Marty Stuart Doesn't Need A Big Hat To Be Country

This appeared in The New York Times - July 12, 1992

The Island Inn Motel is situated on a strip of highway here that bears the misnomer Old Country Road. Shoulder to shoulder with fur outlets, tile manufacturers, fast-food joints and muffler shops, the Island Inn leans more toward the motel part of its name: it has a lobby with a fake fireplace and English reproduction furniture, endless corridors lined with nondescript numbered doors, a pool out back with pink and green tables, umbrellas and lawn chairs.

It's neat and clean, but it sure isn't country. Sitting poolside for an interview, the 33-year-old singer Marty Stuart glances around with the mild confusion of one slightly out of his element. "Do you ever get the feeling," he says, "that we're at a freshly painted Holiday Inn?"

Mr. Stuart knows country. He was born country, in rural Mississippi, where at an early age he ditched his copy of Meet the Beatles because it didn't move him as much as his Johnny Cash and Flatt and Scruggs records. He was raised country, playing mandolin on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry by the time he was 13 and on tour with Lester Flatt for the rest of his teens. He dresses country: his closets are stocked with rhinestone-encrusted and rose-embroidered jackets designed by the western-wear guru Manuel, a protege of Nudie Cohen, the clothier who tailored outlandish suits for Gene Autry, Porter Wagoner and Roy Rogers.

Mr. Stuart even travels country. On his recent tour with the singer Travis Tritt (they bill themselves as the "No Hats Tour," to set themselves apart from the likes of Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson and other singers in the new country renaissance), he rode in a 1972 bus originally owned and decorated by the singer Ernest Tubb, who died in 1984. There's patterned leather on the walls, horseshoe-shaped handles on the refrigerator and drawers, a mounted shotgun with a well-worn trigger and a carved sign that reads "E. the T., Living Legend." A string of red chili pepper lights winds along the wall above the shotgun.

"One time we were driving and the lights started blinking," says Mr. Stuart. "One of the guys in my band got up to check it out, and the cord was unplugged. We all saw it. Funny things happen on the bus. Could be a rational explanation, but we prefer to think Ernest is among us."

This One's Gonna Hurt You, Mr. Stuart's sixth and latest album, could be his ultimate statement on country music. Opening with a surreal spoken narrative in which the singer dreams he visits "hillbilly heaven" and meets Hank Williams, through songs like "Down Home," "Honky Tonk Crowd" and "Now That's Country," the album aspires to nothing less than a definition of the nature of country music, and Mr. Stuart's place in it. "Right now, country music's got more singers than I believe I've ever seen," he tells Williams in "Me and Hank and Jumpin' Jack Flash" against a twangy blues soundtrack. "But I feel different, I said, 'cause I'm a natural-born cat. I'm country to the bone but I don't wear no hat." Mr. Stuart's style reflects his influences: the loping boom-chicka-boom rhythm of "Doin' My Time," a duet with Mr. Cash; the souped-up bluegrass of "High on a Mountain Top," an old-timey tune dating back to the 30's.

Mr. Stuart is a purist, and proud of it. "I respect Garth," he says. "He sings good songs. I truly respect the numbers he's generated and the interest he's generated. As far as me telling you that Garth means as much to me as Johnny Cash, no way. Because I'm not so sure Garth is that country. Every time I hear a Garth Brooks record I tend to want to hear James Taylor.

"Why is country music so big these days?" he continues. "It's the reason Long John Silver sells more fish than the catfish house on the edge of town: they've succeeded in making fish not taste so much like fish. It's the same with country. I hear some authentic country music on the radio today, but most of it is glossed-over pop. It takes more than that to really sustain in country music."

Born in 1958, Mr. Stuart has already survived in the business for longer than most of his peers. His first tour, at the age of 12, was with a gospel group called the Sullivan Family, which played Pentecostal church revivals and bluegrass festivals. At the end of the summer, he tried going back to school.

"Nobody in my school knew who Bill Monroe was, or Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and barely Johnny Cash," he says. "Nobody spoke that language. I proceeded to get myself kicked out. The thing that broke it all down was that I was reading a country music magazine inside my history book. The history teacher came up behind me. She slapped it out of my hand and said, 'If you get your mind off that trash and get it onto history, you might make something of yourself.' To which the genius here replied, 'I'm more interested in making history than I am learning about it.' "

In his own way, Mr. Stuart lived up to his word. The following year he climbed on a bus bound for Nashville. "I got to town, and two days later I was working with Lester Flatt," he says. "And my peers, because they were Lester's, became Ernest Tubb and Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe. These were my buddies, my poker-playing buddies. I lived at Lester's house until my parents relocated up to Tennessee. I loved it: living free, meeting girls, playing mandolin, hanging out with some great pickers."

Mr. Stuart stayed with Flatt until he died in 1979, then spent time as a session musician in Nashville before joining Mr. Cash's band in the early 80's. "After Johnny Cash I said, what am I going to do now, play with Elvis? He's gone. Johnny Cash, that's top of the line." In 1982 Mr. Stuart released a bluegrass album, "Busy Bee Cafe," on the independent label Sugar Hill, but he signed his first real solo contract with CBS in the mid-80's. His debut, Marty Stuart, was a bomb; his followup, Let There Be Country, was never even released. (Columbia plans to reissue both albums this summer.) "Out of 20 years in Nashville, I've had two bad years," he says. "That ain't bad."

Deciding to get back to his roots, Mr. Stuart hooked up once again with the Sullivans, producing an album, A Joyful Noise, that was eventually released through the Country Music Foundation. In 1989 he signed a new deal with MCA. His first two MCA albums, Hillbilly Rock that same year and Tempted in 1991, had some commercial success -- his single "Burn Me Down" hit country's top 10 this spring -- although, as he says, "I'm still an acquired taste."

With This One's Gonna Hurt You, he says, "I feel like I finally got the past, present and future of country music all together on one album." As he stands up to get ready for that night's show, the presence of time seems to linger about Mr. Stuart's shoulders. His black hair is flecked with premature gray; his face is already beginning to show deep lines around his eyes and smile. Then he retreats from the glossed-over suburban monotony that surrounds him, to take haven in the hard-core country caravan of Ernest Tubb's tour bus.

Later that day Mr. Stuart will change from his loose-fitting white shirt into a rhinestone-studded jacket from the house of Manuel and tuck his pale blue denims into brightly stitched cowboy boots. He will stride onstage, like one on a mission, and play his tough, authentic brand of country music for anyone who'll listen.

By Karen Schoemer

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