A Party With Marty: Memorial Day Weekend Swings Into High Gear As Mr. Stuart Comes To Town

This appeared in The Maryville Daily Times - May 25, 2011

Nashville can be a cruel vixen, and no artist knows that better than country star Marty Stuart.

With a pedigree of authenticity unrivalled by his peers — how many other country icons in the 1990s could boast of growing up alongside such luminaries as Lester Flatt and Roland White? — Stuart courted that fickle city with all the aplomb of a Lothario lifted from one of his songs. He was faithful, he was giving, he was everything a good man should be.

And in the end, none of it mattered. Like a lot of guys who have found their way to Music City’s boudoir, Stuart woke up one morning to find his woman had moved on to younger stars with plenty of bank account-padding potential.

“In 1999, I’d had about a 12-year run of huge commercial success, and it got to be where I was getting up every morning and chasing the same 2-1/2 minute wonder down Music Row,” Stuart told The Daily Times during a recent phone interview. “When that started fading, I found myself having gone from leading a parade in my own mind to chasing everybody else’s parade, and that didn’t quite work.”

Instead of drowning himself in a liquor bottle or settling for the leftovers from Nashville’s table, playing $10 greatest-hits shows at out-of-the-way honky tonks across the American South, Stuart went back to the drawing board. After all, he’d been fending for himself since he started playing bluegrass with The Sullivans at the age of 12. If there’s one thing his experience in life has taught him, it’s perseverance.

When he was 14, White invited Stuart on stage at a gig in Delaware to perform with Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass; the young self-taught guitarist and mandolin player so impressed White that he invited Stuart to join the band full time, and he remained a part of Flatt’s team until 1978. After Flatt stepped out of the limelight due to failing health, Stuart studied under a number of roots music masters — Vassar Clements and Doc Watson, to name a few, before joining Johnny Cash’s backing band in 1980.

Although he released a couple of solo albums during that period, it wasn’t until he cut 1986’s self-titled Columbia Records debut that he started to turn heads in Nashville. “Arlene” was a minor hit, but a dispute with Columbia derailed the album’s follow-up, and Stuart briefly rejoined White as a fiddle player before giving Nashville another go. That time, he struck gold.

MCA Records released “Hillbilly Rock” in 1989, and the next year it produced two Top 20 hits, including a Top 10 with the title track. So began a string of singles that put Stuart in a league of up-and-coming country artists touted as new traditionalists — guys like Randy Travis, Vince Gill and Travis Tritt. Stuart never enjoyed the mega-sales of some of his contemporaries, however, and by the late 1990s, he had fallen off the country music radar almost altogether.

“I had one last effort for MCA, and after that, regardless of its success, I knew a decision would have to be made,” he said. “The Pilgrim (released in 1999) was the line in the dirt. It started me down a whole different world. It bombed commercially, but it still stands as one of the works I’m proudest of.

“I tried one more time (with 2003’s Country Music) to make an artsy record that balanced out trying to chase the Music Row thing, and at that point, I just threw the gauntlet down. I said I was going to go for it regardless, and in my opinion, ever since it’s been the happiest days of my life and the most meaningful music I’ve ever made.”

For starters, he launched his own label, Superlatone Records. Country Music had been credited to Stuart and his band, The Fabulous Superlatives, and on his own imprint, he did everything from a gospel album to a record that paid tribute to Sioux culture. He launched his own half-hour cable program, The Marty Stuart Show, for one season — highlighting traditional country music and giving himself, his band and his wife (country artist Connie Smith) a platform on which to play — and he produced Wagonmaster, country icon Porter Wagoner’s final studio album.

In other words, Stuart showed Nashville that he didn’t need her and that he’d be just fine without her. And like most guys who choose self-improvement over self-flagellation in the wake of a painful parting, Stuart has again turned Music City’s head. He’s not being courted for big record contracts or country-pop stardom, but he’s a darling of the younger set and respected by the suits once again. And he continues to do things his own way.

“We filed our mark with country music,” he said. “I stuck my sword in the dirt and said, ‘This is where we’ll stand.’ It serves a certain segment of the audience, and I know the country music I’m making doesn’t apply to everybody. By skill and craft I could go out and be a part of what’s popular, but by way of heart, that’s not really where I’m at.

“Country music’s umbrella is pretty broad; if you go all the way back to the Bristol sessions, you’ll hear there’s something for everybody in there. To me, the empowering force of country music still matters and will continue to matter after the poppy end of it goes away and loses its charm. The traditional element, the roots of country music — that really is my leaning. It just amounted to getting back in my own skin and doing it again.”

By Steve Wildsmith

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