Rebel With A Cause

This appeared in The Orange County Register - July 20, 1995

Marty Stuart hopped a bus to Nashville in 1972. He was 13 years old and, within a week, he was playing guitar in bluegrass giant Lester Flatt's band. Such instant success in the big city for a wet-behind-the-ears kid from Philadelphia, MS was pretty overwhelming, right? No big thing, Stuart said.

"Not at all, man. I knew I was born to do it and I hit the ground running." And he never stopped. Almost a quarter century later, Stuart is one of Nashville's most respected favorite songs. There are streets and streetcars named after him and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum will soon include a permanent wing bearing his name.

So he's content with his achievements, right? Well, not quite yet. "The thing that's missing to me is two or three just universal songs that completely shatter the glass ceiling and take it to the roof," Stuart said during a recent telephone conversation from Nashville.

"I really don't pay much attention to what I've accomplished. I look at what needs to be done and that's exactly what needs to be done -- that one, break-wide-open album. That's what I'm concentrating on now."

If that picture of a driven businessman belies the common image of Stuart as an aw-shucks, straw-chewing, good-old-boy strummer from the Deep South, it's only another layer of the enigmatic performer who has forged a career cast in country's roots while playing on its cutting edge.

For someone who works so hard at it, Stuart, 36, says he never so much chose country music as it chose him. "I really don't think I had any choice," he said. "I really think it's a call, the same way some people are called to be a lawyer or doctor or preacher. It's a kind of call, and I just honored that."

His parents saw it. That's why his dad brought him a guitar, "a pretty decent one that would stay in tune and stuff," when he was 9. And that's why they sent him to Nashville with their blessing a few years later. "I loved home. We had a great family, but I think my mom and dad kinda saw where it was headed. And it was highly arranged. I don't think they would have let me go out with anybody but Lester Flatt, and I had to send money home every week to go into the bank to pay bills and continue my education through correspondence course."

By then, though, Stuart was getting an invaluable schooling in music, first in traditional country and bluegrass from Flatt until 1979 and then in gospel-tinged country and rockabilly as a picker for Johnny Cash until 1985, lessons that sharpened through the years as he formulated an eclectic blend of styles he later labeled "hillbilly rock."

"We had a real cool radio station when I was young. It came on the air playing country music from like 6 in the morning 'til noon, then it played an hour's worth of gospel music, and then it played rock 'n' roll in the afternoon, and soul music late in the day."

Those sounds helped shape his early musical influences and listening to the weekend Grand Ole Opry broadcasts developed his hunger for Nashville. But it was a concert at Michigan State in the mid-'70s that Stuart swears changed his life.

"It was Gram Parsons, The Eagles and Lester Flatt. That's the first time that I'd ever seen country music and bluegrass music and folk music and rock 'n' roll all slammed into one package with a hip and groovy bow on it. And that was very encouraging to me. That's the show that really got inside of me and I thought, 'You can do it all if you do it like this.' "

Nashville wasn't so receptive at first, giving the cold shoulder to the Byrds, pioneers of the country-rock movement, when they came to Nashville in the early '70s. But by the time Stuart was ready to embark on his solo career in the mid-'80s, the groundwork for a more freewheeling approach to conventional country had been laid by the outlaw movement and its pioneers such as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, and new traditionalists such as John Anderson.

Stuart, however, had no intention of resting in any prefab Nashville mold. He imagined himself as the unique performer who had the reverence for country tradition and the soul of a rock 'n' roll rebel. In his dream sequence introduction to "High On A Mountain Top" from his This One's Gonna Hurt You album, he discusses his view with the ghost of Hank Williams, telling Hank his dilemma of wanting to honor country but in an individualistic fashion. Hank replies that maybe what Nashville needs is a Jumpin' Jack Flash.

It's hard to argue with that picture, what with Stuart's penchant for rooster hair and flashy rhinestone jackets, but acceptance came more slowly when he struck out on his own. "I knew it would because I knew I wanted to be different, I wanted to make something click within the mainstream, but I wanted to be an individual and that always causes a few more headaches.

"It took some time, though, to figure all that out and unwinding 15 years' worth of experience with everybody else, playing all different kinds of music and honing that down and finding one particular slot that would work inside me. That was the hard part."

Despite his declaration that he's still reaching for the stratosphere, Stuart has enjoyed decent success after a slow start, earning Grammy and CMA awards and churning out several critically acclaimed albums, including Tempted in 1991, Hillbilly Rock in 1990, This One's Gonna Hurt You in 1993 and 1994's Love and Luck.

His latest album, The Marty Party Hit Pack, is a hits collection including a gospel-tinged cover of The Band's "The Weight." "Not a bad little calling card," is how Stuart refers to it. He plans to get back in the studio in the winter to record his next project.

Stuart's attempt to maintain his creative individuality and commercial success is rare in Nashville, where an assembly-line mentality turns out a seemingly endless stream of carbon-copy country-pop singers. "I'm not so sure you can do it, but I know one thing, you have to keep trying. You should never, ever give up your artistic integrity, but I think you should never ever stop trying to succeed at the hard-core mainstream with it."

And he says that a lot of the music that was considered gibberish 20 or 30 years ago has ascended to classic status. "If you look at the entire picture of Nashville currently, there's lot of schlock that won't be here two years from now that people will have made a lot of money off of. That's the idea of big business.

"But, at the same time, I see a lot of real soulful people who truly dig the heart and soul of country music." He rattles off names -- Dwight Yoakam, Travis Tritt, Alison Krauss, Pam Tillis, Ricky Skaggs, Randy Travis. And of course, himself.

"I think that country music is in good hands as we move toward the next century."

By Gene Harbrecht

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