Marty Stuart On Earl Scruggs, Spartanburg Musicians, And Keeping Traditional Country Music Alive

This appeared in the Spartanburg Herald Journal - November 1, 2012

When I spoke by phone recently with Marty Stuart, he seemed genuinely excited about returning to Shelby, North Carolina for a concert at the Don Gibson Theatre on Saturday.

“It feels just right,” Stuart said of getting to play a venue named after a Shelby native who became one of country music’s greatest singer-songwriters. “And just up the street on the square, the Scruggs family has the Earl Scruggs Center in progress. There’s such an incredible musical legacy that comes from that part of the state.”

Earl Scruggs, of course, was the legendary banjo picker of Flatt & Scruggs fame who helped create bluegrass while playing with Bill Monroe in the mid-1940s. Like Gibson, Scruggs was born in Shelby.

Gibson died in 2003; Scruggs only a few months ago. Since the latter just occurred, I asked Stuart for his thoughts on the passing of Scruggs.

“Well, I’ve lost three of my Carolina buddies this year,” Stuart said. “I lost Andy Griffith, Doc (Watson) and Earl.”

Stuart then mentioned that he and his backing band, the Fabulous Superlatives, were on tour in New Mexico when he learned of Scruggs’ death.

“Gary Scruggs (one of Earl’s sons) called me and gave me the word that Earl had passed away and asked if we could come and be a part of the service at the Ryman (Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee). So, we sang a song called ‘Who Will Sing For Me’ from the old Flatt & Scruggs songbook.

“He really was the last of a kind, and he was such an inspiration and such a hero and friend to me. Earl was just family. That’s the way it was. And I miss him very much.”

Since we were on the subject of musicians from the region, I mentioned to Stuart that Spartanburg is the birthplace of Buck Trent, another banjo master whom Stuart calls a friend.

Stuart gave some nice comments about Trent, which can be found in a story published today by the Herald-Journal and Click here or see the link at the end of this post.

Stuart also spoke kindly of Spartanburg native and former Herald-Journal writer Peter Cooper, whose music columns appear regularly in Nashville’s daily newspaper, The Tennessean.

“Peter’s about the last of the good voices, man. He writes with a good pen,” Stuart said.

I then mentioned that the late Hank Garland, who played on many of the 1950s and ‘60s sessions that inspired Stuart’s 2010 album, “Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions,” was also from Spartanburg.

Stuart replied, “It’s amazing. He hasn’t been in Nashville in how many decades now, and yet people still speak about Hank Garland with such reverence. He’s still the guy that everybody just kind of shakes their head at. … He’s just an amazing guitarist who laid a track record that’s indelible.”

As we spoke about musicians from this area, Stuart asked, “And isn’t Carl Story from Greer?”

I responded that Story, a pioneering figure in the field of gospel bluegrass who also played with Monroe in the early 1940s, had indeed lived for many years in Greer but that he was actually born in Lenoir, N.C. It’s worth noting that when Story died in 1995, Monroe came to Greer for the funeral.

If Story were still living, Stuart undoubtedly would invite him onto his television program, “The Marty Stuart Show,” which airs on cable’s RFD-TV.

Part of what makes Stuart one of traditional country music’s greatest ambassadors is his willingness to showcase older artists who are otherwise no longer in the national spotlight.

“We (as a society) punish people for wisdom and experience sometimes or we disregard them just because of age or whatever,” Stuart said. “But I’ve always thought people’s gifts are timeless. If you’re a good guitar player, there’s going to be a strand of that inside you until you die.

“It just does my heart a lot of good to see people like Don Maddox from the Maddox Brothers & Rose still playing. Nobody will put him on TV, but I will. I think it’s great. He knows what to do the minute the light hits him. … If you showcase people like that right, it really does become a Smithsonian kind of a document.”

Through his TV show, Stuart and his wife Connie Smith were among the last people to give royal treatment to the “Queen of Country Music,” Kitty Wells, who died in July at age 93.

“The last public performance she ever did was on our TV show,” Stuart said. “She was standing next to Connie, and Connie was singing ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.’ And at some point, Kitty just started singing along and Connie handed her the microphone.

“That was the last time she ever sang in public. Those are the moments when you realize that you’re doing something right.” Click here to see a clip of Wells’ gloriously uplifting appearance.

By Dan Armonaitis

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