After Chart Success Faded, Marty Stuart Became Even More Vital

This appeared on Spartanburg Herald Journal - November 1, 2012

Marty Stuart sounds as if he has a guilty conscience.

“If you turn on contemporary country music radio right now, I helped cause that,” Stuart said with an apologetic laugh.

In the early to mid-1990s, Stuart was among a wave of country superstars whose music had plenty of twang but otherwise seemed to distance itself from the genre's traditional roots in an attempt to appeal to a younger demographic.

“I started listening to what I was playing, and it wasn't country music and it wasn't rock 'n' roll,” Stuart said. “It was just a bunch of nothing. It was neither fish nor fowl.”

By the late '90s, Stuart's singles no longer climbed to the upper echelons of the country music charts. He felt lost and wondered where he'd gone wrong.

“That's when I wiped the board clean,” Stuart said.

He thought back to how he'd gotten into the music business in the first place, as a child prodigy asked at age 13 to join bluegrass legend Lester Flatt's band.

He remembered the tradition-soaked country and bluegrass music he'd grown up loving and wanted to produce music of his own that would pay proper respect to his heroes and mentors.

Stuart's 1999 album, The Pilgrim, was the first indication of a transformation that would eventually turn him into one of traditional country music's greatest ambassadors.

The roots-flavored effort — which included such guests as Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, George Jones, Earl Scruggs and Ralph Stanley — received plenty of critical acclaim but was a commercial flop. The lack of massive sales didn't deter Stuart, who was now a man on a mission.

Branching out

Traditional country “is the kind of music that I love more than any other kind of music in the world,” Stuart said. “I had always preserved and collected the treasures of the old world of country music and photographed all the people, but one day I woke up and I realized that the music seemed to be slipping away.

“The art form itself seemed to be going over the cliff, and I saw it as too precious of a thing to allow that to happen to.”

In the past decade, Stuart has done the most impressive and important work of his career, not only as a musician but also as a producer, historian and TV personality.

The Marty Stuart Show, which airs on cable's RFD-TV, hearkens back to such iconic programs as The Porter Wagoner Show and Hee Haw. Stuart uses it as a showcase not only for him and his backing band, The Fabulous Superlatives, but also to shine a spotlight on legendary country musicians of yesteryear.

Among those Stuart has featured on the show is banjo legend and Spartanburg native Buck Trent, who also appears on Stuart's latest studio album, Nashville, Volume 1: Tear the Woodpile Down.

“Sometimes Buck gets overlooked and kind of viewed as just a humorist and sort of a character, which is cool because he enjoys that side of things too,” Stuart said. “But what I see in Buck Trent is so much more.

“He's one of the greatest country musicians I've ever known. Sometimes it's great to put him back inside of a song and let him play that stuff that made us all love him in the first place.”

It's worth noting that Stuart produced the late Porter Wagoner's final studio album, Wagonmaster, as well as one for Stuart's wife, Connie Smith, who last week received her long-overdue induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Given the respect that Stuart has for traditional country music, it seems appropriate that his current tour would make a stop Saturday at the Don Gibson Theatre in Shelby, North Carolina, a venue named for the legendary singer-songwriter who famously penned “I Can't Stop Loving You” and “Oh Lonesome Me” on the same day.

“When (Gibson's classic) recordings come on, they sound like they were made yesterday,” Stuart said. “They're so fresh and timeless. And, as a performer, he had so much soul as a country singer. I just loved his singing.”

By Dan Armonaitis

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