Here Comes The Marty Party

This appeared in the Chicago Tribune - 1993

Singer/songwriter/instrumentalist Marty Stuart's long-building stardom was "pulled into mainstream" in 1992, he recalls, following a telephone call he made from Ada, Oklahoma. It was to his more popular peer, Travis Tritt.

"I didn't know him too well," Stuart remembers now. "We had only recorded [the eventual hit duet single] 'The Whiskey Ain't Workin' and done a couple of things together onstage. But afterward the fans would come up and tell both of us they loved us together, so I called him and said, 'You're selling platinum but you're not putting a dent in Garth Brooks. And I ain't putting a dent in nothing. But I keep thinking: The outlaw side of country music is vacant right now. Waylon and Willie's trail, Gram Parsons' trail, is vacant. There ain't nobody out there willing to be bad boys--and that's what we are, mavericks and renegades.'

"I said, 'I want to do you some swapping. I've got the history, and you've got the numbers, so I'll swap you some history for some numbers. And let's not worry about Garth Brooks and all that. Let's just get over on the vacant side of the field and do our thing'."

Tritt took Stuart up on the proposition, and their 'thing' became a year-long, hot-ticket excursion called the No Hats Tour. "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'," written by Stuart, became such a hit for them that last fall it garnered Stuart his first Country Music Association award.

By then, his brilliant 1992 solo album, "This One's Gonna Hurt You" was reaping not only rave reviews but Tritt-aided sales that have made it the first gold (500,000-selling) album of Stuart's two-decade career. Five other, previously-recorded Stuart albums have since been issued or reissued by companies for which he made records in the past.

"Everything I ever sneezed on they're starting to release now," he says, with a wry grin. Then he winces. "The hardest part of growing up in the industry is, you make a lot of bad tapes along the way," he says. "But I think when stuff starts getting re-released and bootlegged, it's, in a sense, a vote of confidence."

Confidence has been growing again in Stuart for three years now. A brash, supremely talented kid from Mississippi whose ambition, he says, has always been to "be on a first-name basis with the world," he debuted as a full-time musician with the bluegrass/gospel Sullivan Family while still in grade school, he did a long stint with bluegrass patriarch Lester Flatt in his teens and capped an impeccable super-sideman resumé with an also-lengthy period behind Johnny Cash.

A virtuosic guitarist and mandolinist whose interest in music was eclectic and intense, he made friends everywhere, going on to marry Cash's daughter Cindy and sign his first major recording contract with Cash's longtime record label, CBS.

But he wasn't ready. His rise had lacked reverses that had to be gotten past and, when they finally came, they were dillies: public indifference to a couple of albums, dissolution of this high-profile marriage and dismissal from CBS Records.

To say his confidence was running low is an understatement. "I was running on fumes," he puts it. "Then 'Hillbilly Rock' (his first single of note after a new contract with MCA) started the spark, the 'Tempted' album fanned it, and working with Travis pulled it into mainstream."

Having jump-started his destiny with 1992 Tritt alliance, Stuart has '93 plans that should further enlarge his personal popularity while putting his diverse credentials to less selfish use.

Foremost is The Marty Party, a road show that could prove a fitting sequel to the rowdy No Hats Tour. It is to star Stuart himself, another yet-unannounced bit-name act and a variety of other, small ones. "It will start in March in Canada," he says. "The stage is going to have a canopy thing over it, and there'll be pictures of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams and Buck Owens. There'll also be honky tonk neon, a futuristic kind of thing but with a Roy Acuff tent show feel to it.

"We'll come crashing down onstage in a rocket-looking thing, come out through some fog and open up with 'Me and Hank and Jumpin' Jack Flash.' Then we'll proceed to put some hardcore honky tonk music on 'em.

"We'll keep it moving at all times. When we get through here, we'll have a fiddle man over there or a guy juggling or doing yo-yo tricks or whatever while they're setting the stage. Then bam, here comes another thing. There'll be a lot of visuals, movement, impact. I'm talking huge entertainment here, but with authentic country music coming through the speakers.

The Marty Party may also exhibit links to another project in which Stuart intends to play a large role: popular revivification of the Grand Ole Opry, a 67-year-old weekly radio show whose 60-member cast Stuart recently joined.

He says he hopes his Party can employ not only Jerry and Tammy Sullivan, the gospel duo whose striking 1991 album Stuart produced, but also an Opry personality such as Little Jimmy Dickens, Jerry Clower or Roy Acuff's Bashful Brother Oswald.

"I think it's my job to help re-educate people about the Opry," he says. "It's taken for granted a sideshow at a theme park, not a hip place anymore. Young people are chasing country music right now, and it's important to bring them to it."

Stuart knows that country music's drama can hold young people spellbound because it has held him that way most of his life. In a recent, excellently written autobiographical article for Country Music Magazine (in which he showed off another of his many talents, prose writing), Stuart recalls his starstruck early days.

Material edited out of the article goes on to illustrate how intensely Stuart has responded to his diverse heroes. The deleted portion, he says, outlined his role in ending the bitter estrangement of banjo genius Earl Scruggs and Scruggs' late, longtime partner (and later longtime Stuart boss) Lester Flatt.

His inspiration, he adds, came from Bob Dylan. "He {Dylan] came to Nashville one night and said, "Do Lester and Earl speak?" Stuart remembers. "I said, 'No, they haven't spoken in years. There were hard feelings.' He said, 'That's too bad. You know, Abbott and Costello always were going to get back together--and even had scheduled an appointment to do it--but there was a heart attack, and they never did.' " With that disclosure, Stuart recalls, Dylan "walked off," leaving him feeling "like I had this mission on my shoulders."

"I didn't know Earl at the time, but I went to a pay phone and called Lance Leroy, Flatt's manager. I got Earl's phone number and, shaking, I called it. I said 'Earl, my name's Marty Stuart. Can I come out and speak to you?' He said 'Why certainly.' "

"So I went. I was trembling when I told him, but I said, 'Earl, the bottom line is, Lester's dying. I'm not here to pry into your business, but he loves you like a brother, and you all spent too many good years together for one to die without the other one or at least saying 'Go to hell,' 'Good-bye' or something."

"I wrote down the hospital room number and left it at that--simply informed him--and went home and started praying. Soon after that, the Nashville Grass [Flatt's band] went out and fulfilled two or three more concerts Lester had agreed to do."

"When we got home, Lance Leroy met the bus with tears in his eyes. He said, 'Boys, Earl went and saw Lester.' "

For two previous years, Stuart adds, he had wanted to leave the Flatt band and move on up his career's ladder, "but something in my heart wouldn't let me go. After that," he says, "I knew why I was supposed to stay."

By Jack Hurst

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