Trad Twang Helps Stuart Forge New Fashion

This appeared in The Vancouver Sun - May 25, 1993

You can tell a lot about someone from the guitar they play, especially if they're playing one of those Martian zithers with half the body cut away, bizarre right angles shooting off what's left and the tuning pegs anywhere but up on the headstock where God intended.

Marty Stuart plays a Martin D-45 acoustic whose previous owner was a fellow named Hank Williams Sr. and a 1954 Fender Telecaster that once belonged to the late Clarence White, the former Byrd and Flying Burrito Brother acknowledged as one of the master pickers of modern country. It barely needs mentioning this instrument is not painted fluorescent yellow or has an air-brushed Conan the Barbarian scene on it.

Stuart, like Dwight Yoakam, is a hillbilly revivalist combining blues, rock, bluegrass and twang with a keen fashion sense--you have to love a man who collects Nudie suits, those rhinestone and sequin-encrusted C&W outfits once worn by everybody from Hank to George to Buck and who strong-arms his Elvis black hair into a quiff not seen by country audiences since Porter Wagoner in his mega shellac days.

Yessir, Marty Stuart is one styling cowpoke, although at present somewhat confused. "Where am I? I don't know, lemme ask," he says from his bus, which once belonged to Ernest Tubb. His voice is equal parts gravel and corn syrup and betrays his Mississippi upbringing.

"I just crawled out of bed. I got a potato in my mouth and a telephone in my ear," he says, the somewhat alarming spud reference being explained by a loud swallow. Ah yes, the most important meal of the day, particularly for someone who spends so much time on the road as Stuart does.

"Tell you what," he says, swallowing again, "Just please don't ask me how I got started in the music business."

Fair enough. He's already said many times he got his high school eduction from Lester Flatt--whose touring band he joined at 13--and his college degree on the road with Johnny Cash. To stretch the scholastic metaphor a little further, he's done post graduate work with Doc Watson, Vassar Clements, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and Neil Young. And these people don't call you up just because they like your jacket.

Marty is more loquacious when it comes to his famous Fender. "That guitar has a following all its own and it's a magic guitar. I've had it since 1980 and I'd be lost without it. His wife Susie wrote me a letter and said she was going to sell some guitars, so I went up to Kentucky where she lives to take a look and I said 'By any chance, do you want to sell the Telecaster with the string-bender?' And she said yes. The string-bender was invented by Clarence and Gene Parsons and it's connected to the strap so if you give it a little tug, it makes a pedal steel effect."

"The trouble with that guitar is trying to get someone to work on it--it's still got the original dirt that he ground into the tailpiece playing it and the frets are all worn down but nobody wants to touch it. People are afraid to mess with it. I guess I'll have to stand over somebody's shoulder when I get it fixed up."

Stuart's sense of history has become industry legend and over four solo albums (Busy Bee Cafe, Hillbilly Rock, Tempted and the new This One's Gonna Hurt You), he's paid homage to the masters and says the only reviews he ever cared about were those from people like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs. And Johnny Cash.

"The one thing I always wanted to be was the guy on the other side of town, like Johnny Cash. People like Johnny and Neil, they've never followed anybody and they don't do it the Nashville way. They're outsiders and they're pure artists."

"And it's hard to do because you can upset people and, if country music has made any grand mistake in the last few years, it's been rejecting k.d. lang and Lyle Lovett because they were different. But they'll both be around for a long time and they'll be accepted. They're too talented to ignore."

His own feelings about style and substance were confirmed at a concert in the early '70s at Michigan State University. The bill was Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris opening, then the Lester Flatt revue, then the headlining Eagles.

"I found out backstage everybody was fans of each other--Bernie Leadon from the Eagles wanted me to introduce him to Lester and I said 'Okay, if you introduce me to Don Henley.' Lester just knew they were the act going on after us--if Elvis had walked in the dressing room, he wouldn't have cared. I remember once someone asked Lester who he liked in rock and roll and he said 'That Presley fellers' doing pretty good.' "

"I jammed some with Gram backstage but the important thing I learned from him that night was you could play traditional country music with a rock and roll attitude, on a college campus, and people responded. Country music could do what it's doing now, you could play it anywhere to anybody if it was sincere."

"The other thing is Roger Miller once said he wrote by looking at the charts to see what wasn't being done, and I've always taken that to heart, that and being true to yourself. The world has a Garth Brooks and a George Strait and they don't need another one."

"Me and Travis Tritt have been doing a bunch of shows, over a hundred since '91, and we call it the No Hats Tour. That's not a dig at people who wear them, it's just that if you ever saw me or Travis in a cowboy hat, we look pretty stupid. Country music is a whole culture and it's diverse. There's room for hats and no hats."

By John Armstrong

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