Marty Stuart: "I Ain't Trying To Break Anybody's Rules"
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|Marty Stuart's success, it's said, has come the old-fashioned way: he's worked for it. "I hope a lot of these guys and girls who explode out of the box, I hope they have a grassroots following. You've got to have something to fall back on because eventually there will be a cold season," says the singer / songwriter / musician who is considered one of country's brightest lights. "If you don't have a fan base, you wind up out of work and out of a career. It's real important for me to get out and take time to enjoy the fans. For 20 years now I've been in this business."
The Mississippi native, 32, has been on the road since age 13, first playing mandolin with the legendary Lester Flatt, then touring with Johnny Cash and doing studio and concert work with Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Roger Miller, Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris. This former sideman now gone solo still lends his songs, guitar and mandolin to the recordings of people like Harris, Randy Travis, Wynonna Judd, George Strait and his buddy Travis Tritt, among others. Stuart's latest solo album, This One's Gonna Hurt You, is one that is particularly special to him. He likes to say with pride that he finally got his past, present and future together on this album.
"We thought we had it finished three times," he says. "We had it finished once and then this 'No Hats' tour [with Tritt] came up. I saw it would be a lengthy and sizable tour. I said, 'I think I need to re-write and readjust a couple things here [for the album].' When we saw the audience that came to the 'No Hats' tour, we took our time [with the album] and didn't rush it. We let it do its natural thing. I love every single note on this album."
There's a duet with Tritt on the title track, a duet with Cash on "Doin' My Time," a song that appeared on Flatt and Scruggs' first album and on Cash's first album; a nod to Charley Pride with his old hit, "Just Between You and Me," and a lesson from the masters in "Me & Hank & Jumpin' Jack Flash."
Stuart sees his role as trying to carry country tradition into the future, to add to the chain of the music. He says he probably could have gotten a lot further in the mainstream country if he had not been so adamant about hanging onto the past. He has no regrets. "It's nice that the mainstream is finally here and we're in the middle of it. The dirt road always was more fun than the interstate. Willie Nelson told me that one time. It is true," he says. As far as Stuart is concerned, there was no other choice.
"I was taught to love and respect the people who raised you," he says. "The people who raised me were the master architects of country music. I have an obligation to honor their memory and inspiration they sent me. I found out in this new universe of country music their own tried and true Vaudeville rules still apply."
Stuart is not afraid to use the expression "hillbilly music" when he talks about his work. "I can truly understand that for a long time 'hillbilly' was not a cool word to use. I think people in the '40s, '50s, '60s, when they were country and went to LA to do a TV show, they got sneered at and called 'hillbilly.' I'm proud to be a part of the hillbilly division of country music."
One writer praises Stuart as "the most ardent fan country music could hope for and the most effective link between the music's past and future." Stuart appreciates the compliment. "I do consider myself a diehard country fan from ever era," he says. "I'm a fan of every era of country music, even the 'Urban Cowboy' era, and I find it hard to say anything good about that era. The salvation of the 'Urban Cowboy' period is that it took country from a mom and pop to a blue chip industry. Musically, we died."
Stuart senses that the public has a better understanding of him now. "When we first started in '86, we walked out with tight pants and rhinestones and people said, 'Gosh what is this?' I had a good 10-12 year base behind me though, so that there was enough people to support me. I had a cult following. Now there's a growing mainstream support."
He is focused on his role. "As an entertainer, my job is to cause people to have fun," he says. "I don't write serious songs, but I'm into making people dance, cut up and have fun. There are a lot of heavy things going on in the world. My job is to be an entertainer right now--and, of course, stop at every Waffle House in America. That's the main thing [he laughs], to be on a first name basis with every Waffle House waitress in America."
Stuart tries to be honest in evaluating his talents. He has said, "As long as you are singing the truth, I think you can get by with it."
"Obviously, when I listen to me sing on tape, I ain't Bing Crosby," he elaborates. "I'm not Nat King Cole. I wish I were. My favorite singers are Bob Dylan, Ernest Tubb, Tex Ritter. I wouldn't consider any of those guys crooners, but they did pack a powerful punch. They did have a good song in their mouth. And then I found people like Haggard and Jones who could sing the phone book. I've come to terms with it. You deal with what you've got."
He says he loves being a renegade and "being a little bit to the left." His heroes have always been guys who were different, he says. "Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs had to cut their own trail. Johnny Cash didn't do it by anybody's rules or Willie or Waylon or Jesus Christ didn't do it by anybody's rules. The cool thing is when I stepped off the bus in Nashville to be a musician, nobody gave me a rule book. We don't need another Garth Brooks or Marty Stuart. My job is to be Marty Stuart and that comes with some original terms. I ain't trying to break anybody's rules. What the world didn't need is another vanilla ice cream cone standing in as a country singer who has nothing to say, no personality."
Stuart says he has learned from everybody with whom he has worked. "Absolutely!" he adds. Even Ernest Tubb, for example, whose bus he now owns, he says he learned how to treat fans. "I remember him as an old man sitting on the edge of the stage of an armory after we did a show and signing every popcorn box, every 8 x 10 photo, every album 'til the last fan was satisfied. Then he got up and went to the bus."
From Flatt, he says he learned the basics of show business. "His whole thing was longevity: 'Don't storm in and take it all at once and run off. Make sure you show up every January 1 in Nashville. Make a career out of it' "
Bob Dylan? "I think he's the last great genius poet we have left. He's truly the most mysterious man I've ever met," Stuart says. "I love his mystique. He's probably one of the most brilliant songwriters I ever heard. He says 'Don't put me in a pigeon hole. I'll fly out from it every time.' "
Neil Young: "I played mandolin on his Old Ways album. I learned a lot from him. Talking about voices, he ain't a crooner. But when he comes on the radio, you know it's him." Stuart was impressed with Young's involvement in all aspects of the album. "He impressed me that he wrote, arranged, produced and mixed it, and talked about how he wanted the videos to be. He taught me and reinforced inside of me the understanding that in order to count out there, to be different, you have to be a total artist. Johnny Cash is a total artist too."
Stuart thinks country music is at a great place right now, a place that should be savored by fans. "I think it's at the best place it will ever be in," he explains. "You can see so much variety, but also see Minnie Pearl, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Bill Monroe. Country is at an even balance right now. I don't know if it will be this full again. People should take advantage of that."
The artist suggests that others in country might be able to take advantage of what he considers the groundbreaking work he and Tritt did on the 'No Hats' tour. Among other things, it was a lesson in putting egos aside in sharing a bill.
"I'm a fan of Travis and respect and admire his work. I think he's one of the more important singers there are in country music. I love him like a brother. It don't do me any good to get mad at him. I'd just have to make up. I'm proud of the 'No Hats' tour [of more than 100 dates]. It was a bold statement that attracted a lot of young fans who might not otherwise have come to a country show," he says.
His favorite audience? "A wired audience," Stuart says, "one that came to be entertained, that ain't afraid to let it show, one that came to holler and scream. I welcome that. I can't stand people just sitting there." He says his approach in concert is to turn wherever he is playing into a big honky tonk "where they can forget their troubles for 75 minutes and have a good time."
He says he uses the fair circuit as a time to break in new shows and material from his new albums--"to play off-Broadway so to speak."
"If you knock it out there in boot camp, if it works at this level, you can count on it working in the coliseum level in the fall," he explains. The downside of playing fairs can be competition with fairground sounds and the fact that "you don't get the great production" you do indoors, he says. "The good side is you get to press the flesh with America."
Many more in America have been able to learn how much music means to Stuart.
"I'm on this earth because of music," he says. "Music makes me tick. Music is that thing that when you meet somebody you don't know and they look at you and wonder--you don't have to say a word. They know you've got something inside of you."
That "something" comes from God, he says. "Music is one of the greatest gifts from God you could ever ask for," he adds. "I truly feel like God is my friend because of music. I don't take any credit for writing songs. I think they are heavenly, divine gifts."
That is easy for people to forget sometimes "as fast as it turns out here," says Stuart. "When you are traveling at this rate of speed, it's easy to drop the ball in the spiritual department. I struggle to hang on to it. Without it I feel pretty empty."
Stuart implies that his future will be full as long as he is able to continue what he is doing. "I'm not put on this earth to be a rocket scientist," he says. "I do feel pretty confident I was put here to be a country artist. I like doing things different, innovating inside country music. It's all based around the songs and the opportunity they open up for you. You are nowhere without that song. It all goes back to the song. The rest of it falls in after that."
As for success, Stuart sees it as having the freedom to choose your lifestyle.
"I have a lot of things in my collection, but the other side of me is very unmaterialistic," he explains. I feel right at home sleeping in a teepee on the banks of a river in Montana as I do at a hotel. I feel real comfortable in that. The ultimate in hillbilly rich is if your car wears out and you need to get another used Cadillac, you can afford it without having to beg."
By Rex Rutkoski
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