Marty Stuart, The Music-Pickin' Lifer

Marty Stuart knows the gospel truth

This appeared in the Albany Times Union - February 6, 2006

Long before he was a country hitmaker, Stuart, as a young boy, was touring the backroads of the South, playing guitar with the Sullivan Family Gospel Singers as they made the circuit of Pentecostal churches and bluegrass festivals.

In 1972, 30 days shy of his 13th birthday, the hotshot picker started gigging with the legendary Lester Flatt, which led to stints playing guitar and mandolin with Vassar Clements, Doc & Merle Watson and Johnny Cash.

Stuart knew early on that he was a lifer when it came to music.

"I kind of had a feeling when I signed on with the circus that I wanted to go as far as the train would run," Stuart said in a recent interview. "The only thing I could think of was getting out there and being a part of it.

"I had a real sense of adventure. I knew it would take me to the most fantastic places and the most awful places, and that's pretty much what it's done. And I've enjoyed all of it."

By the time he released his first solo project, 1982's Busy Bee Cafe, he was already a star in the eyes of the country establishment, who knew him as one of their own.

"I had the benefit of hanging around at the feet of, playing music with, getting to know and being advised by the master architects of the golden era of country music," Stuart said. "It would be like a kid who wants to paint hanging out with Rembrandt."

By 1985, a wider audience held him as one of their own, too.

Stuart scored a top 20 hit with "Arlene," from his eponymous Columbia records debut, and commenced a 15-year ride on the charts with classics (on the MCA label) like "Hillbilly Rock," "Little Things," "Tempted" and "High on a Mountaintop."

These days, though, Stuart, like many other hard-core honky-tonkers, has a hard time getting heard on the radio, but he's all right with that. The lower profile has actually given him more freedom to make the music he wants to make -- including the 1999 concept album The Pilgrim.

"I was at the end of a great decade run with MCA," Stuart said, "but radio had cooled on my records. I had one album left on my contract and I thought I could take one more shot at chasing airplay, or I could draw a line in the dirt and follow my heart and go deep."

The Pilgrim, which followed a narrative drawn from Stuart's Mississippi hometown, recalled some of his former boss Johnny Cash's work on albums like Bitter Tears and Ride This Train.

"I talked with Cash not long after it came out, and I said, 'You've done concept records -- how do I follow something like The Pilgrim? He said, 'I can tell you one thing, Marty, you can't go back and live with your old self -- you've got to keep going."'

Last year, Stuart started his own label, Superlatone, and quickly set to producing albums that met his standards rather than the industry's.

"There were several things in me culturally that I wanted to get out," Stuart said of his recent output, which includes the Sioux Indian-themed Badlands and his much-hailed return to his gospel roots, Soul's Chapel.

On Soul's Chapel Stuart plays a guitar that once belonged to Roebuck "Pops" Staples -- the patriarch of the Staples Singers and one of the presiding influences over gospel and rock picking.

It's only one of many famous instruments owned by Stuart, a musical historian as well as practitioner. His 20,0000-piece collection of instruments, clothing and memorabilia is unsurpassed in the world of country music. His guitar collection also includes Lester Flatt's Martin D-28, Hank Williams' D-45 and a customized 1954 Fender Telecaster owned by Kentucky Colonels and Byrds pioneer Clarence White.

"I was always historically minded, from the get-go," Stuart said.

He says he was initially inspired to collect by a 1980 visit to the original Hard Rock Cafe in London.

"I saw The Beatles stuff on the wall and things from the Rolling Stones and The Who," said Stuart, who at the time was touring with Cash. "Even though it was a kind of a hamburger joint, I respected the way the Hard Rock viewed these artifacts, with a reverence and regard for them.

"On the way back home to America, I spent a lot of time thinking about how often I had seen suits from the Grand Ole Opry stars at garage salesthose original Nudie rhinestone suits. Their boots were being thrown away, their guitars were being pawned or sold to Japan. I just thought, 'I'm gonna go on a mission to preserve that culture."'

So he took out a Musicians' Union book and started looking up performers noted for their fancy suits. With $1,200 in borrowed funds, he bought the entire wardrobe of Porter Wagoner's former backing band.

"I started my collection right there," he says.

Occasionally Stuart has shown small fractions of his collection; he's currently preparing the first major exhibition of the material for "Marty Stuart's American Journey," slated to open in fall 2007 at the Tennessee State Museum and tour to major cities.

Stuart isn't about to give up the stage for the life of a pop archivist. Instead, he's already thinking about his next five albums; the first in line the impromptu bluegrass jam Live at The Ryman, comes out February 7. After that, Stuart has plans for an anthology of his duets, a studio album of new songs, another gospel record and more "in about a year and a half."

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