Honky Tonkin's What He Does Best

This appeared on the Rockabilly Hall of Fame website - November 2003

To refer to Marty Stuart as just a country singer is to sell the man a bit short. Yes, he's a celebrated country music singer, but he's also a producer, author, photographer and a proud historian. Best of all, he is an ambassador, both for country music in general and Nashville in particular. He has a passion for the music's history, from the stories and memorabilia to the songs and look. He's an avid fan of Nudie's rhinestone look and follows in the footsteps of Webb and Porter - the gaudier the better. Come to think of it, do him and Porter use the same barber.

One of country's new traditionalists in the 1980's, he'd served his apprenticeship for a decade before, learning the tricks of the trade and developing a love for the music's history. His music over the years has embraced bluegrass, honky tonk, rockabilly and country-rock. Surprisingly, considering so many of his heroes are rural hillbilly singers, he's never really done much with the pure traditional sound. He's described it as "hillbilly with a thump".

Born in Philadelphia, Mississippi on September 30th, 1958, John Marty Stuart was obsessed with country music from an early age and soon learned to play guitar and mandolin. His parents John and Hilda were also music lovers and took him to see Bill Monroe when his tour came to town. He left the show with a happy heart as well as Monroe's mandolin pick.

By the time he was twelve. he was playing weekends and school holidays with the father and daughter bluegrass outfit, the Sullivan's. He couldn't believe his luck when, in 1972, he met Roland White, a member of Lester Flatt's band. White invited the fourteen year old child protege to play with Lester at a Labor Day gig in Delaware. Lester was equally impressed and asked Marty to join his band on a permanent basis.

Once Lester had promised to take care of the boy's schooling and keep a father-like eye over him, Marty's parents consented and he was on the road to his destiny. He remembers "I knew they would do what was right. And I knew that Lester would shoot straight with them. He assured them I'd be seen after, that I'd keep a little money and send the rest to the bank. He'd have our manager, Lance Leroy, work out the details of how to finish my education. And he would assume responsibility for it all." "I was in the ninth grade in Mississippi one day and the next weekend I was a Grand Ole Opry performer and playing poker with Roy Acuff backstage. What could be finer?" Marty stayed with Flatt until 1978 when poor health forced Flatt into retirement - he died the following year. Stuart hooked up with Vassar Clements and Doc and Merle Watson, more old school traditional acts. He also toured with Bob Dylan and did session work with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Billy Joel and Neil Young.

In 1980 he joined Johnny Cash's band before cutting his first solo album two years later for Sugar Hill records. Busy Bee Café included contributions from Cash, Watson and former Flatt partner, Earl Scruggs. In 1983 he promoted Johnny Cash from being just his band leader to father-in-law by marrying Johnny's daughter Cindy. Two years later he left Cash's band to pursue a solo career at Columbia. The first album didn't sell well despite a reasonable hit with "Arlene" which earned him a nomination for Best New Male Vocalist by the Academy of Country Music.

Things turned sour for him when he saw his follow-up album Let There Be Country left in the bin, the same place his marriage went. He went back home with his tail between his legs, but like his heroes, you can't keep a good man down, the lure of the honky tonks is too strong. Of the Columbia situation, he was quoted as saying, "I can arrange a deal: they don't tell me how to play guitar and I won't tell them how to release an album" - nice one.

He rejoined the Sullivan's on mandolin, and soon built up enough self esteem to head back to Nashville. He signed with MCA in 1989 and this time was here to stay. The albums title track, Hillbilly Rock was a hit and a dance hall favourite. Both the label and the press were impressed and he was a made man. Tempted followed in '91 resulting in saw further hits with the title track, "Little Things" and "Burn Me Down." His star was sufficiently bright that Columbia saw fit to finally release Let There Be Country - man, life is strange.

Back at MCA he was continuing the good worth with my favourite of his albums, the brilliant This One's Gonna Hurt You. The album doesn't have one filler, there are ten solid gems. It also spawned the first of some very successful duets with Travis Tritt.

On November 28, 1992 he was inducted into his beloved Grand Ole Opry by Hall of Famer Little Jimmy Dickens, just five days after the passing of Acuff. 1994's Love And Luck was a bit moreuneven but had more than a few goodies. It was followed in quick succession by a sort of greatest hits compilation, The Marty Stuart Party Hit Pack.

Since then there's been too few hits to add to the package, with Honky Tonkin's What I Do Best and The Pilgrim faring better with the critics than the record-buying public. It's probably the radio stations not the public who are to blame - by this time radio wasn't really looking for artists who were proud to call themselves hillbilly singers.

In '96 he became the president of the Country Music Foundation, an honourable position which he held until last year. It enabled him to oversee the Country Music Hall of Fame, a great museum that houses more than a few items from Stuart's own considerable collection.

On July 8, 1997 he collected one of the most beautiful treasures in country music when he married Connie Smith. He'd originally fallen for her when she played a show in Mississippi in the summer of 1970. Apparently the eleven year old asked his mum to buy him a bright yellow shirt so that Connie couldn't miss him. During the show he told his mum that he would marry her - as he was later to sing, dreams do come true in Nashville. His most recent venture is this years CD simply titled Country Music for Sony's Nashville division.

An interview with him on the new albums bonus DVD disc has a telling moment when he tries to recap his career. He says that he always wondered why a legend like Lester Flatt asked Marty to join his band when he could have chosen virtually anyone. He said he now knows why. It's because Lester wanted to pass the torch on, keep the flame burning. Well luckily for country music, Marty seems to have that same philosophy and seems intent on passing it on.

He told Modern Screen's Country Music in 1994, "My job is to tell people about the legends, Ernest Tubb, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. The kids are lovin' it (his own songs like High On A Mountain Top), but a lot of them don't know about George Jones or why the Opry exists. I think my mission is to tell them". He's a good man, and country music needs a few more like him.

Recommended listening:

Marty Party Hit Pack
Not just a Hits package, this also includes a couple of unreleased numbers and two project recordings. Both of these, a bouncy "Don't Be Cruel" with the Jordanaires and a gospel-esque "The Weight," with the Staple Singers are top notch, and hold there own against the considerable originals. Above all else, the album focuses on the uptempo fun-loving side of Stuart, with "Western Girls" and "Hillbilly Rock" hitting the right spots. The two duets with Tritt are fine performances and were deserved hits. For collectors the inclusion of "If I Ain't Got You" and "The Likes of Me," was an added bonus - "The Likes Of Me" Being being twangy, sparkling country-rock in inimitable Stuart style. The hits like "Tempted" and "Little Things" are typical of his sound. Whilst they rock in a contemporary radio-friendly way, the beat comes from hillbilly boogie guitar, not some disco drum machine like some of the artists tend to find so appealing.

This One's Gonna Hurt You
My favourite album and one of the best albums to come out of Nashville in the '90s. It ranges in style from the top draw bluegrass of "High On A Mountain Top" to rabble-rousing honky tonkers like "Honky Tonk Crowd." "Hey Baby" had radio appeal as did Cowboy Jack's "Just Between Me And You." If I had to choose a favourite I'd go for either "The King of Dixie," a perfect homage to the door-breakers, or Jimmie Skinner's "Doin' My Time," a superb duet with Johnny Cash.

Love and Luck
This album actually sounds like Marty Stuart is trying to get hip to radio. It works well, but the albums best moments are when he leaves behind the commercial fodder like "That's What Love's About" or the title track in favour of things like his intense, heartfelt rendition of "If I Give My Soul." Two covers that work really well are the Byrds' "Wheels" and his hypnotic take on Slim Harpo's "Shake Your Hips." His mandolin playing on the brisk instrumental "Marty Stuart Visits The Moon" also turns heads.

Country Music
The new album sees Marty introduce his new band, The Fabulous Superlatives. There's plenty of ringing guitars and vocal harmonising, and has some real stand-out tracks. The rumbling guitar work on "Sundown In Nashville" underpins a poignant lyric, "each evening at sundown in Nashville, they sweep broken dreams off the street" and his pronunciation of "Naaashville" is a killer. "Farmer's Blues" is a touching duet with Merle Haggard. Written by Stuart and Connie Smith it's the sort of thing that Merle has made a career of - his yodel at the end rounds of a brilliant track. Guests Uncle Josh Graves and Earl Scruggs add their experience to "Tip Your Hat," a role call through the music's legends, that serves as a bollocking for today's young hat acts. When Stuart urges them "for God's sake boy, tip your hat to the teacher", you get the feeling he wants to flick their hats off and make them stand tall and respectful. The new teacher, passing it on. "Too Much Month (At The End Of The Money)" is near-rockabilly and is no doubt a show stopper live. A mournful rendition of Johnny Cash's "Walls Of A Prison" rounds out another quality album. The CD comes with a free bonus DVD that consists of Stuart talking for about twenty minutes. A nice extra, that shows the guy really does care about the future of country's past.

Recommended Viewing:
Cry, Cry, Cry
We didn't get CMT for long in the UK. We've got eight MTV channels, rap and heavy rock channels but no CMT. Even if it was pay-for-view we'd have the option. One of the most memorable videos on circulation when we did have it was Marty's cover of Johnny Cash's "Cry, Cry, Cry." It's brilliant. Marty and legendary Cash drummer W.S. Fluke Holland mime along to the music then watch a video clip of the dear Luther Perkins playing from a '50s clip. They stand there encouraging and egging Luther on. It's a great tribute to both Luther and Fluke and was the sort of thing that only Marty Stuart and a few others would do.

Recommended Reading:
Pilgrims: sinners, saints, and prophets
Rutledge Hill
Unfortunately I've only seen this book in passing, and therefore could only glimpse at the photos. The text is apparently very enlightening with him retelling tales of his heroes, as well as his philosophy on life. The photos are a treat, with plenty of shots of Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Lester Flatt. There're party snaps of Waylon and backstage shots of Bill Monroe. The photos are Jerry Lee Lewis are priceless, as is the tale he tells of Jerry Lee knocking on the door of Stuart's hotel room in the middle of the night, completely naked, covered in chocolate with a couple of girls,asking Marty if he could borrow his mandolin - priceless!

Discography -
Albums and the Singles from the Album

Country Music
If There Ain't There Ought'a Be
Too Much Month (At The End of the Money)

The Pilgrim
Red, Red Wine and Cheatin' Songs / Goin' Nowhere Fast

Honky Tonkin's What I Do Best
Honky Tonkin's What I Do Best / Me & Hank & Jumpin' Jack Flash
Thanks To You / Country Girls
You Can't Stop Love / Mississippi Mudcat & Sister Sheryl Crow
Sweet Love / So Many People

The Marty Party Hit Pack
The Likes Of Me / You Can Walk All Over Me
If I Ain't Got You / Wheels

Love and Luck
Kiss Me, I'm Gone / Marty Stuart Visits The Moon
Love and Luck / Oh, What A Silent Night
That's What Love's About / Shake Your Hips

This One's Gonna Hurt You
This One's Gonna Hurt You / The King Of Dixie *
Now That's Country / Me & Hank & Jumpin' Jack Flash
High On A Mountain Top / Just Between You And Me
Hey Baby / Honky Tonk Crowd

Little Things / Paint The Town *
Till I Found You / Half A Heart *
Tempted / I'm Blue, I'm Lonesome *
Burn Me Down / Blue Train *

Hillbilly Rock
Cry, Cry, Cry / The Wild One
Don't Leave Her Lonely (Too Long) / The Coal Mine Blues
Hillbilly Rock / Western Girls *
Western Girls / Me and Billy The Kid *

Let There Be Country
Mirrors Don't Lie / Freight Train Boogie
Matches / Old Hat

Marty Stuart
Arlene / Midnight Moonlight
Honky Tonker / Anyhow I Love You
All Because Of You / Maria (Love To See You Again)
Do You Really Want My Lovin' / Heart Of Stone

Thanks to http://www.martystuart.com for the discography/producer details. Thanks to Roland White for finding him. Thanks to Connie Smith for looking after him.

By Shaun Mather

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