Spotlight Artist: Marty Stuart

This appeared on - May 1, 2012

John Martin “Marty” Stuart was born in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1958. His childhood was steeped in country and bluegrass music. Not only a child prodigy, but a self-taught one, he started playing guitar at the age of two and was an accomplished mandolin player by the time he reached his teens. At just 13 and already a member of gospel group the Sullivan Family, he joined the band of bluegrass legend Lester Flatt. After Flatt’s death he joined Johnny Cash’s road band, a move which was to bring him romantic as well as professional success, as in 1983 Marty married Cash’s daughter Cindy. That marriage ended in divorce after five years, but Marty remained on excellent professional terms with his former father in law.

His first two solo albums, the obscure 1979 release With A Little Help From My Friends, and 1982’s Busy Bee Cafe, were bluegrass records, and both were really side projects while his main focus was on his sidesman duties with Flatt and Cash respectively. In 1983 he left the Cash band in order to seriously pursue a solo country career, and soon signed a deal with Columbia Records. He enjoyed only modest success with Columbia, and reportedly left the label at least partly in protest when his mentor Cash was controversially dropped. The apparent collapse of his career before it had really taken off was in the end just a blip, as in 1989 Stuart signed with MCA and soon hit the top 10 of the country charts with hist first big hit, ‘Hillbilly Rock’.

The MCA years were to be the most commercially successful of Marty’s career, with a string of mainly rocking country hits, many of them self-penned. Collaborations with Travis Tritt on record, and their successful “No Hats” tour of the early 90s, helped mark Marty out from the pack of “Hat Acts” who dominated country radio at this period, and sustained Marty’s career trrough the 90s. One of several duets with Tritt, ‘The Whiskey Ain’t Working’ won CMA and Grammy® awards. In 1992 he was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, a fitting tribute for an artist with a deep love and knowledge of the genre’s heritage, and one who has made it a point over the years to collect memorabilia and photographs, which have been put on public display. He was elected President of the Country Music Foundation in 1996, a post he served until 2001. His appreciation of country music heritage saw a new venture in recent years when he started presenting The Marty Stuart Show on RFD-TV, which enabled many older and more traditional artists to find a platform, and he presents an eclectic radio show on Sirius XM, Marty Stuart’s American Odyssey.

Radio play and sales of Marty’s music began to tail off in the mid to late 90s. Moving away from the mainstream, his last record for MCA was 1999’s ambitious story/concept album The Pilgrim. This received good reviews but failed to garner radio play or much in the way of sales, and Marty left MCA. He briefly returned to Columbia for one last major label release, which failed to reignite his commercial spark. But it was moving away from mainstream success that led to Marty really making his mark artistically.

In 2005, Marty formed his own label, Superlatone, with distribution by Universal South, and released a trio of specialist albums, respectively gospel, a Native American concept album, and a live set. He also used Superlatone to publish his collection of country music photographs in his book Country Music – The Masters. A multimedia digital version of the book is also available. He later signed to bluegrass and acoustic specialists Sugar Hill for the stunning and much-laudedGhost Train.

Marty has also developed a very accomplished sideline working with other artists. He had produced a gospel album for his then boss and father in law Johnny Cash back in 1983, and music for former employers Jerry and Tammy Sullivan in the 1990s. He also produced singer-songwriter George Ducas’s debut album. His marriage, in 1997, to his childhood crush, country legend Connie Smith, led him into a more prominent second career producing – initially Connie herself, who he tempted back into the recording studio for the first time in years, and then another 60s legend, Porter Wagoner, on his final album, The Wagonmaster. He also produced Kathy Mattea’s equally critically acclaimed Coal (released on Superlatone).

We will be showcasing Marty and his music over the month of May.

By Occasional Hope

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