Full-Circle Stuart

This appeared on Ocala.com - January 17, 2013

It didn't take Marty Stuart long to find his calling. From the time he was a child, country music sang to him like a siren.

"The first record I ever owned was Meet the Beatles, which entertained my head," said the well-coiffed country star, now entering his fifth decade in the music business. "The next two were The Fabulous Johnny Cash and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs Greatest Hits. Those touched my heart. I responded to them."

Stuart, who will perform two shows Saturday, January 19 at Weirsdale's Orange Blossom Opry, remembers that early education in country music fondly.

"My record player was my classroom," he said. "My grandpa was an old Mississippi fiddle player. He knew the basics, and he showed me around a little bit. The beauty of old country music, it was kind of a three-chord structure, which makes it easy to pick up as a child."

Stuart picked it up quickly. By the time he was 12 years old, he had a job in Flatt's band.

"Years later, I questioned, ‘Why in the world would Lester Flatt want a 12-year-old chimpanzee on the bus, when he was a millionaire?' " Stuart said. "I realized he was passing it along to me. It really is the old adage of ‘You only get to keep what you give away.' "

Stuart's career followed a unique trajectory marked with high, lows, hits, misses and shelves of honors. In 1980, he got a job in Johnny Cash's band. Three years later, he married Cash's daughter, Cindy. He stayed in Cash's band until 1985, leaving after recording on an album called Class of '55 that also featured Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison.

Stuart left because he wanted a solo career and, perhaps, the fame and fortune such a career could bring.

"I wanted every bit of that," he said. "I was up-front about it. In my opinion, the more success and fame you had, the more you could use it to help other people. It's how you handle your success and fame that matters."

"Merle Haggard was the first superstar when I was really getting into all of this. Without knowing it, he did something for me that changed my life," he said. "When he was at his zenith, and the entire world was looking at him, instead of doing some flashy, glitzy thing, he went back to the roots of country music and did a tribute album to Jimmie Rodgers. I went, ‘I like that concept.' He was my professor in that way."

Early solo work incorporated much bluegrass, but few singles climbed charts. Then, in 1989, he released Hillbilly Rock for MCA. Mixing country and rock proved a good blend; the album's hits included a version of Johnny Cash's "Cry, Cry, Cry" and Stuart's own "Western Girls" and "Hillbilly Rock." In 1991, he released the Top 5 hit "Tempted."

He is a multiple Grammy Award winner who also was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award for Performer by the Americana Music Association — not to mention to the Uncle Dave Macon Days Heritage Award in 2000. Four of his albums were certified gold, and Stuart is widely considered one of the best, and most varied, instrumentalists in the business.

In 1997, he married Country Music Hall of Famer Connie Smith ("Once a Day," "The Hurtin's All Over").

As Stuart continued to release solo albums, his work became more experimental, mixing genres and straying from traditional country music. His sales suffered.

"All of a sudden, I wound up in the middle of nowhere," Stuart said. "It wasn't country, it wasn't rock 'n' roll, it was just experimental music that didn't have a heart and soul to it."

So, Stuart gathered his band and had a heart-to-heart talk.

"About six years ago, me and the band stood back and said, ‘Well, we've come to this point. What do we believe in? What do we need to go do?' " he said. "I woke up one day, and traditional country music was slipping over the edge. Very few people cared. I thought, ‘Well, that's my campaign. That's what my heart speaks to the loudest.' "

And so, 40-odd years after his idol passed country music along to him, Stuart finds himself in the same place: making sure the music he loves moves forward without forgetting where it came from.

"It's a vast mission," he said. "I want to pass it along — make sure the youngsters know it's still important and that the old folks get home safe and warm."

As for Saturday in Marion County, folks already are clamoring. Stuart's show last year at the Orange Blossom Opry with his wife, Connie Smith, sold out, said Estelle W. Benson, who runs the rural venue with her husband, Earl. And, she said earlier this week, Saturday's shows are nearly sold out, too.

"You say Marty Stuart's coming, and everybody said. ‘Ooooh. I want him,'" she said.

By Travis Atria

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