Crossing Music Row

This appeared in the Wall Street Journal - April 30, 2012

Marty Stuart keeps a warehouse here that's filled with guitars, paintings, photographs and miscellany said to constitute the world's largest private collection of country-music memorabilia. It includes several of Johnny Cash's guitars, a coat worn by Hank Williams, Porter Wagoner's rhinestone boots and a briefcase of songs that rode in Jimmie Rodgers's casket on his funeral train.

The warehouse is a cheerful, reverent space that Mr. Stuart enriches with his presence. Though his rooster-comb hair is now silver-gray, at 53 he looks much as he did when he came to Nashville some four decades ago. Mr. Stuart's new album is Nashville, Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down (Sugar Hill), a rollicking collection with a spirit that comes from what Mr. Stuart calls "the Old Testament days" of country music. It avoids current Nashville trends that, in a grab for a mainstream audience, repudiate most of what's great about traditional country. Mr. Stuart rejects the overly processed, market-driven music that uses arena rock as a template rather than his country idols of Cash, Rodgers, Wagoner and Williams.

He says he's well aware of what's going on, having for years issued muscled-up pseudo-country music in a bid for wider acclaim. To his mind, the glossy music coming out of Nashville today is bad country and bad rock.

"When I was playing the chart game, I was embarrassed to play my albums for my rock friends," he said, mentioning Tom Petty and Jack White. "When people think of country music, they want a feeling of authenticity. Now you have to homogenize." He recalled an insight Cash once shared with him: "In trying to become all things to all people, we have virtually become nothing."

"That knowledge comes from his own hard-won wisdom," Mr. Stuart said. "If it's chart or heart, choose the heart. It'll take you to the right place."

The line from Mr. Stuart's career to the origins of country isn't hard to follow. At 13, he joined Lester Flatt's group. In the 1940s, Flatt was a member of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, the seminal band in country-music history. Two Blue Grass members, Flatt and Earl Scruggs, later found an audience in the '60s and '70s in a Woodstock Generation searching for authentic American roots music. "When rock 'n' roll hit, Flatt and Scruggs never wavered," he said. "Their sonic empire was founded on something beyond the commercial."

One day, Mr. Stuart was tempted to leave Flatt's band. "I went to Lester and told him I'd been offered a job with Glen Campbell in California. Seven hundred and fifty dollars a week. At the time, I was making $165 with Lester. He hugged me around my neck and said, 'You're not ready.' And he was right.

"When he saw something that helped me, he pushed me toward doing it. That's the kind of mentoring that's divinely ordered," he said. "I had a lot of wisdom around me."

Flatt died in 1979, and a year later Mr. Stuart was in a hotel in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when Cash called from Des Moines. "He asked, 'You got anything black to wear?'" Mr. Stuart jumped in the car; the assignment lasted five years. On stage one evening, Mr. Stuart extended a mandolin solo well beyond the point of reason. Cash leaned over and told him, "Saying too much of something is the same as saying nothing."

Mr. Stuart went out on his own in 1985. Since then, he's released 16 solo studio albums, the past six—including Tear the Woodpile Down—with the Fabulous Superlatives.

On the new album, Mr. Stuart and his band touch on many streams of what constitutes traditional country, the kind welcomed more by Americana music fans than those who consume what comes these days from Nashville's Music Row. "A Matter of Time" is a twangy country waltz with bite and "Truck Drivers' Blues" chugs along on the thwacks across a mandolin's strings. Mr. Stuart's haunting composition "The Lonely Kind" is delivered with Roy Orbison-like poignancy. Hank Williams III joins in on his grandfather's tune "Pictures From Life's Other Side," while Lorrie Carter Bennett, heir to the Carter Family mantle, is Mr. Stuart's vocal duet partner in his composition "A Song of Sadness."

Mr. Stuart and his band have showcased the songs on The Marty Stuart Show, which appears weekly on cable's RFD-TV. It's reminiscent of The Porter Wagoner Show, which ran for more than 20 years beginning in 1960. As a boy, Mr. Stuart watched it with his dad back in Philadephia.

A few years ago, Mr. Stuart visited Wagoner, a man he says provided comfort and stability with his music and presence on television. "Porter was just sitting around, staring at walls," he recalled. "I said, 'You got any songs? I want to produce you.' He'd been keeping them secret, and it was the sound I hadn't heard in years except in slivers and splinters. He thought he'd have to make a contemporary country record to be heard."

Music Row rejected the album by Wagoner, once known as Mr. Grand Ole Opry. The independent label Anti released it, and shortly before his death in 2007, Wagoner played Madison Square Garden, opening for the White Stripes. Mr. Stuart sat in on guitar. "The Wagonmaster went out on top," Mr. Stuart said with pride.

Mr. Stuart's new disc reaffirms his commitment to the predecessors he calls "legacy artists" and "cultural missionaries." With Flatt and Cash, he said, "I was what I needed to be—part of a great fraternity.

"The music that I love the very most is traditional country," he said. "It's an empowering force of our own country. I felt it was fading away. So I went back to what made me fall in love with it. I thought, 'Let's make it again and see who shows up.'"

By Jim Fusilli

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