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This appeared on - November 3, 2007

Marty Stuart is on fire creatively. He has recorded the four best albums of his career with his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, and has put on some of the best shows of his career. But he will be the first to tell you that his current achievements would never have been possible if he hadn’t walked every single mile of the highway that got him here. And he never would have made it if not for the mentors who showed the way and the partners who walked beside him. Those are his “Compadres,” and his story can’t be told without them.

The 15 tracks on his new album, Compadres, tell that story. It would be a mistake to call it a “duets album,” for the instrumental interplay with Lester Flatt, Steve Earle and the Old Crow Medicine Show is as important as the vocal give and take with Johnny Cash and Mavis Staples. It’s an album of collaborations with the artists who have meant the most to him over the years.

Stuart was just a 13-year-old kid from Philadelphia, Mississippi, when he joined Lester Flatt & the Nashville Grass in 1972. The teenager’s mandolin solo on Bill Monroe’s “Rawhide” became his showcase number with the band and was captured at a 1974 concert at Vanderbilt University for Flatt’s Live! Bluegrass Festival album. Stuart never abandoned his bluegrass roots and often collaborated with such string-band legends as Earl Scruggs (heard here on “Mr. John Henry, the Steel Driving Man” from Stuart’s 1999 album, The Pilgrim); Del McCoury (heard here on “Let Us Travel, Travel On” from the 2003 tribute album, Livin’ Lovin’ Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers); and the Old Crow Medicine Show (heard here on a brand new version of the Who’s “I Can See for Miles”).Stuart stayed with Flatt till 1978 and then joined the Johnny Cash Show in 1980. The traveling troupe included June Carter, the Carter Family and the Tennessee Three, and Stuart often sang Jimmie Skinner’s prison song, “Doin’ My Time,” as a duet with Cash. The two men later recreated it for Stuart’s 1992 album, This One’s Gonna Hurt You. Cash was perhaps the biggest influence on Stuart, but the youngster absorbed lessons like a sponge from great singers like George Jones (“One Woman Man” is from Jones’ 1991 album, The Bradley Barn Sessions) and Merle Haggard (“Farmer’s Blues” is from Stuart’s 2003 album, Country Music).

Among Stuart’s most important compadres were his fellow Mississippians, B.B. King and the Staple Singers. Stuart sang “Confessin’ the Blues” with King on the latter’s 1997 album, Deuces Wild. He recast the Band’s “The Weight” with the Staple Singers for the 1994 album, Rhythm, Country & Blues. Mavis Staples helped sing “Move Along Train” on Stuart’s 2005 album, Souls Chapel.

After serving his apprenticeships with Flatt and Cash, Stuart felt ready to pursue a solo career. In 1986, he released Marty Stuart on Columbia and enjoyed his first top-20 single. The media dubbed him a member of the “Class of 1986,” grouping him with Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett and Randy Travis, four more singers who emerged that year with a modern take on traditional country. Compadres showcases Stuart and Earle on “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” from the 1996 tribute album, Not Fade Away (Remembering Buddy Holly). Yoakam and Travis joined Stuart, Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris and many others on “Same Old Train” from the 1998 album, Tribute to Tradition.Stuart enjoyed his greatest stretch of chart success in the early ‘90s when he recorded for MCA. He had top-10 solo singles such as “Hillbilly Rock,” “Tempted” and “Burn Me Down,” but he also formed a fruitful partnership with another young traditionalist, Travis Tritt. They had top-10 success with such duets as “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’ ” (included on Compadres). The MCA years ended with Stuart’s masterful concept album, 1999’s The Pilgrim. In the course of producing and co-writing the 1998 comeback album, Connie Smith, Stuart fell in love with the legendary singer and married her. “Hearts Like Ours,” a ballad from that album, has now been turned into a duet with a new vocal from Stuart. Smith’s favorite singer, Loretta Lynn, joins Stuart on a brand-new version of Dallas Frazier’s “Will You Visit Me on Sunday.”

Don’t call them guest stars. These singers and pickers are Stuart’s compadres. They have been his teachers and classmates, his heroes and peers, his buddies and brothers. In the music they made together, you can hear their common quest to keep traditional American music alive and vital.

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