Marty Stuart: The Cream Interview

This appeared in the Nashville Scene - October 15, 2014

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that every Marty Stuart album of the past decade-and-a-half — really from 1999’s The Pilgrim on — has been a concept album. After abandoning his pursuit of hip-swiveling hit country singles, he reinvented himself as a combination statesman, historian and artist — someone who releases projects of cultural heft and articulates their importance with savvy oratory. That was no insignificant feat, considering the class-based chasm that still exists between perceptions of country music and intellectual respectability, not to mention the fact that Stuart struck up this serious conversation while retaining his down-home, proudly pompadoured sense of showmanship.

Part of being a patron of the countrified arts, as he conceives of the role, is bringing his collections of rhinestoned stage wear and backstage portraiture to museum spaces and inviting under-appreciated talents to guest on his RFD-TV show and his annual Late Night Jam at the Ryman. But he’s continually building his discography too, backed by The Fabulous Superlatives, a lean, mean unit made up of singing drummer Harry Stinson, singing bassist Paul Martin and Tele wizard Kenny Vaughan.

The latest from Stuart & Co. is a double album titled Saturday Night / Sunday Morning. One disc holds honky-tonk blues and ballads of bruised egos. The other is stocked with quartet gospel from both black and white tributaries — not aggressively evangelistic fare, but ecstatic visions of a welcoming heaven and a God who watches out for people regardless of their social status.

There’s a multi-pronged vision behind this two-dozen-song set, just as you’d expect, and Stuart had plenty to offer on the topic.

NS: I’ve been interested in the idea of the spiritual and the sensual coexisting in country for a long time. And I’m really interested in how you highlight that with this new double album. To begin with, I read that you’d planned to release the gospel half of this as a standalone set. Why did you reframe it as Saturday Night / Sunday Morning?

Marty: Well, for nine years I’ve been waitin’ this project out. Once upon a time it was gonna be a gospel record. Once upon a time it was gonna be a country record. The foundational song was “Uncloudy Day,” with Mavis [Staples singing], and [me] playing Pops [Staples’] guitar. I knew when we walked out of the studio that it was the beginning of something bigger than just a regular old project. There’s been several times along the way that I thought that I had it; I thought the songs were in place and I thought everything was all balanced. And I’d live with it for a month and listen at it and go, “That’s not it. Throw it away.” So alongside of this project, I’ve released two or three other projects, 156 TV shows, books, museum exhibits and a whole lot of touring. And I just finally had to wait it out before all the songs appeared.

In my personal life, the first place I ever played was in the church. My daddy is a big fan of traditional country music, especially stringband and bluegrass music. And that occupied Saturday afternoons in my life growing up. Sunday morning was mama’s turn. There was a show from Nashville called “Gospel Singing Jubilee” that featured, like, The Happy Goodman Family and The Florida Boys, The Rambos, all the heavy hittin’ gospel artists of the day. So Saturday Night & Sunday Morning was just kind of a natural thing to me.

NS: Did you grow up in a Southern Baptist church?

Marty: Absolutely. … My mother is the most straight-ahead, textbook, live-by-it Southern Baptist woman you’ll ever meet. Wonderful. And her steadiness is just beyond compare. But here’s where it got interesting: Six doors down from our house in Mississippi was a very charismatic Pentecostal church. And the pastor loved Southern gospel music. So he would invite national touring acts like The Singing Rambos and The Hemphills and other groups like that to come and sing. So my mom, being such a lover of music, would take us down the street to this Pentecostal church. We would see these shows. To this day I don’t know the difference in going to a Rambos show and a rock show, because I mean, people were screamin’ and hollerin’, runnin’ up and down the aisles and shoutin’ and worshippin’. After I went to my first rock show, I thought, “Man, that was kinda like going to see the Rambos down the street.”

NS: Southern Baptists weren’t necessarily on board with rocking out in those years. So I wondered where it was that you encountered some of those styles.

Marty: Well, it’s all in how you frame it. When I was in The Sullivan Family Singers gospel band when I was 12, Brother Enoch Sullivan was a great backwoods Alabama fiddle player. … I learned from them that when it was time to play “Orange Blossom Special” in church, they called it “The Gospel Train.” The southern quartet circuit, the way the boogie woogie found its way into the church, there was this song called “The Gospel Boogie.” …It was always interesting to me that that one worked, but if you played a Little Richard song in church it didn’t work. If you framed it right with the cool quartet and called it “The Gospel Boogie,” it somehow made it past all the hoops, you know? It’s how you frame it.

NS: I don’t think I’ve encountered anybody better at framing what they’re doing than you are.

Marty: Well, I’ve been framed before [laughs].

NS: It’s you doing the framing here.

Marty: There was an old bluesman named Furry Lewis. I met him in 1973 or 4 when I was in Lester [Flatt]’s band at a Memphis folk festival. He listened to me play and he said, “Boy, you got it. But you’re gon’ have to make up your mind.” I said, “Yeah? ‘Bout what?” He says, “You on the God line or the devil line? You can wind up at the white gate or the hot gate. You’ve got to make up your mind which one you’re gonna go. I’ve made up my mind. I’m gon’ end up at the hot gate.” And man, it just scared me to death.

… Years later when I heard [a recording of] Jerry Lee [Lewis] arguing with Cowboy [Jack Clement], you know, before they cut “Great Balls of Fire,” I thought, “That is the same argument.”

When I met Pops Staples, I said, “Pops, I need to ask you about something. Do you remember Furry Lewis?” He said, “Yeah, I know him.” I told him what he told me. Pops said, “That old man told you that? That’s a bunch of mess.” I said, “How do you figure?” Pops said, “I think when God looks down on the world and looks at all of us to see how we treat each other, he gets a mighty big case of the blues. You go ahead and play your music.”

NS: I’d imagine it could be quite the psychological burden to carry if you have an old-timer like Lewis telling you something like that.

Marty: Oh, it was. And I was just a kid. I was 13 or 14 years old. I thought, “I ain’t doin’ nothin’ wrong.” And that’s when I understood when they tried to persecute Elvis for shakin’. … Jerry Lee’s a perfect example. I call him my Uncle Gerald. He is my uncle. I dearly love him. But there’s always been this torment. And I do not have that torment. There is a razor thin line between Saturday night and Sunday morning. I exist in both.

NS: On this album, it doesn’t feel like you’re rushing through Saturday night to get to Sunday morning, or savoring Saturday night and dreading Sunday morning.

Marty: No. I mean, the same person moves through both days and nights.

NS: You were in Johnny Cash’s band in the ‘80s, when reverence for older generations of country music makers wasn’t necessarily at a high point. Did the experience of playing alongside Cash during that era inspire you down the line when you took up the cause of elevating and celebrating musical traditions?

Marty: Well, his perseverance spoke to me, as a band member and as a producer and as a lifelong friend. I look back on the works from the ‘80s, and he was so hungry to create good work. He would try anything, and at that time, you know as well as I do, the critics were looking the other way. He was certainly a country legend and an American treasure. But I knew that there was a deeper side of him that was trying to get out.

Nashville just wasn’t having it. L.A. wasn’t having it. New York wasn’t having it. But when we would go to Europe, I would see what was about to happen. … I knew in my heart of hearts that his third coming would happen, which it did. It was just about hangin’ in there …

NS: One approach to celebrating the importance of country music is to strictly focus on the folk roots of the tradition. But you’ve also made the show business roots of the tradition a focus of celebration and preservation. Why’d you feel like that was important, even if nobody else did?

Marty: I first arrived in this town in 1972. And I’ve said it many times: walking into the Grand Ole Opry with Lester Flatt was like walking into the Vatican with the pope. I was given instant acceptance into the family of country music at a very prestigious level. And the thing that I noticed about everybody around the family table in country music is everybody was encouraged to bring their culture, their individuality to the game. It made for a very interesting-lookin’ and -soundin’ group of people.

So being an individual was always promoted to me. It was always like an imperative put before me: You cannot copy anybody else. You can be inspired by [someone else], but you must be an original. … Show business was just a part of me. When I was a kid, and I’d go see acts at the fair that would come from Nashville, I would last about five minutes if somebody didn’t have a look, a sound or some kind of gag going. I wanted to be entertained as well as educated, you understand. The greatest education in the world comes when you’re entertained.

When I watch Kenny Vaughan Harry Stinson and Paul Martin, it is hard not to like those characters while they’re entertaining me. And I’m gonna learn something off of ‘em each and every night.

NS: You’ve blurred the lines between highbrow and lowbrow culture with things like your Sparkle and Twang exhibit at the Tennessee State Museum. At the Frist, you’ve put dignified portraits of country legends in front of an art museum audience. You’ve been able to pull off some things that look pretty unlikely on paper.

Marty: That was the mission. I swear to you, from the first rehearsal with the Fabulous Superlatives, I knew that this was the band of my lifetime. It was my legacy band. … I knew there was a bigger job at hand here.… Our [country music] culture is an endangered culture, because the authenticity of it is in grave danger. In the pantheon of the arts, we are not viewed with the same regard as jazz or ballet or classical music. And we need to change that. So that has been our mission for the past decade.

And so far, this year, I finally saw some blue sky in that mission. We started out playing the Lincoln Center this year, and then we played the Smithsonian, the Native American Museum. We’ve got the Frist exhibit. Another photography exhibit with my mother’s work in St. Louis. And then we play the Metropolitan Museum of Art this coming week.

NS: You’re spending as much time in museums as in theaters or clubs.

Marty: We are. We also play plenty of theaters. And last Saturday night, we played a redneck fest in north Alabama and had a ball. It’s the same band. We treat it all the same.

By Jewly Hight

Return To Articles Return To Home Page