Honky Tonk Pilgrim

This appeared on SavannahNow.com - March 23, 2007

Marty Stuart believes things come full circle. He left his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi, when he was young to become a country star. Now that he is one, he's returned to where it all began.

"I'm back to the roots in Mississippi," Stuart said. "I left to chase a dream, catch it and rassle it. Now I realize there's more and I found myself right back where I started."

Such is the case for one of country music's most recognizable faces. Like Ricky Skaggs before him, Stuart put in his time as a backup guitarist for country legends Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash before launching into chart-topping tradition-minded songs like "Little Things" and "Burn Me Down" in the 1990s.

His stint in the big time earned him no fewer than six top 10 hits, one platinum album, five gold albums and four Grammy Awards.

Now with the release of a trio of records, Soul's Chapel, Badlands, and his latest, Live at the Ryman, the Grand Ole Opry star has returned to his roots and home.

"Ricky and I were both raised as roots musicians," Stuart said. "Commercial success was wonderful. I'd like more of it. Commercial music needs to be done wisely. Fortunately, it has afforded me the ability do what I want to do."

Part of that is being what many have described as a "new traditionalist," because of his preference for honky-tonk, bluegrass, rockabilly and country. He likes the word. He believes the current vogue among young musicians to return to traditional American music is a good thing, but even he concedes "tradition" is relative.

"Tradition to Busta Rhymes is different from me," he said. "The reason you see more of it is pop culture can only carry you so far. Some people want to know more."

Tradition is also a matter of perspective. Stuart's country-roots music is as natural as breathing. For a younger generation, it sounds like traditional music.

Take young Trey Hensley, for instance. The 15-year-old guitar player sounded just like the legendary Earl Scruggs when Stuart first heard him play. Hensley is now the maker of three records of traditional country, all of them on Hog Holler Records.

"I invited him to be on the Grand Ole Opry," Stuart said. "That right there's a case in point of the tradition being alive and well. Bluegrass has always been a spawning ground. We all come from that."

What's important in any tradition is that there's room to grow, Stuart said.

"Songwriting is about observation, it's about being a correspondent and telling other people's stories," Stuart said. "My take on things wouldn't apply to what 25-year-old songwriters are doing, but a fresh perspective of what keeps the world flying."

Without naming names, Stuart said a lot of the songwriting coming out of Nashville right now sounds "a little convoluted."

"I'm like jazz musicians and gospel singers in saying that," he said. "It's a little shallow at the moment and what does that say about us as a culture. We respond to Britney Spears shaving her head more than we respond to a man dying on the street."

Songwriting is like a religious experience to Stuart.

"I think it's like writing a novel. It comes from mysterious origins," Stuart said. "From the hand of God to my pen. I just hope I'm lucky enough to get God's fire through. Sometimes, and I love this, I wake up with a tune in my head and have to write it down."

Even if the next generation moves away from the country tradition Stuart loves, there will also be his enormous collection of memorabilia to pay homage to it.

"It's about 6,000 square feet of stuff," Stuart said.

"When I began collecting, no one from the Country Music Hall of Fame cared," Stuart explained. "But it was an important strain of Americana that was disappearing.

"When 'Urban Cowboy' came out in the 1980s, nobody cared about that corps of country pioneers anymore. Grandpa Jones' boots didn't matter to many people, but those are the treasures to me that shouldn't be disregarded just because country was shifting gears stylistically.

"It was aiming for a broader and more commercial audience, leaving the old world behind. From rhinestone suits to a younger demographic. I saw no reason to abandon everything that gave country music the image it had. It didn't make sense."

Apparently, it didn't make sense to young Trey Hensley, either.

By John Stoehr

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