Marty Stuart Breaks Out With His Own Musical Mix

This appeared in USA Today in 1992

At 13, on Ernest Tubb's tour bus, Marty Stuart learned to love the life of a road musician--and to play a decent hand of poker.

Twenty years later, the venerable bus, so worn it no longer rattles, again is whizzing Stuart cross-country. Only this time, the wide-eyed kid with the mean mandolin--who backed Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash--is a rooster-haired, glitterbilly comer. His current much-praised album, Tempted, is his breakthrough work. He and pal Travis Tritt have the current No. 4 country hit, "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'," [the song went #1 the following week] and are co-headlining one of the hottest tours on the road.

"I never doubted it would happen," says Stuart of his emergent star status. "Well, for one minute I did, but I thought, hell, I don't know how to do anything else."

What's enabled Stuart to step from sideman to star is Tempted, which as produced three hits. Radio is jumping on the just-out fourth release, "Burn Me Down," written in 1965 by Eddie Miller ("Release Me"). That's given him the fodder to hook up with Tritt for their No Hats Tour.

It's the first fulfillment of what Nashville's Old Guard has been saying for years: Stuart's talent and credentials were bound to carry him to stardom. At the same time, the Mississippi native faced industry ambivalence. Some said he was too rootsy-country; others said too rock.

Yet it's that very mix that makes him stand out. The album's opener, "I'm Blue, I'm Lonesome" by Bill Monroe and Hand Williams, "says everything I need to say about country music," Stuart declares. "It rocks, it twangs, it has that Appalachian harmony thing and it has blues, all wrapped up by two of the master architects. The fact I could get that on a mainstream country record just blew my mind."

Stuart got the attitude and latitude to create Tempted when he scored a top 10 country hit in 1990 with "Hillbilly Rock," a short history course in country music. The accompanying video cemented his image as a brash and colorful stage performer, recalling the country flash of the '50s and '60s.

Much of his collector-quality wardrobe is vintage stuff. Stuart's mania for country's yesteryear is evident in his 300-piece collection of spangled show-biz garb.

His bus, a rolling shrine to Tubb with its hand-tooled leather interior and names of performing legends burned into its wooden panels, carries stage suits worn by Williams, Cash and Porter Wagoner. Most of Stuart's new outfits are tailored by Manuel, also responsible for Dwight Yoakam's glitz-and-grit look, and the protege of the late, outrageous Nudie the Tailor, who brought country flash to its peak in the 1950s. To Stuart, it's "wearable art" that he assembles into outfits at once casual and chic. "Mind you, if you wear the pants and the coat, you get beat up."

Stuart favors studs, fancy stitching, arrow designs--lots of arrow designs--and brightly colored boots. More recently, he favors black outfits, a sort of "Cash with flash" look.

His total look, he says, is "Porter Wagoner and Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and Johnny Cash and Ernest Tubb, with a shot of Bob Dylan just for good measure." "The haircut comes from there, the boots from here, the style of the coat from there. It's just all my favorite influences that I wrap the music in."

The musical influences are as varied as the wardrobe. Stuart toured with Lester Flatt until his death in 1979, then spent six years in Cash's band. He also performed with country and rock stars including Monroe, Dylan, The Everly Brothers, Doc Watson, Billy Joel, Neil Young and Emmylou Harris.

Harris, who met Stuart in 1973 when she was touring with her mentor Gram Parsons says Stuart has "absorbed all the real solid gold stuff, but he's making it his own with his writing and bringing a whole new, young perspective to it. He's really the person to carry on that tradition, yet he really rocks out."

Stuart says what kicked him into his current overdrive was his emergence from his "great depression" of 1987-89 following his divorce from Cash's daughter Cindy and being dropped from Columbia Records after two unsuccessful albums.

"There was a lot of hype. Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam and myself were the 'three next princes.' It took me about five minutes to realize it wasn't gonna happen for me. I said to Yoakam, 'You're the prince. Go for it. You represent our end of the music world.' As Roger Miller says, 'I looked up and there were buzzards circling my career'."

At a low point in 1987 when Stuart "had no money and everything had bottomed out," Manuel made him a special outfit saying, "It's a little big in the shoulders and chest, so you'll have to stand a little taller. Have a little pride in yourself."

Later, Stuart got a call from old friend Jerry Sullivan, a gospel performer who, with his daughter Tammy, tours backwoods churches and bluegrass festivals. Asked to recommend a mandolin player, Stuart, ho hadn't had an offer in two years, volunteered himself. The tour, he says, "helped me discover what it's all about."

Then he started rebuilding his career. "I went to the Country Music Hall of Fame and just stood around for about two days, looking at all the classic points of country music. I thought 'This is where I'm gonna stage it from. I'm going to take the best pieces of country music and lay into it and find my own niche.' "

Lately, he says, he's come to terms with his voice, which he says once was described as sounding "like a preacher on the courthouse steps."

"You have to realize what you can and can't do. I wish I could croon, but I can't. But then I thought back to when I was a kid and my favorite singers were Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb, Lester Flatt, Bob Dylan and even Tex Ritter. The more I got into them, the more I thought 'These guys aren't singers, they're stylists. They know their boundaries.' As long as you're singing the truth, I think you can get by with it."

The truths Stuart tells go deeper than his singing: As his recordings have caught on, his songs are hotter properties. More than 25 songs he's written or co-written were recorded by other artists in the last year, including Harris, Wynonna Judd and George Strait. And he's in demand again as a session musician.

"I wonder where they were when I was really starving, but it's still fun to play on a Randy Travis' album."

"I try to treat this business with the irreverence it deserves, but I love it. I absolutely crave and love it. I want to be a Bill Monroe when it's done. I want to be a statesman around here."

By David Zimmerman

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