A Pilgrim's Progress
Nashville Maven Marty Stuart Follows a Pathway Back to His Past
|This appeared in No Depression Magazine - July/August 1999|
I've used up every trick that I had hidden up my sleeve
The president of the Country Music Foundation currently serving his third term is gigging at a casino in Reno. He is following an elephant act. Wayne Newton, in all his black-rinse, bankrupt glory, is working the other end of the hall.
The president in question, Marty Stuart, has become country music's greatest curator. Beginning when he was still a teenager on the bluegrass circuit, Stuart bought one country music-related object per week, from old records to old guitars. Eventually, by his own admission, "it just got out of control." Today, he owns an entire warehouse of country memorabilia, from Hank Williams' hat to Jimmie Rodgers' lantern.
Recently, he has become concerned with his own legacy with the art of his craft. He has been seeking, as he says, "a deeper place." Still, he betrays no compunction for performing in the wake of elephants. "I kinda like what Keith Richards says," chuckles Stuart. "He says art is short for Arthur." He continues. "Mom and Pop, or that dude that's worked hard all week, he really don't give a shit about my art collection, or my knowledge of Bill Monroe's first band. He don't care about Charlie Poole. In truth, they are there to be entertained, and we've got to remember: That's the gig."
Stuart is using this nine-day casino stand to work out the particulars of a new set incorporating material from The Pilgrim, a concept album released in June on MCA. The Pilgrim is one part musical, one part parable, one part tribute, and one part shot at redemption. Once a precocious disciple of country's hillbilly progenitors (he joined Lester Flatt's band at the age of 13 over a quarter-century ago, playing rhythm guitar and mandolin) and its iconic outlaws (with extended stints as Johnny Cash's guitarist and son-in-law), Stuart eventually hit the big time with a solo career in which his musicianship was frequently obscured by coiffure and couture.
At the peak of his fame, Marty Stuart was a rockin' little rooster prone to butt-wiggle an embroidered, hot-pickin' cool breeze, blowing into town with a Saturday night band to tear things up and move on. Lots of flash and grin, doin' a little thing they called the hillbilly rock. Lester's little boy-wonder done gone Nashvegas.
It worked, in a party-hearty sort of way. Still, when you've paid your dues pickin' "Don't Get Above Your Raisin'" for the man who wrote it, but paid for your bus by singing "Touch me, turn me on, and burn me down," you know that somewhere out there ahead of you is a crossroads: One path leads to statesmanlike viability, the other to geriatric parody.
The Pilgrim grew out of two events: the death of Bill Monroe, and a good book. Stuart was recording at Sun Studios when he got the call about Monroe. He went walking in the back streets of Memphis and came back with a verse in his head:
I am a lonesome pilgrim, far from home
He wrote two more verses, played it once for the band, then recorded it in a single take. "For a year and a half, it was the only song I had to show for this project," says Stuart. In the interim, he found himself participating in a series of memorial services: Monroe, Grandpa Jones, Roy Huskey Jr.. Time was passing in the form of friends.
He also read Nicholas Dawidoff's In The Country Of Country. "That book had as much to do with kickin' this album off in my head as the death of Mr. Monroe," says Stuart. "When you opened it up, there was a map of the United States. And all the towns highlighted were like spiritual touchstones. Tupelo; Meridian; Bakersfield; Rosine, Kentucky; Turkey, Texas.
"And I noticed I wasn't included in that book, nor should I have been. But it gave me something to strive for. I wanted to go back and dig through all the vines, the myths, the fables, the experiences, everything I had packed on my back for the past 25 years. I wanted to cut through every bit of that and find a place where I could hear the pure holy tones, and hear those ancient voices from that other world. And they're still there. You just gotta go get 'em."
The album is called to order by a train whistle, followed by the sounds of a fidgeting orchestra, tuning while the house lights dim. Then a shimmering glissando spills from the string section, cascading like a clutch of pearls down a spiral staircase, converging with a steam-train snare and the Doppler moan of a steel guitar, the whole works sweeping into a chonkety-chonk rhythm that's all center line and telephone poles, off to track the troubled path of a pilgrim.
Loosely structured around the true story of a man from Stuart's hometown who killed himself in front of his wife over her infidelity, the album's structure (woven with prelude and reprise, split by a 31-second intermission in the form of the Clinch Mountain Boys' "Cluck Old Hen") draws heavily on Stuart's recent involvement in writing for the stage and screen. Stuart just completed work on a musical by Los Angeles playwright Mary Willard, and wrote and performed the score for the upcoming Billy Bob Thornton film Daddy And Them.
"It really was kind of the training wheels for this album," says Stuart. "Instead of goin' for that mentality of a Tin Pan Nashville song, to where you try in two minutes and thirty seconds to cram every nook and cranny with a hook, I think it taught me just to relax and tell the story, let it flow."
Stuart also cites Roger Miller's Big River, the 1985 Tony Award-winning musical based on Mark Twain's Huck Finn, as an early seed of inspiration. "I remember when Roger took me upstairs at his house in New Mexico and showed me his briefcase full of manuscripts," says Stuart. "He truly was proud of that work...and I remember thinking, 'Maybe someday I can do a project that has that sort of ambition.'" He also did some of the writing in his warehouse, surrounded by the Nudie suits and boots of those who walked before him.
Stuart's story features a range of characters, including the jilted husband, a hobo, a waitress and an omniscient hipster crow. The Pilgrim himself is the unwitting "other man," and the album tracks his attempts to flee the tragedy he set in motion. The story is told by many voices, including Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris and George Jones; thanks in part to the structure of the work, each artist's contribution comes off less as a guest shot than the natural occupation of a role. When Ralph Stanley sings about "a tormented man," his withered voice and ambling banjo foreshadow both the tragedy and the journey. When Johnny Cash appears near the end of the album to deliver an apparitional recitation of Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Sir Galahad", it is as if the grand quatrains are scudding across a lowering Welsh sky.
As a singer, Stuart has always relied more on phrasing and attitude than melodics, and although several cuts on The Pilgrim are straightforward hillbilly rockers a la 1991's Tempted, he allows a song such as "Hobo's Prayer" to unfold with unforced ease, giving story precedence over strut. "The Observations Of A Crow" is a laid-back piece of easy humor. And the title song, reappearing in three "acts" over the course of the record, is larger than life at once glorious and humble, touched by gospel, filled with lonesome.
And then there are the instruments. Uncle Josh Graves leads out "The Greatest Love Of All Time" with a pinging dobro run. Gary Hogue's steel guitar suffuses "Reasons" with an anguish that resurrects the instrument from its relegated status as token Music Row garnish and puts a perfectly straight face on the edgy resignation of the line, "It was the perfect excuse to buy bullets." Conversely, on "Goin' Nowhere Fast", Hogue lets the steel skip along beneath the driving drums and big guitars, beep-beeping like a little red Nash delighted to be part of the convoy.
Throughout the album runs Stuart's 1933 Lloyd Loar Gibson F-5 mandolin. Writers often describe the sound of a mandolin as "chiming," but in Stuart's hands, the instrument is most effective providing more contemplative accents to wit, the delicate avian flutters on "The Pilgrim" and "The Greatest Love Of All Time". "For me, the mandolin has been a magic wand," says Stuart. "I can do 'Burn Me Down', and then pick up a mandolin and sing 'Dark As A Dungeon', and my credibility to myself comes back instantly."
Marty Stuart got the pickin' bug while growing up in the Deep South town of Philadelphia, Mississippi. "Daddy really liked string-band music, and the first record I ever got, when I was five, was Flatt & Scruggs," he says. Shortly thereafter, the Flatt & Scruggs television show debuted. "It brought those songs to life in a new way. And for me and Daddy, that was our quality time. We'd sit and watch country music together."
But there was a subplot. "This was when all the civil rights business was goin' down," he says. "Racial relations were horrible. The entire mood 'round our town was chaos. And the whole nation was breathin' down our neck. Daddy took me and my sister down, we parked his truck, and Jennifer and me stood on the hood of the truck as Martin Luther King marched his Freedom March through town. This whole town was crazy. And in the middle of all that darkness, to sit down at the end of the week and have Flatt & Scruggs come on and pick some tunes for you, it was like the cloud lifted. There was a ray of light that came in with them. They were like your favorite country cousins."
The final track on the new album, "Mr. John Henry, Steel Driving Man", is a two-minute instrumental by Marty and Earl Scruggs. "I had no plan for that to be on the record," says Stuart, "but it took me full circle, to when I was a kid standin' in front of that television set. And it brought it back, in my opinion, to a point of pure art, pure enjoyment, pure fun, pure credibility. One microphone, sittin' knee to knee, just goin' for it. And it goes back to points in my life whether I was going through a divorce, or getting' my sanity back, or just road-fried, or whatever the situation, happy times or bad times a trip to Earl's house, and a good pickin' over at Scruggs', you just come out feelin' different. It's like goin' to church or something."
Stuart's first real musical instruction came from a teenager named Carl Jackson. "He was a child prodigy," says Stuart. "He played on the Grand Ole Opry with a group called Jim & Jesse & the Virginia Boys. When Carl would come back from Nashville to work on his schoolwork, he and his dad would come down to my hometown and play. And I heard about Carl Jackson, so I went and met him, and his dad this was when I was 11 and his dad recognized the fire in my eyes. And bein' that he'd already raised one musical kid, he kinda took me under his wing and helped me, showed me my first little bits on the mandolin, taught me a couple of fiddle tunes and stuff. He got me started." At home, Stuart tutored himself with an adjustable-speed phonograph. "I'd take records and slow 'em down, so I could get the licks, then speed it up and play along."
At 12, Stuart met Bill Monroe, who handed him a pick and challenged him to go learn how to use it. A year later, the boy waylaid Lester Flatt backstage and asked for a job. He got it, and his education began in earnest. "Out there on the circuit, I just basically had access to anybody's playin' that I liked. They were usually the kind of guys that I could go up to. Vassar Clements, for instance: 'Vassar, I love the way you play this, how do you do this?' And country music musicians are really friendly that way for the most part; they'll sit down and work it out with you."
Even as a child, Stuart claims he never had any doubts about his career choice. In pictures from the era, he is a half-pint in a suit coat and a straw cowboy hat ("No matter what I did, I came out lookin' like Eddie Munster," he jokes), stepping right up front for his solos, respectful of his elders but hardly deferential.
The first time he played the Opry, he fell asleep as Lester drove him to town. "Lester thought I'd be uptight and nervous," says Stuart, "but I never have been. It was totally what I prepared myself for. It was what I wanted to do; I knew who I was with, and I knew the importance of the gig. About two weeks in, on the way home from doing a Martha White radio show one day, I was thinkin', 'Hey man, you're doin' pretty good,' and the next thing I heard in my head was, 'Now see if you can keep the gig!'" He laughs. He kept the gig and got others, including work for Clements and Doc Watson.
So how did he wind up doing pay-per-views with Travis Tritt?
"When I was starvin', and nobody paid any attention to anything I was doin', back in the late '80s, I was cuttin' country songs, rockabilly songs and actually, I was at a point, I was tryin' to find myself, too. I was out exploring musically. And the thing that hit for me was a song called 'Hillbilly Rock'. That was a conjured up piece of business, and it was fun, and it was enjoyable, and it took off. And so I tried to keep up with it and help promote it. But it got to a point where I was goin', 'It's not ringin' as true as it once did to me.' I don't think I was guilty of anything, other than tryin' to keep up with what I had created. I think what I was more guilty of than anything is not walkin' away from that particular thing six months earlier. But I don't really apologize for it. It served me well, and I think it rings true for what it was.
"You've got to remember too, from the standpoint of a hardcore purist point of view, that Lester's band, we were looked upon as commercial whizzes, say, compared to Ralph Stanley, who was a more pure mountain tone, or Doc Watson, or the old-time, hardline folkies. They looked at us as like a commercial Opry band, instead of the pure thing that I look back upon it as sometimes. In bluegrass and old-time music and folk music, there's always been that dividing line, what Dylan put up with at Newport. To this day, you go back to the world of bluegrass, you'll probably find those that despise Alison Krauss, and think she's totally commercial, and prefer a more old-time sound, but then again she's brought a lot of people to the format. And I'm sure Steve Earle singing bluegrass infuriates a lot of old bluegrass hardliners, but once again, it brings a whole lot of light to Del McCoury, and vice versa."
As president of the CMF, Stuart has frequently and publicly chided country music for abandoning its ancestry, and he remains critical of country music's commercial state with one confounding qualification: "I'm guilty of helpin' it get there," he confesses. "But there comes a time when you just have to walk away from any gimmicks. In my case, bein' a rhinestone cowboy. No matter what kind of ass-whippin' I'm about to get out there commercially.
"I tried to keep it happy and light for years. That's the way I was consulted and advised and researched to do it. But the thing I miss about country music is the stories. The first country music hit was 'The Prisoner's Song,' and before that I loved Pop Stoneman's 'Sinking Of The Titanic', recorded in the '20s. Folk and country singers used to be correspondents. Woody Guthrie, when he'd sing to us about Grand Coulee Dam, sing those folk songs 'Deportee', those kinds of things he was a correspondent. George Jones was a great correspondent of broken hearts; Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, they all were great reporters, and somewhere along the line, the demographics changed, and it just got to be about sellin' ice cream cones on a radio station.
"But if you really get out and walk the sidewalks and the country roads of this world, you find out that the same problems still exist out there and there's a lot of tragedy, and everybody's told not to talk about it anymore. It's OK to make movies about it, but don't sing songs about it. Well, that's a buncha shit.
"This Pilgrim thing, for the most part, there's so much truth in the darkness and the tragedy of it, and I find that when I stand flat-footed and sing 'Reasons' with an honest heart onstage, people understand it."
And what about the songs that paid for the bus?
"I think there comes a point for certain kinds of songs when you outgrow 'em, and you just have to say, 'Man, you were my friend, but I don't expect you to do that for me anymore you shouldn't expect me to do that for you anymore!'" He laughs. "Still, Mick Jagger probably hates to sing 'Satisfaction', but when I go see the Stones, I'd be disappointed if I didn't hear it. Johnny Cash told me once, 'I had no idea "A Boy Named Sue" was gonna do what it did. When you cut a song, you better be ready to sing it for the rest of your life.'"
"It's a total playground to me out here," Stuart summarizes, surveying the seemingly contradictory landscape of country music he roams from one day to the next. "Last week me and Uncle Josh Graves and Earl Scruggs did a recording, I sang a spiritual at the funeral of the father of one of the Fairfield Four he was an old Chess artist and I was the only white boy in that place and Saturday night I played at a Reno hotel where I had an elephant act as an opener and Wayne Newton on the other end of the hall. It's like one of the most crazy adventures I could ask for."
Perhaps you've read those Sports Illustrated profiles detailing an athlete's rise, fall and recovery, the ones that end with the jock out of rehab, back on the field and in the hands of Jesus, the ones that conclude on the upbeat, setting you up nicely for the announcement on Sportscenter a week later that the subject was arrested after blowing out his knee wrestling a transvestite hooker for a bag of crack behind a dumpster. We have learned to mistrust neatly-wrapped tales of epiphany and redemption, and should.
There is redemption in The Pilgrim; it is a solid, uplifting work of informed intent. But the Arty Marty is not prepared to disband the Marty Party. The rhinestone cowboy is right there in the wings, as much a part of the irreconcilable contradictions as the mandolin and the elephants. Marty Stuart isn't renouncing anything and you get the feeling he knows this. He won't be pulling a Cat Stevens anytime soon. The clothes are still by Manuel. The hair is still a salt-and-pepper brushfire. He's never completely out of earshot of the carnival barker, and he doesn't mind. He hears the voices muttering about squandered talent, the critics who suggest he has preserved more of country's heritage with his warehouse than with his music.
But The Pilgrim sounds as if the journey has been more keenly observed than the tight pants may suggest. And when he comes in off the playground, grabs his mandolin and knocks on Earl Scruggs' door, Earl lets him right on in there.
[Someone on Marty Stuart's road crew once stuffed No Depression contributing editor Michael Perry's steel-toed boots with cheese.]
By Michael Perry
Note: Read Michael Perry's Diary "I'm With The Band." Michael spent two weeks on the road with Marty in June 1997.
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