Marty Stuart's Country Pedigree

This appeared in New Country Music Magazine - Fall 1993

That Marty Stuart has the goods was never in doubt. These days, though, there's an "I Will Not Be Denied" quality about him that seems to come from his sense that he's on the brink of something. His beard is long-gone, record-company woes seem to be a thing of the past, and he's assembled a team behind him that's in tune with what he's trying to accomplish.

Stuart's self-appointed role has been that of making new music consistent with the broad sweep of country's past. Nearly every country performer pays lip service to the music's early stars, but Stuart does more than that. It is, after all, one thing to throw an allusion to Ernest Tubb into your song, but it's quite another to have Tubb's tour bus in your driveway.

Stuart's hillbilly pedigree comes honestly. He was born in Philadelphia, MS in 1958. His early musical education was courtesy of the Columbia Record Club. "My granddad was an old-time Mississippi fiddle player," he says. "My uncle had a bit of James Dean about him and he loved Johnny Cash, and my dad loved Flatt and Scruggs. We got Lester and Earl and Johnny Cash from the Columbia Record Club on the same day. About a week later a cousin gave me Meet The Beatles. I said, "Nah."

Stuart got his first guitar when we was 9 and got the feeling that "this shovel fits my hand real good." He would go to country shows and ask to carry the stars' guitars. He worked tent shows and revivals with the gospel stringband The Sullivan Family, all before he was 12, when he went to Bill Monroe's Bean Blossom Festival. Stuart remembers: "Lester Flatt was such a hero. I stood by his bus all afternoon waiting for him to come out. It was a walk of an eighth or a quarter of a mile from his bus to the stage and I walked behind him, studying him. I knew I belonged in that world.

It's part of Marty Stuart lore that he invited a member of Flatt's Band, Roland White, to his house for supper when the Flatt show was playing near Philadelphia. White returned the favor by inviting him to Nashville and taking him out to a gig in Delaware with the band. On the bus, Flatt heard Stuart play and set about bringing him into the band. He joined as a mandolin player when he was 13, remaining with Flatt until the veteran performer's death in 1979.

"Lester's last year was a great education to me," Stuart says. "He was a wealthy man. He didn't need to perform, but he and his wife had split up after 43 years, and he'd had open-heart surgery. Life just fell apart on him, and the only thing he had left was the applause. He didn't want to play festivals and auditorium shows. He wanted to play little school houses where he and Scruggs started. We played shows some nights in places where there was a wood stove in the middle of the floor to keep it warm. I loved that. It was like going back to the source."

From 1980 to 1986, Stuart worked with Johnny Cash. They met when Stuart saw Cash's phone number in a producer's address book and called to ask him to participate in a tribute to Flatt. "Cash was my man," he says. "He would sing a song about a train, and I could jump on that train and believe." Stuart was alternately and sometimes concurrently a supporting act, backup guitarist, son-in-law, photographer and producer.

At a precociously early age, Stuart had made the transition from adoring fan to fellow performer. He didn't find it in the least upsetting that some of his idols not only had feet of clay, but torsos of clay as well. "We all have feet of clay," he says. "What made it all right for someone like Johnny Cash was that he was the first one to admit it. When he screwed up, he raised his hand and said so. Guys like Cash, they were in the cotton field one day and a star the next. No one was handing out instruction books on how to do that."

The downside of being an industry kid is that Stuart has evolved in public. "It's like I started in the mail room and worked up," he says. "I do regret I've had to work it all out in front of the public because there's some embarrassing tapes that'll get released sooner or later."

Excluding an obscure 1979 album on his own label, the earliest sampling of Stuart available is a 1982 album for Sugar Hill, recently released on CD. It was, as Stuart says, a back-porch record. "I'd been working with Cash and I missed playing acoustic music. The most fun I've ever had onstage in my life was with Doc and Merle Watson, so I brought them in, and Earl Scruggs and Johnny Cash." The album, Busy Bee Cafe, has an almost complete absence of commercial gloss. The spiky character of Stuart's later work isn't there, but it's no youthful indiscretion either.

After Stuart left Cash, he set about hustling a major-label deal. He landed briefly on Columbia, long enough for one hit ("Arlene"). The label refused to release his second album, calling it "too country," but it has subsequently seen release thanks to his more recent success. He rediscovered his spiritual center during a return engagement with The Sullivan Family that resulted in the sparking A Joyful Noise on CMF Records, and doing so made him feel more confident in mapping out his commercial direction. He had his moment of epiphany in the Country Music Hall of Fame. "I looked at Hank Snow's suits, Merle Travis' guitar, and Roy Rogers' boots and I thought: This is where I'm comfortable. I understand this end of it. It's the bubblegum music people have been trying to get me to make that I have no passion for. I got into country music because Buck Owens made me smile and because Bill Monroe made me holler."

Moments of insight like that usually depend on following up, and Stuart has never lacked chutzpah. He bought a copy of Billboard, checked the records he liked and found that MCA's Tony Brown had produced most of them. "I knew Tony. He had been with Elvis when I was with Lester, so I called him and said I wanted to make a tape. Tony wanted to put me with Richard Bennett, which was okay with me because Richard had put the twang back into Nashville on Steve Earle's Guitar Town."

Today, Stuart tries to make records as "live" as possible in the age of the endless overdub and the deep-six-figure studio budget. "We sure do spend a lot of time spittin' on 'em and buffin' 'em up--to make 'em sound rough!" he says. He aims to do what the stars of yore did: hone material on the road, then bring his road band into the studio and capture the live feel.

Stuart's attachment to country music's past is represented in one of the best-stocked private collections of hillbilly memorabilia. "Here's what I'm holding out for," he says only half-jokingly. "We'll buy the Barbara Mandrell Museum across from the Country Music Hall of Fame, we'll build a walkway across, and we'll call it the Marty Stuart Wing. What I have no interest in is building a podunk tourist trap.

"I couldn't put Hank Williams' guitar or Johnny Horton's fishing lure into a place like that. I don't own these things; I'm in charge of them for now. I'm holding great pieces of Americana, and they need to be given back."

In general, historians make lousy musicians, but Stuart has found a balance. He's worked for stardom since he was 13, but at the same time, he says that stardom "needs to be treated with all the irreverence it deserves. There's a difference between singers and stars. Star is a role. That happens to be what I am. I'm not a brain surgeon--I'm a country star. I take it seriously, and I don't. Everywhere the bus stops, someone knows Marty, but it's real important to me that Marty stands for something."

By Colin Escott

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