The Art Of Being Superlative

A closer look

This appeared in the Lakes Region Weekly - October 15, 2008

The first question one might ask Marty Stuart is whether there is anyone he has not performed or recorded with since his career began nearly 40 years ago.

The second question might be whether there is anyone he has not photographed in that time.

Stuart, 50, who will play shows Friday and Saturday at the Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield, played mandolin in Lester Flatt’s band the Nashville Grass when he was 13. One of his first shows with Flatt also featured the Eagles and Emmylou Harris on the bill.

By the time he was 22, the native of Philadelphia, Mississippi, was playing guitar in Johnny Cash’s backup band.

After scoring Top 10 hits on his own in the ‘80s, he and country western star Travis Tritt toured in the mid ‘90s. When not on tour, Stuart was recording with the gospel legends the Staples Singers, actor Billy Bob Thornton and contributing to tribute compilations for Cash, Buddy Holly and country swing bandleader Bob Wills.

With a gospel album, Souls' Chapel, his most recent recorded work in 2005, Stuart promised the audience at Stone Mountain they would hear at least 10 new songs interspersed with hits like “Tempted” or “This One’s Gonna Hurt You.”

Stuart's band, the Fabulous Superlatives, includes drummer Harry Stinson, who has played with 1970s stars Peter Frampton and Al Stewart and blues singer Etta James; guitarist and singer Paul Martin, who scored pop and country hits with Exile from the late ‘70s through the ‘90s; and guitarist Kenny Vaughan, who cites guitarists Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck as influences and has played with country acts such as Patty Loveless.

“It’s all about the casting,” Stuart said about the band lineup. “Sometimes it is more interesting to duck in and out of the spotlight.”

Getting hired by Flatt at 13 gave Stuart a deep appreciation for taking chances with his own band members and encouraging talent to push out, even if it diminishes his own shadow.

“What else did Flatt have to prove? He gave me a shot and showed me there is power in passing the ball around the table,” said Stuart during a phone interview from the road.

Shortly after joining Cash’s band in 1980, Stuart married Cash’s daughter, Cindy. At the time, Cash’s daughter Rosanne was married to songwriter Rodney Crowell, and June Carter Cash’s daughter, Carlene, from her first marriage, was married to roots rocker Nick Lowe.

“It made for some interesting Thanksgiving dinners,” said Stuart about the marriages and collaborations. “June Carter used to say she wanted to record with all her ex-sons-in-law.”

Working with Johnny Cash and being a part of the family as profoundly affected Stuart. Between Cash and his wife June Carter Cash ran a musical tradition stretching back to the late 1920s when the Carter Family began recording country music.

“Fearless creativity is what I drew from him,” Stuart said about Cash. “It didn’t matter if it sold three copies or drew four people, he kept walking and followed his heart.”

Stuart acknowledged the walk might sometimes become a stumble, as Cash and Stuart’s contemporaries Steve Earle and Keith Whitley all struggled with drug and alcohol problems. Whitley lost his fight, dying from excessive alcohol consumption in 1989. Earle served time in prison because of his heroin addiction. Cash was addicted to alcohol and pills.

Earle's first recording when released from prison was with Stuart as they joined together on the tribute recording for Buddy Holly.

“We are all between our spirituality and our demons,” said Stuart, while conceding, “I have the battle marks from my own demons.”

In 1986, Stuart earned his first solo acclaim with the release of Marty Stuart. The success of the album placed him in the ranks of emerging country stars Dwight Yoakam, Randy Travis and Earle. But before the decade was through, he was locked in a fight with recording label Columbia over the release of Let There Be Country, which paid homage to the roadhouse sounds pioneered by the late Buck Owens in Bakersfield, Calif.

By the time the CD was released, Stuart had switched to MCA and scored a huge hit with the Hillbilly Rock, album and then teamed up with Travis Tritt on “The Whiskey Ain’t Working.”

By then, Stuart was known for the embroidered jackets and pompadour hairstyle he features now, and he and Tritt called the tour the No Hats Tour to accentuate the lack of polish for their raw sound.

At about the time Stuart joined Cash’s band, he began collecting artifacts, buying the instruments and clothing worn and played by country music stars.

“This was a strand of American culture that was being disregarded,” said Stuart. “I didn’t see that the story should be breached.”

Portions of his collection will go on display at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland October 30, as Sparkle & Twang, Marty Stuart’s Musical Odyssey. Collecting more than 20,000 items makes it hard to declare one or two as favorites, but Stuart said getting the first black suit Cash wore on stage in the mid-‘50s and lyrics for Hank Williams’ songs written in pencil and never recorded strengthened his devotion as much as being part of the Cash family or the Nashville Grass.

“The lyrics or guitars or costumes are art with a simplicity and authenticity that will not go away or out of style,” Stuart said of his collection,

Stuart’s contributions to the culture surpass collecting. Since he was 14, he has been photographing musicians and singers backstage or away from the bright lights. A collection of the portraits in Country Music – The Masters, was recently released.

On the cover of the book is a picture of Cash taken four days before he died in 2003. Stuart said he whispered to Cash, who was confined to a wheelchair, and Cash gathered himself before the shutter snapped.

“I saw an old president or old chief – it was like shooting a picture of Geronimo,” said Stuart.

The shows at Stone Mountain mark the third appearance for Stuart and his band, a house favorite, according to owner Carol Noonan.

The love is returned by Stuart, who appreciates Noonan’s years as a traveling singer songwriter and the venue she and husband Jeff Flagg opened behind their home in August 2006.

“Whatever she wants me to do, the answer is ‘yes’,” Stuart said of Noonan.

By David Harry

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