The Superlative Marty Stuart

This appeared in Mississippi Legends Magazine - January 30, 2013

Marty Stuart is a country music anomaly. Since hitting the Billboard Top Ten for the first time in 1989, he has been the epitome of the “walking contradiction” Kris Kristofferson wrote about more than twenty years prior.

Few artists of any genre have juggled the preservation of country music’s bygone era while remaining a contemporary force in the music industry as ably as Stuart. He is a singer, a songwriter, a musician, a historian, a producer, a photographer and a former president of the Country Music Foundation.

Oddly, his formative education didn’t encourage the boy who would one day become a country music legend.

“I got called down by my history teacher for reading a country music magazine in class,” Stuart remembers. “She knocked it out of my hand and told me that if I ever wanted to be anything in life, I needed to keep my mind off of ‘that trash’ and pay attention to my history lesson. Being the smart ass that I was, I told her that I’d rather make history than learn about it.”

Stuart couldn’t have possibly known how prophetic those words would be. Music has always stirred something in his soul.

“My first memory is me being in my mom’s arms,” Stuart says. “Church bells were ringing in the distance, and I started crying. I didn’t know why I was crying and neither did she. My next memory is this ragged backwoods circus coming down the streets of Philadelphia. I was standing on the edge of the porch and watching it go past. A high school marching band was part of the parade, and when it passed, I started crying. There was just something about music that I felt and was moved by.”

Since his birth on September 30, 1958, in Philadelphia, Stuart says he cannot remember a time in his life that he wasn’t obsessed with music, particularly country music.

“I was 5 years old when I got my first records. They were Meet the Beatles, The Fabulous Johnny Cash and Flatt & Scruggs’ Greatest Hits. I gave away the Beatles album to a friend and kept the Cash and Flatt & Scruggs.”

He taught himself how to play guitar and mandolin by mimicking sounds from the record player. His biggest influences were Lester Flatt, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and Pops Staples. By age 12, Stuart was performing on the road with the bluegrass band, The Sullivans, playing during summer months then returning to Philadelphia for school.

“When it was over, it felt like the circus dropped me off and forgot about me,” he says. “I was back in school and bored to tears.” Then, he received an invitation to spend the Labor Day weekend with Roland White, whom Stuart had met on the road with The Sullivans. At the time, White played guitar and mandolin in Flatt’s backing band, The Nashville Grass.

“So I took the bus from Philadelphia, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee. They let me sit in with them at a gig in Delaware.” After hearing me play, Lester Flatt asked if I’d like to join the band permanently. That weekend visit turned into several years.”

White took a 14-year-old Stuart under his wing and served as one of his mentors for the next six years. While on the road with Flatt, Stuart found himself having access to musicians he had previously only read about in magazines.

“They were all very open people who shared their music with me. I was very fortunate to be surrounded by the masters and to be able to learn from them,” he says. “It’s something that I’ve always tried to do myself whenever I meet young musicians. That’s part of the beauty of Southern musicians. If you go to a bluegrass festival, there is so much camaraderie between the older and younger musicians. It’s beautiful. It happens a lot at Mississippi blues festivals as well. And gospel shows. A lot of times, there’s as much magic in the parking lot as there is on the stage.”

It was during this time that Stuart became interested in photography and began the collection that would comprise his two books, Pilgrims: Sinners, Saints, and Prophets and Country Music: The Masters. Stuart’s skill as a photographer might have been learned from his mother, Hilda Stuart, who in September 2012 released her critically acclaimed book of photos Choctaw Gardens.

“My mom has always been my favorite photographer,” he says. “I used to study her photos. I first became interested in taking pictures in ’74. I was on tour with Lester Flatt, and we were in New York City for a gig at New York University. I went to a bookstore in the village, and at the top of the wall there were framed photographs taken by Milt Hinton, who was a jazz musician from Mississippi. They were fantastic pictures: Billie Holiday, Dizzie Gillespie, Cab Calloway, Sarah Vaughan. They reminded me of my mom’s pictures. They were important in documenting an important part of our culture. They say whenever you saw Milt, he had a camera in one hand and his bass case in the other. This got me thinking about my new life and everything that I was experiencing. So I called my mom and asked her if she would send me a camera. She sent me a Kodak Instamatic, and I terrorized everyone who would stand still long enough for me to take a picture. I took pictures on tour, backstage, at truck stops, playing cards. It was history in motion.”

In 1978, a year before his death, Flatt disbanded The Nashville Grass. Stuart spent a few years doing session work and playing with Vassar Clements and Doc Watson before he got his next big gig playing in Johnny Cash’s band. In 1982, he released his first major solo album on Sugar Hill Records, Busy Bee Café. The bluegrass album had the feel of an informal jam session.

“I just called up Gary Paczosa one day. He was the head of Sugar Hill Records. I called him up and told him that I had a lot of ideas and that I wanted to make a record. He told me that he was into it and that they would put the record out. When I hung up the phone, I immediately thought ‘Uh-oh, now I’ve got to come up with something.’ I didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t have any ideas. I didn’t even have a band. Because I was playing with Cash at the time, I knew that I didn’t even have a way to tour behind the album. So I called up a bunch of my picking buddies: Johnny Cash, Doc Watson, Merle Watson, Jerry Douglas, Carl Jackson. We just went in there and knocked it out.”

The album was a critical success but a commercial failure. The following year, Stuart married Johnny Cash’s daughter, Cindy, to whom he stayed married until 1988.

Three years earlier, Stuart had decided to pursue a solo career and left Cash’s band. He signed with Columbia Records, Cash’s label, and released a self-titled album. The album contained one Top 20 Billboard Country hit with “Arlene,” but was otherwise relatively unsuccessful, despite containing performances from rockabilly legend Duane Eddy.

Stuart recorded the follow-up Let There Be Country, which featured performances by Emmylou Harris, Warren Haynes and Ralph Mooney, but Columbia refused to release the album and Stuart was subsequently dropped from the label.

Without a record and now divorced, Stuart left Nashville and returned to Mississippi, where he rejoined the Sullivans. In 1989, he was offered a contract from MCA Records and decided to give Nashville another try, where his release “Hillbilly Rock” was a commercial breakthrough. The title track became Stuart’s first Top 10 hit on the Billboard Country Charts, and the album got rave reviews from critics, eventually going gold.

“I had to find my own identity; a new sound and a new look. It was about emerging from the shadows of the giants that I had been playing with. In finding myself, I found out that I was different. Country music was at a point where it was trying to figure out what to do. My goal was to get young people interested in country music, so I mixed traditional country with half-assed rock ‘n’ roll. I found a happy compromise between that heart, soul and spirit and something commercial.”

Stuart also began working on his image.

“I was at an event once, and a limo pulls up next to me. The headlights went out and the chauffeur gets out of the car and stands outside of the back door. He stands there until the marquee lights come up, and then he opens the door and Little Richard steps out. I was mesmerized. He looked like a star. The way he was dressed, his hair, the way he made his entrance. It put me in the mind of Porter Wagoner and all of the rhinestone cowboys from country music’s past. It’s a form of art, and it should not be forgotten. I just told myself, ‘If you’re going to be in show business, then you have to be in show business. And that’s more than just the music. You need to be the entire package.’”

Stuart released Tempted, his second album on MCA, in 1991. Reaching even bigger success, the release spawned three Top 10 singles: “Tempted,” “Burn Me Down,” and “Little Things.” He also released the first of many collaborations with Travis Tritt with the No. 2 hit “The Whiskey Ain’t Working.” The following year, Stuart and Tritt released another Top 10 single with “This One’s Gonna Hurt You (For a Long, Long Time).”

In 1991, Stuart and Tritt went on the road together for the No Hats Tour, which was a slight jab at the current crop of mainstream country artists who had been referred to collectively as “hat acts.” The Stuart/Tritt teaming was similar to the pairing of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings in the 1970s in a number of ways. Not only was their music and image different from their contemporaries but also from each other, which made the pairing even more interesting. While Stuart’s image and sound owed a lot to the glittery country stars of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Tritt had more in common with bluesy Southern rockers like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Hank Williams Jr.

In 1994, Stuart released Love and Luck, which contained almost exclusively material written or co-written by Stuart along with covers of songs by Slim Harpo, Billy Joe Shaver and the Flying Burrito Brothers, revealing the artist’s diversity.

That same year, he participated in the Rhythm, Country and Blues project which paired country artists like George Jones, Tanya Tucker and Lyle Lovett with blues and R&B artists like B.B. King, Little Richard and Al Green. For the project, Stuart was paired with his heroes, The Staple Singers. The album peaked at No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart and No. 15 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart.

“I don’t know who came up with the idea for that project, but it was a stroke of genius. It really illustrated that these two art forms come from the same place. Listen to Hank Williams and George Jones and then listen to Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters – there isn’t a nickel’s worth of difference. A couple of years later, I recorded ‘Confessin’ the Blues’ with B.B. for his ‘Deuces Wild’ album, and it was the same thing. Even though it might seem like we’re coming from different musical spectrums, the moment we sat down and started playing guitar, it was like we’d been playing together all our lives.”

The collaboration with the Staple Singers also sparked what would become a lifelong friendship between Stuart and the Staples family.

“I had never met them before that, but I immediately fell in love with them. It was like we became instant family. Pops and I talked on a regular basis until the day he died. Johnny Cash was a mentor to me in many ways, but Pops was the one I would always go to. I never did anything major without calling him and consulting him first. When he died, Mavis and Yvonne gave me that rosewood Telecaster he always played. I call it Excalibur. That thing is like a staff. It doesn’t want to play rock, and it doesn’t want to play country. It won’t play anything but gospel music.”

Stuart married country music legend Connie Smith in 1997 and the following year he produced Smith’s first album since her having gone into semi-retirement 20 years earlier. In addition to producing the self-titled release, he also co-wrote eight of the 10 songs on the album with Smith.

“Connie came to me one day and said, ‘All of my kids are out the door and have found their own place in the world. I think I’m ready to sing again and make a record.’ I was honored that she asked me to produce it. She knew that I understood her sound, and I knew that she wouldn’t be willing to compromise it. We just started writing songs, and the whole thing just came together perfectly. Warner Brothers offered her a contract without us even trying. After that record, it was 13 years before she would record another one. She doesn’t move until all of the stars are lined up. She’s a rebel that way. Connie doesn’t have to play by anyone else’s rules. She’s one of the masters. You have Connie, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly, Tammy Wynette - and then everyone else.”

Stuart closed out the decade by releasing his final album for MCA, The Pilgrim, a departure from his norm. Written entirely by Stuart, it is a concept album that tells the story of a man from Philadelphia and his love for a woman named Rita. Stuart plays the title character. The album also features a number of notable guests, including Emmylou Harris, Pam Tillis, George Jones, Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs and Johnny Cash. For the first time in his career, Stuart wasn’t concerned with having a hit single.

“That album was where I drew the line. It was self-produced. I didn’t listen to what anybody else thought. I just listened to my heart,” he says. “It truly is amazing what can happen when you stop following the charts and you start following your heart. You’ll always end up at the right place. I felt like it was my responsibility as a musical artist to put out music that really meant something to me.”

The album was a critical success, with many reviewers calling it his best work. Despite receiving almost universal acclaim, The Pilgrim failed to produce a hit single. It would be four years before Stuart released another album, 2003’s Country Music. For that album he assembled a new band dubbed The Fabulous Superlatives, with whom he is still recording and touring.

“I’ve been in bands since I was 9 years old, so when I say that this is the band of a lifetime, I know what I’m talking about. You can throw anything at this band. Not only is everyone a great musician, but everybody in the group can also take charge and sing. It really is an amazing band.”

For the 2005 release of Souls’ Chapel, Stuart formed his own imprint, Superlatone Records. The album, Stuart’s exploration of Southern gospel music, was another critical masterpiece. With The Fabulous Superlatives receiving equal billing on this and subsequent releases, Stuart has made it clear he is no longer concerned with playing the chart game.

Stuart stepped into the role of producer once again in 2007, when he went into the studio to work with Porter Wagoner on what turned out to be his final album, Wagonmaster.

“This is one of my favorites. I knew that Porter needed one more great record. He needed to make one more classic album to end his career with to take him into the next world with dignity. I got together The Superlatives, we went into the studio with Porter, and it was just magic. We got turned down by every record label in Nashville. Eventually ANTI-Records in Los Angeles picked the record up, and suddenly Porter was a star again. It restored his place as a cultural icon of traditional country music. One of the most amazing moments for us was acting as Porter’s backing band when he opened for the White Stripes in a sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden. The crowd loved him. And he did it without compromising who he was or his musical approach.”

Wagonmaster received massively popular critical reception, with many noting the sympathetic backing of The Fabulous Superlatives and the no-nonsense production style of Stuart. Critics compared it to the brilliant series of American Recordings albums that Rick Rubin produced with Johnny Cash. Unlike those albums, however, Stuart didn’t have Wagoner perform covers of alternative rock songs or superstar duets.

In 2008, Stuart became the host of his own country music-based variety show, The Marty Stuart Show. Sponsored by Mississippi Tourism, the show is a throwback to the country music variety shows of the 1960s.

“The show has become a theater for me. I have 20,000 pieces in my treasure collection of country music artifacts. Guitars, outfits, you name it. It’s the largest collection of country music memorabilia in the world. The show provides me with a vehicle to share some of those items with the world. It also helps me keep traditional country music alive. For a while now, this music has been in danger. It needs to be loved and championed. It is a true American art form, and it needs be revered. My goal is to further the genre well into the 21st Century.”

The Marty Stuart Show is currently in its fifth season covering 108 episodes. The new season began in January featuring artists like Ricky Scaggs, Charley Pride, Sheryl Crow, Merle Haggard and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot.

Stuart’s career came to a full-circle of sorts when he moved his Superlatone label to Sugar Hill Records.

“I felt like I owed them a good record because the first one I recorded for them was so bad,” Stuart jokes. “So far I’ve given them two good ones. I used to have a checklist of musicians that I wanted to work with. I woke up one day and realized that the checklist was full. I’ve been surrounded by so many masters.”

Despite having lived in Tennessee for the better portion of his career, Stuart returns to Mississippi regularly and has never failed to sing its praises.

“No other state has done what Mississippi has done. It is truly unparalleled in what has come from that state artistically. Country music, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, gospel. So much has started there. One of my missions has been to tell the story. There’s a quote that Mississippi always ends up at the bottom of the right lists and at the top of the wrong lists. It does not deserve that reputation. Mississippi has the nicest people you will ever find on the planet. I’m proud to be a Mississippian.”

By Stephen Corbett
Photographs by James Edward Bates

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