Spirit A Stuart Staple

This appeared in the New York Post - January 20, 2006

SOME people quit drinking after a lost weekend or a nasty barroom brawl.

For 48-year-old country singer Marty Stuart, who's partied hard since his teens, all it took was a guitar. Of course, itwasn't just any guitar.

It was Pops Staples'. The late gospel/blues legend's daughters, Mavis and Yvonne Staples, gave it to him two years ago at a Chicago show. The timing couldn't have been better.

Stuart had been arrested and jailed in a DUI incident in Tennessee only the day before.

"It was like God came to me and said, 'Put this guitar around your neck and go on,' " says the guitarist, mandolin player and singer, who was a pallbearer at Pops' funeral in 2000.

"Pops Staples' guitar around my neck is like a flashlight of truth and there's an awesome responsibility that goes with having that guitar and I don't take it lightly."

Since then, Stuart has been a man possessed, releasing three albums last year and launching his own label - Superlatone Records, part of Universal South.

"I'm having a ball right now," says Stuart, who performs at B.B. King's Blues Club on Sunday, appearing with Ricky Skaggs.

As part of his renewed mission, he finished his gospel album, Souls' Chapel, returning him to his Philadelphia, Mississippi, roots.

Next was bluegrass Live at the Ryman. Then, Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota.

Stuart's link to the Native Americans goes back to a 1983 visit to the poverty-stricken Pine Ridge Reservation as a member of Johnny Cash's band. He was so taken by the tribe's "love and integrity," he returned often, was eventually adopted into the tribe and married country singer Connie Smith there.

"I decided to tell their story," he says, knowing the album will never be a million-seller.

With chart-climbers such as "Hillbilly Rock," "Little Things" and "Tempted" under his belt, Stuart has let go of his hit-making mentality.

"The truth is, I set out to be rich and famous and be a country music singer," he says. "But how many more guitars do I need? I have a Cadillac with more than 100,000 miles on it. I married Connie Smith and I have $100 in my back pocket. I'm a rich cat. There came a point I wanted to do something more meaningful and deeper and put more substance in my work."

This year, Stuart is about to "pull the trigger" on four more albums and six photo books, and launch an exhibit culled from his warehouse of more than 20,000 country artifacts - including Johnny Cash's Air Force uniform and Hank Williams' original lyrics to "Your Cheatin' Heart."

Instead of investing in stocks and bonds, Stuart says, when he cashed his royalty checks during the hits-filled '80s and '90s, he chose to buy into a slice of American culture. "There's nothing more dangerous than a hillbilly with money," he laughs.

Of course, this hillbilly also knows there are more important things in life than money.

By Mary Huhn

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