Marty's Country

This appeared in The Tampa Times - January 29, 1993

It's been one hell of a bus ride for Marty Stuart. The pompadoured singer is at last reaping the rewards of a lifetime spent in country music. His album, This One's Gonna Hurt You was hailed by many critics as one of the best records of 1992 and recently went gold. His two duets with Travis Tritt, The Whiskey Ain't Workin' and This One's Gonna Hurt You, have been hits. Whiskey reached No. 1, won a CMA award as Vocal Event of the Year and has just been nominated for a Grammy award.

But he earned his highest honor in November when he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. "I felt like the prodigal son coming home," he said. The 34-year-old Stuart's first appearance at the Opry came at the famed Ryman Auditorium in 1972. He was 13 and a member of Lester Flatt's band.

Stuart, who was born in Philadelphia, Mississippi, was introduced to Flatt by mandolin player Roland White. White invited Stuart to tag along with the band on a weekend gig. Stuart, who had already played with The Sullivan Family gospel group, didn't leave the band until Flatt's death in 1979. "A weekend bus ride turned into a job," he said.

He still travels by bus. But not just any bus. This one, a custom Silver Eagle, once belonged to Ernest Tubb and is sort of a country music museum on wheels. It carries some of Stuart's collection of vintage stage suits and instruments.

"It's the coolest bus in town," Stuart said in a recent phone interview. That bus rolls into Clearwater tonight when Stuart performs at Ruth Eckerd Hall. The show will be his first of 1993, but just the latest date in the career that began with Flatt, the bluegrass legend.

Between leaving Flatt's band and his current success, Stuart was a member of his onetime father-in-law Johnny Cash's band for six years, did session work, then tried to forge a solo career. He signed a deal with Columbia that resulted in two records and one heartache: He was dropped by the label after Marty Stuart and Let There Be Country failed to find much of an audience.

"I looked up and there were buzzards circling my career," he once said. Though frustrated, Stuart said he never allowed himself to become disappointed. "I'll tell you why," he said. "Country music has fed me now for 21 years. I've been successful at a whole lot of levels in country music and I know when I started my solo stuff, I had some refining to do."

The outcome of that process became apparent soon after Stuart signed with MCA in 1988. He scored with the title cut from his debut album, Hillbilly Rock. Its follow-up, Tempted, yielded the hit title cut and Burn Me Down.

"It's finally started happening the last couple of years," he said. Those years have likewise been a boom time for country music. Fueled by the likes of Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus, the music's future looks as bright as one of Stuart's trademark rhinestone jackets. New artists are selling records by the bushel.

Stuart is not without his reservations about that trend. "The only thing that worries me is it seems that country music is becoming a little more like pop music and that we're creating a lot of disposable singers (in Nashville)," he said.

One person whom Stuart has no concerns about is Tritt, his sometimes No Hats Tour partner and vocal foil. "Travis is one of the most important singers in country music right now," said Stuart. "He's a real voice." Stuart laughs off any talk of chemistry between him and Tritt. "Two worthless porch ornaments trying to sing is what it amounts to," he joked.

But through the partnership, Tritt has helped Stuart reach a younger, more mainstream audience. In return, Stuart gave the younger artist a stamp of authenticity. "I swapped him some history for some numbers," he said. But numbers, taken by themselves, are meaningless to Stuart. "I'm not sure about the staying power of a lot of these people that pop up with a lot of big records," he said. "It seems like when you explode out of nowhere and happen, you can vanish into nowhere again. It helps to have some roots."

"That's why I was adamant about putting Johnny Cash and an old Charley Pride song (Just Between You and Me) on This One's Gonna Hurt You. The album could be used by recent converts as a sort of Cliff's Notes for country music.

Besides the duet with Tritt, there's the bluegrass standard (and current single) High On A Mountain Top, which combines Stuart's mandolin playing and Pam Tillis' vocal with crunching guitar. Stuart also pays his respects to Elvis, Hank Williams and Cash, who sings on Doin' My Time.

"If I ran a (country music) radio station, I'd try to play two to three classics an hour," Stuart said. "Because there are an awful lot of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and George Jones fans still left out there." It would be the worst fate imaginable to Marty Stuart that an older fan, or maybe even the next Marty Stuart, would miss an opportunity to hear the legends of country music.

"I want this new crop of kids we're playing (for) to know who Johnny Cash is," he said. "Garth Brooks is wonderful, and I love the business he's done for country music. But...there will never be another like Johnny Cash."

These days, you're not alone if you're a new fan to country music. You have all Garth Brooks' records, but maybe none by some of the music's pioneers. Where do you start? Stuart recommended a few artists to the Times as reference points. "That'll get 'em started," he said.

Classics like: Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (Johnny Cash); Tammy's Greatest Hits 1966-1970 (Tammy Wynette); and the recent Buck Owens boxed set.

Contemporary country music like: Guitars, Cadillacs, Hillbilly Music (Dwight Yoakam); Put Yourself in My Place (Pam Tillis); and, without a hint of arrogance, Stuart also suggests his own This One's Gonna Hurt You.

By Pete Couture

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