Cash And Carry On

Country traditionalist Marty Stuart talks about Johnny Cash, who was a mentor, neighbor, and ex-father-in-law

This appeared in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune - September 18, 2010

Being a country music fanatic, scholar and collector, Marty Stuart figured he had to visit Folsom Prison when he was performing in Folsom, California. After all, his all-time favorite album is 1968's Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. He wanted to go to the place where music history was made.

At his 2003 concert, he asked a security guard about getting into the prison, where the guard also worked. While Stuart was onstage, calls were made, and the singer eventually received permission from the governor of California to go inside the prison the next day.

"I got to go to the cafeteria where that record was made," Stuart said. "Behind the back wall of the cafeteria was the hanging gallows where, in the earliest part of the last century, they executed people. At the time I was there, it served as the prison-band hall; all the bands at Folsom Prison share a common set of instruments. So I sat in with the country band there. The best word that I can tell you about that room is 'creepy' even though it had been years since anyone had been killed there."

As he headed back to Nashville, Stuart kept thinking about how awful it must have been to be a hangman. When he got home, the singer, as he often did, had a chat with his neighbor Johnny Cash. They talked about Folsom Prison, and Stuart explained that he'd started writing a tune called "Hangman."

"At the point where I ran out of words, [Cash] just started speaking lines from his wheelchair," Stuart, 51, said recently from Nashville. "We wrote the next verse in about 10 minutes, and the song was done. And four days later, he passed away. The last song he ever wrote."

Stuart recorded "Hangman" on his new album, Ghost Train (The Studio B Sessions). He promises to perform the tune Sunday at the Dakota Jazz Club in what will a rare solo acoustic show. He's done only a couple dozen solo gigs in his nearly 40-year career, starting with one at Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in 2006.

Went pro at age 13

After chasing radio airplay in the 1990s with a mix of honky-tonk and modern country, Stuart decided to return to his roots in the '00s. He released a gospel album, a concept album about Lakota Indians and now Ghost Train, the "kind of music I dearly love the most." The new disc is about as old-school as it gets, with Stuart originals that echo Cash, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and the duets of George Jones and Tammy Wynette.

"It was not about making a retro record or a tip-your-hat record," said the singer/guitarist/mandolinist. "This is who we are."

Stuart got his professional start as a 13-year-old mandolinist with Lester Flatt. In 1980, Stuart joined Cash's touring band (and he was married to Cash's daughter Cindy for five years) before lauching a solo career in 1985. Five years later, he landed high on the country charts with "Hillbilly Rock," and peaked with his 1991 duet with Travis Tritt, "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'."

Stuart is a devoted collector of country-music artifacts, which he often lends to museums. He's also known for his colorful sequined western suits and carefully sculpted big hair.

How long does it take to get his hair to rock 'n' roll like that?

"Every bit of four minutes," Stuart said. And then he gave a four-minute explanation of why he cultivates that look.

"It's about the character of it. When I was kid, I heard with my eyes a lot. It was Porter Wagoner and Andrew Jackson and Albert Einstein and Elvis Presley and Little Richard and Wild Bill Hickok. They just looked interesting to me. I thought 'I want to be one of those.' It all started with trying to look like that knucklehead on the $20 bill."

By Jon Bream

Return To Articles Return To Home Page