monroe, in the twilight of their lives and discovering to his delight that their creativity still burned brightly.

"When I'd go visit Monroe in the hospital," Stuart recalled, "I'd stick his hat on his head. He couldn't play anymore. And I'd take his mandolin, and we'd sing 'I'm Workin' On A Building.' He'd just mouth the tenor. But he went out of this world swingin', and he wrote mandolin tunes up to the day he couldn't play anymore. I recorded with Johnny Cash four days after June was buried. John Carter called me and said, 'Daddy wants to go to work.' I said, 'Great, I'll be there.' I recorded with him until just moments before he passed away."

Having concluded "the world don't need another Christmas album," Stuart had to be coaxed into producing The Christmas Guest CD for Griffith. But he agreed out of respect to visit the television icon at his home in North Carolina. "We were just kind of sitting around a table. I had a guitar, and he was going through some hymn books singing Christmas songs. Right before the meeting let up, I said, 'Is there anything you always wanted to do that nobody would let you do?' He said, 'Yes. It's a spoken word piece called 'The Juggler' (that) I've carried around in my briefcase since I was a young man.' He got it out, and immediately I was in. He talks better than most people sing. . He's relentless."

Although demonstrably self-confident, Stuart confessed that he still hasn't figured out what his place in Country Music will be. "I wonder if I even matter," he said with almost scholarly detachment. "I really wonder that sometimes - because I don't chase the charts anymore. It's more about the soul and the spirit than it is about chasing the game."

But don't let this sober assessment fool you. Stuart already knows he's a winner. "I feel like I'm at the most rewarding place I've ever been in my life," he said. "I got the prettiest girl in town (his wife, singer Connie Smith). I've got a guitar. I've got a pair of boots and a cowboy hat and a Cadillac. So there you go."

By Edward Morris

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