Marty Stuart: Rich Sounds Anchored By Country Roots

This appeared on - June 23, 2011

It was in 1999, Marty Stuart says, that he took the defining turn of his career.

The tradition-minded country star had hit the charts regularly in the early '90s with numbers such as "Hillbilly Rock," whose title largely defined his sound at the time. But by the end of the decade radio had cooled on him, and he wasn't happy with the music he was making.

"I had been out there so long . . . and had a lot of success chasing that three-minute song up and down Music Row," Stuart recalls from his bus in Louisiana, heading to the next stop on a tour that will take him to the Sellersville Theater for two shows Sunday. "I thought, 'The kind of music I'm beginning to make, I feel like I'm making a parody of myself. I need to turn things around.' "

He did just that with The Pilgrim, an ambitious concept album. Stuart had always had the talent, the passion, and the likability, but this time he dug deeper than ever, taking his artistry to a new level while still employing his beloved sounds, from bluegrass to hard-core country and hillbilly rock.

Since then, Stuart, with his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, has continued to make the richest and most rewarding music of his career, on albums such as 2005's Souls' Chapel and last year's Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions, both on his own Superlatone Records. On top of that he has become a TV star, with a popular country music show on the RFD network.

"It was a line-in-the-dirt record," Stuart, 52, says of The Pilgrim. "It pretty much cleared the decks of everything the '90s represented. . . . I honestly think everything we have recorded, performed, and been a part of has absolutely been soul-stirring and rewarding to me. And I'm very proud of it. I can barely listen to most of that stuff I did in the '90s."

It wasn't immediately apparent, however, that The Pilgrim would launch such a renaissance for the Philadelphia, Mississippi native who got his start at 13 playing mandolin with bluegrass pioneer Lester Flatt and later backed his onetime father-in-law, Johnny Cash. The album was a commercial flop, as Stuart suspected it would be, "and all the commercial things went away" -- he lost his recording contract, his manager, and his publishing deal.

"For a moment it looked like tragedy."

But Stuart persevered with the help of the Fabulous Superlatives - guitarist Kenny Vaughan, drummer Harry Stinson, and bassist Paul Martin.

"They're the most versatile bunch of people I've ever met," Stuart says of the band he formed in 2001. "As men, they're statesmen. All these guys have been there, done, seen it all. I think we were looking for a place, maybe unknowingly when we first started, where we can create a legacy and stand for something."

The singer and guitarist was also buoyed by what he learned from Flatt and Cash. Neither legend was having hits when Stuart was on the road with them, but that didn't affect the commitment they brought to their performances, and their older material retained a profound power.

"That's when I figured out there are a lot of different definitions of a hit," Stuart says wryly.

From Cash he also learned about the need to be fearless when it came to creativity.

"When The Pilgrim flopped, I went to see him," Stuart remembers. "I said, 'What do I do? I keep trying to get the brass ring and I can't get it.' He said, 'If you get it you ain't got nothing.' He said, 'What comes out of your heart and bubbles out of your soul is what matters. I made those kinds of records before. Some people get it and some people don't. But it's your job to do them.' "

Stuart's love of country music and its history is reflected in his vast memorabilia collection - "It's like saving the family treasures." And a sense of history also inspired The Marty Stuart Show, which is wrapping up its third season as what he says is the highest-rated program on RFD.

Stuart says he was influenced by old programs by Porter Wagoner, Flatt & Scruggs, and Cash - "weekly-visits-with-country-cousins type of shows." Guests have ranged from venerable old masters like Earl Scruggs and Little Jimmy Dickens to Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, and other young stars.

The show will return for a fourth season, and Stuart intends to take the same approach with it as he has with his music. He'll keep doing it "until it's not good."

In 2007 Stuart produced the final album by the late Wagoner, and he has just helmed the first one in 16 years by his wife, singer Connie Smith. But mostly he's staying involved with his own projects, and he's happy to be "the pirate ship" of country music.

"I'm just as much a part of the country music industry as I ever was, but I can do it on my own terms," says Stuart, who guests on Paisley's new album. "To have understanding and acceptance from the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers up to the hot stars of the moment - I love being the bridge."

By Nick Cristiano

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