To The Delta He Went; Albums Flowed

This appeared in the New York Times - January 21, 2006

"For me, the 90's were about fame, fortune and hillbilly stardom," Marty Stuart said. "And there's nothing wrong with that, that's always welcome. But the roots just kept calling."

The pursuit of success seemed to be working out fine for Mr. Stuart, 47, a onetime prodigy instrumentalist who started touring with the bluegrass pioneer Lester Flatt at 13 and joined Johnny Cash's band before he turned 20. He had one platinum and five gold albums to his name, won four Grammy awards, and was a member of the Grand Ole Opry. But he was also becoming one of country music's leading archivists and spokesmen, and felt himself being drawn more strongly toward America's musical heritage.

The culmination of his quest is an ambitious trilogy of albums, all released within a six-month period: Souls' Chapel, a set of haunting gospel harmonies; a disc devoted to the stories of Native Americans called Badlands; and - coming on February 7 - Live at the Ryman, a bluegrass album recorded at "the mother church of country music." A selection of songs from all three installments, and from other stages of Mr. Stuart's career, will no doubt make a wide-ranging show tomorrow at B. B. King's in Manhattan.

The true turning point, Mr. Stuart said by telephone from Nashville, came in 1999, when he recorded an album called The Pilgrim - an all-star song cycle based on the sources of country music. "With that record, I realized that I can chase radio or I can go to my death honorably," he said. "There's the heart, and there's the chart."

But when that critically acclaimed project fell short commercially, Mr. Stuart found himself adrift. "I had trouble following The Pilgrim, " he said. "I asked Johnny Cash, as I often did about such things, 'How do you do this?' And he said, 'Once you make a record like that, you can't go back.' " And so rather than forcing the matter, Mr. Stuart returned to his native Mississippi.

"I hadn't been home since 1972," he said. "I needed to devote some time to real life, anything besides suiting up and going to work. I produced some friends' records, scored some films, wrote a book.

"You know, Jimmie Rodgers and Robert Johnson and Tammy Wynette all come from the Mississippi Delta. All the best stuff comes from here - though I'm sure if you talk to somebody from Texas, they'll tell you all the best stuff comes from there. And I realized, I can use the Mississippi Delta as a cathedral, and create whatever I want."

Mr. Stuart assembled a new band, a tight and versatile quartet he named - in a touch worthy of the stitched-and-spangled Nudie suits he favors onstage - the Fabulous Superlatives. In the summer of 2002, he put together a roots music road show that toured small towns and conceived what he now calls his "Church House Trilogy." But then sessions for the Souls' Chapel album were derailed when Mr. Stuart was arrested twice on D.U.I. charges.

"I was shamed and embarrassed," he said. "I felt pathetic, writing a message of hope and inspiration and finding myself sitting in jail."

The night after he was released, he performed in Chicago, and members of the Staple Singers came to see him backstage. Mr. Stuart had long idolized the Staples gospel dynasty and their sparse, slow-burning sound, and he had collaborated with them in 1994 for the Rhythm, Country and Blues collection. At the concert, they gave him a guitar that had belonged to the family's late patriarch, Pops Staples. "It really was a divine ordinance, like being bequeathed Excalibur," he said.

Inspired, he and the Fabulous Superlatives finished Souls' Chapel, which includes two Staples songs. Mr. Stuart, a frequent visitor to South Dakota's Pine Ridge reservation since playing a show there with Mr. Cash two decades ago, next turned his attention to the history and plight of the Native American on Badlands. "As a country performer, my mentors taught me to be a correspondent, to tell people's stories," he said.

The Ryman album, he said, was a happy accident that documented a show Mr. Stuart had thrown together at the last minute in July 2003, unaware that it was even being recorded. Appropriately, the three-disc barrage of music concludes with a freewheeling version of Mr. Stuart's signature 1989 hit, "Hillbilly Rock."

Though this trilogy is now complete, the flood of material from Mr. Stuart won't stop anytime soon. He plans an anthology of duets titled Compadres, gathering his performances alongside the likes of B. B. King, Steve Earle and Merle Haggard. Then, he said, "It's time to do a real studio album; the studio re-centers my references and rebalances me." He now has a few songs and a tentative title, Rhinestone Blues. And there is an instrumental album in the works, and another gospel album he plans to record before this leg of touring is finished, though he probably won't put that out for a few years.

For almost anyone else, this schedule would get exhausting pretty fast. But Marty Stuart has learned how to get the inspiration he needs: just head back to the Delta. "Last Sunday I went to a little black church down there," he said, "and now I'm ready to go for six more months."

By Alan Light

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