Marty Stuart Keeps Busy Preserving Traditional Music

This appeared in the News Observer - March 7, 2013

Marty Stuart may be the hardest-working man in Nashville. Or at least the most productive.

As if hosting the weekly Marty Stuart Show on RFD-TV wasn’t demanding enough, Stuart is finishing work on two photography books; three CDs of instrumental, country, and gospel music; writing songs with his wife, Connie Smith, for her next album; and establishing a country music museum in his hometown, Philadelphia, Mississippi to house his extensive collection of country music artifacts and archives.

Still, Stuart has time to tour with his Fabulous Superlatives, the aptly named band he will bring with him to The Clayton Center on Saturday.

A five-time Grammy-winner, Stuart’s projects are united by a common goal: Preserving and promoting traditional music as envisioned by such icons as Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Porter Wagoner, and his former father-in-law, the late Johnny Cash.

“I can feel things moving, I can feel things changing for the culture [of country music],” Stuart says when asked about his efforts. “I feel we’ve not only preserved it, but we’re also doing something to further it into this century. All in all, I feel really good about it.”

Stuart, 54, has been performing and promoting the music since age 13, when he joined Lester Flatt’s Nashville Grass. One of country music’s most fervent ambassadors, Stuart’s efforts are bolstered by his television show. In its fifth season, Stuart hosts veteran and younger performers, backed by the Superlatives and legendary studio session musicians. Recent shows featured Hall of Fame singer Charley Pride, new artist Brandy Clark, pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, and, of course, Connie Smith.

Ironically, Stuarts’ creative surge began after country radio pulled the plug on his records. After a period of self-doubt and depression, he realized he could use the freedom to pursue other interests.

“When commercial country radio quit playing my records, I felt miserable and that didn’t get me anywhere except depressed,” he says. “When all those props I had depended on … in Nashville for over a decade weren’t there anymore, I found myself in the weeds.

“I thought, ‘Well, I can go the way of the buffalo and be a has-been and caricature of myself, or I can follow my heart and see where it takes me. So I think it was like starting in the middle of the wilderness.”

Stuart began by assembling a band that shared his vision. He recruited acclaimed guitarist Kenny Vaughan, drummer and session pro Harry Stinson, and bassist Paul Martin, formerly with Exile.

“I knew if I got the music right – the creative part right – the rest would follow,” Stuart says. “From the first rehearsal on I knew I had something to work with. We have tried to not compromise, to do what we’ve believed in and stayed away from the rest of it and became fierce toward what we believed in.

“These guys are statesmen. Not just as musicians, but as men. We call it our ‘grown-up band.’ The only thing left to prove for any of us is integrity. That’s a beautiful way to start a band. We have never had one cross word between us. We talk it out, we pray it out, shake hands on it and go to work. Everybody’s pulling in the same direction.”

Throughout his career, Stuart has witnessed the ebb and flow of country music from vinyl to digital, from the pop-flavored Urban Cowboy fad, to the New Traditionalist Movement of Randy Travis and Alan Jackson, and the country rock favored by today’s commercial radio. His own career peaked in the early ’90s with hits such as “Tempted,” “High on a Mountain Top,” and “This One’s Gonna Hurt You (For a Long, Long Time”), a top-ten duet with Travis Tritt.

Recent CDs – Ghost Train, Live at the Ryman, and the gospel album, Souls’ Chapel, all with the Fabulous Superlatives, have earned critical raves and new fans, while reconnecting Stuart with his earlier followers.

Stuart is pleased that country music has gone mainstream, as witnessed by its presence in the national media. But the music itself seems to have lost its identity, as the nature of America itself has changed.

“The thing I loved about traveling when I was a kid, and the country music I joined up with, is that it was all about individuality and character. Whether it was about the cast of country music or the faces of America in one small town after another.

“When I ride around in the bus these days, it’s the same town everywhere I go. It’s the same set of box stores. And when I turn on country radio, I don’t know who’s singing or who’s playing. It’s all about homogenization. I think that’s what’s happening.”

An important focus of Stuart’s mission is to see that younger musicians know about the past, know the artists and their traditions, and find a way to blend the classics with the sounds and concerns of their own generation.

“I think the most important thing for the likes of me and my peers is to make sure that traditional country music makes it into the hands of young people. And to make sure they know there’s a future for it, it’s not dead.

“There is still a handful of old-timers left -the old kings and queens. We have to make sure that they make it home safely and warm. The next part of the job is to make sure the young ones get it in their hands and their hearts.”

By Jack Bernhardt

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