The Shepherd Of The Opry

This appeared in the News & Observer - January 4, 2008

These are busy times for Marty Stuart.

In the past year, country music's Renaissance Man released his acclaimed CD, Compadres; produced an album of coal mining songs for Kathy Mattea; published a book, Historic Photos of the Grand Ole Opry: Ryman Auditorium 1974, with Nashville photographer Jim McGuire; launched a record-breaking exhibit of his collection of country music artifacts at the Tennessee State Museum; hosted his weekly Marty Stuart's American Odyssey show on XM Radio; and toured the country with his excellent band, the Superlatives.

Yet, in the midst of all these achievements, Stuart was deeply saddened by the death in October of his friend and fellow Grand Ole Opry star, Porter Wagoner. Wagoner, who was 80, had hosted the Grand Ole Opry in his rhinestone-ornamented suits and carefully coifed pompadour. His hits included the classic "A Satisfied Mind." He was diagnosed with lung cancer in early October; within weeks, he was dead.

Stuart produced Wagoner's last album, the superb Wagonmaster, and the two had scheduled several concerts this year, including Thursday's PineCone show at Meymandi Concert Hall. Stuart will perform a solo acoustic set; bluegrass superstar Doyle Lawson and his band, Quicksilver, will assume Wagoner's place on the double bill.

"I went on the road with the Superlatives and said, 'I'll see you in a couple of weeks,' " Stuart recalls. "[Porter] appeared fine when I left. When I came home, I went over to work with him and I could tell something was terribly wrong. ... About two weeks after that, he was gone.

"There was a series of events where there was just going to be the two of us on stools where I just presented him and his stories and songs and his rhinestones. It really was a magical evening. I was looking forward to doing a couple of those shows with him this year, but ..."

In May, Wagoner celebrated his 50th year as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. His passing leaves open the question of who will fill his very large cowboy boots as the Opry's elder spokesman. As Nashville's perennial tug-of-war continues to pit young, rock-edged country music against its traditional roots, Stuart believes the Opry should be guided by artists who can walk the line comfortably, with a boot in both worlds.

One would be hard-pressed to find an artist more suited than Stuart to help shepherd the Opry through the first decades of the new millennium. Stuart and his wife, the legendary Connie Smith, are members of the Opry cast, appearing frequently on the show as emcees and performers.

"I think the deeper responsibility falls to me and to Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Patty Loveless, Alison Krauss," he says. "Connie ... seems to be the emergent Queen Mother. Those are the ones I see who have a huge heart for the Opry and what it stands for. To me, the essential thing is to keep the family of country music together."

Stuart's career has carried him into the worlds of bluegrass, gospel and mainstream country.

As a precocious 12-year-old, Stuart left his home in Philadelphia, Mississippi and performed with the Sullivan Family gospel singers. At 13, he became a full-time member of bluegrass great Lester Flatt's Nashville Grass. He completed his education by taking correspondence courses on the band's tour bus and at Flatt's home in Nashville, where he lived while the band was off the road.

When Flatt died in 1979, Stuart launched a solo career before joining Johnny Cash's road band. His marriage to Cash's daughter, Cindy, ended in divorce, but Stuart and the Man in Black remained close friends until Cash's death in 2003. Stuart has recorded and performed with such notables as Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard and Bob Dylan.

Stuart's career began to soar during the 1990s, with the release of the acclaimed albums Hillbilly Rock, Tempted and The Pilgrim. He has earned one platinum and five gold albums and four Grammy Awards, including one for vocal collaboration with Travis Tritt on "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'."

He has offered praise with soul-drenched gospel (Soul's Chapel), paid homage to Native Americans (Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota) and recorded an album from the stage of Nashville's Ryman Auditorium (Live at the Ryman).

Despite the demands of his own career, Stuart still finds time to produce albums such as Wagoner's. Stuart's hand guided Wagoner back to the basics that made him a star early in his career.

"The Porter Wagoner I grew up loving was like a country preacher who came to us every Saturday on TV," Stuart recalls. "I'd missed that version of Porter Wagoner for a long time. I wanted to put him back inside of that sound. And it worked.

"My comment to him was, 'So many people come to Nashville looking for a sound.' He brought his sound with him from Missouri, and I wanted to plug him back into that sound."

With his feet planted firmly in country music's golden past and his finger on the pulse of today's Nashville, Stuart is positioned to help guide country music as the Old Guard passes on. The key is having artists who understand and value the Grand Ole Opry with the passion of a Porter Wagoner. In that regard, Stuart believes the Opry and country music are headed for a very bright future indeed.

"The bottom line is having great hearts that have a deep love for that show," he says.

"The good news is that there are great hands on deck right now. When I know that Vince Gill is there, or Ricky Skaggs is there -- or Pam Tillis or Alison Krauss -- I know things are in good order. When Connie Smith is there, when Little Jimmy Dickens is there, everything's gonna be fine."

By Jack Bernhardt

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