Stuart, the Star and the Hillbilly

This appeared in The Washington Post - May 7, 1993

When Marty Stuart was a kid growing up in the mid-'60s, he came back to his Mississippi home one day with three albums--one by Lester Flatt, one by Johnny Cash and one by the Beatles. "I ran into Ringo a little while ago," says the self-avowed "hillbilly" musician who performs Friday at Patriot Center, "and I told him I gave the Beatles album away. And he said, 'That's okay, the rest of the world kept it.' "

Stuart, on the other hand, kept listening to country music. So much so that by the time he was 13, he was sharing the stage with Flatt, playing mandolin and guitar before going out on the road for six years with Cash. "Lester showed me the way," says Stuart, calling from Nashville where he's busy recording a new album. "And Johnny Cash showed me the world from the perspective of a superstar."

Stuart has seen a lot of the world since then, most recently with Travis Tritt, his occasional touring partner and kindred spirit, on the duo's No Hats Tour. Nothing against hats, jokes Stuart, who's a rhinestone-studded clotheshorse if ever there was one, it's just that "we both have a lot of hair."

Still, there is something that bothers both Tritt and Stuart about certain trends in country music. Tritt has had less than kind words for "hunky" tonk phenom Billy Ray Cyrus--and vice versa--and Stuart has questioned whether Garth Brooks is merely the country-tinged equivalent of James Taylor.

"I guess the good thing about country music right now is that there is something for everyone," says Stuart in a conciliatory tone. "I have to stand up for the industry because it's served me well. But I'll always think that whoever's up there playing, it's important to remember who we are and where we came from. We're just a hillbilly band."

Not that anyone is apt to accuse Stuart of forgetting his roots. In addition to owning (and touring with) Ernest Tubb's old bus, his guitar collection includes instruments once owned by Flatt and Hank Williams Sr. What's more, he's got this warehouse--it's location is a secret--full of country music memorabilia, including some 300 glittering, fancifully embroidered Western-wear suits, most of them custom-tailored by Nudie Cohen and his protege, Manuel.

"It's just chock-full of old stuff," says Stuart. "A lot of Americana. I'd like to turn it over to the Smithsonian or the Country Music Foundation someday."

Last week Stuart returned from Austin, Texas where he helped celebrate the 60th birthday of another one of his country music heroes--Willie Nelson. Among other things, Stuart got a chance to jam with Bob Dylan at the million-dollar bash. "We're ole buddies," says Stuart, "and I enjoyed playing onstage with him and his band. But the thing that was really special was jamming with him backstage. We played 'Little Maggie' for about 10 minutes it seemed--just acoustic guitar, mandolin and bass. A folkie and bluegrasser--you know. We played it like the Monroe Brothers and he sang. It was a real treat."

Stuart laughs off the parallels that some writers have drawn, comparing him and Tritt to such older "outlaws" as Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. "We have some good publicists," he cracks. "But I think Travis and I would be telling you a story if we didn't admit to a whole lot of influence by them. I think the thing that influenced me most was that they taught me to be yourself. I don't think they broke anybody's rules, but I don't think they completely abided by them either."

As a recording artist, Stuart has seen his share of ups and downs. His impressive small-label debut in 1982--"Busy Bee Cafe" on Sugar Hill--was followed by a couple of "very frustrating" years as Columbia in the mid 1980s before he decided to put his solo career on hold.

"I just gave it all up and went back to the country," he recalls. "I hung out with [gospel performers] Jerry and Tammy Sullivan, who I started playing music with even before Lester. We played little Pentecostal churches on the weekend down the backroads in the south--just writing songs and playing the real stuff...then one day I picked up a Billboard [magazine] to see what was happening again."

Stuart was soon back in Nashville, recording for MCA this time and enjoying increasingly commercial and critical success. His first two MCA albums--"Hillbilly Rock" and "Tempted"--generated several hit singles including the title tracks and his latest album, "This One's Gonna Hurt You," recently went gold. "When that happened," says Stuart, "I had to sit down because that's what I came to town to do."

Writer unknown

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