Marty Stuart Walks The Line With His Heart And Soul

This appeared in New Country Music - April 1994

"I want you to know that my personal Waffle House did 5,024 orders over the holiday! All that in two days time," Marty Stuart reports, beaming. Outside, the weather is rainy, unseasonably cold and gray. Yet here's Stuart, sitting sunnily in a booth at another exit off just another highway--and he's bragging on his local Waffle House's volume.

For Stuart, who left home with Lester Flatt as a young man, who cut his teeth as Johnny Cash's musical compadre, who toured with Bob Dylan, who's now sold gold with This One's Gonna Hurt You, it's the little things that make a difference. Like knowing that all the waitresses know his name and will line up to cluck and fuss over him.

It's not about fame. It's the sense that he's made a down-home, neighborly kind of connection. These are his people--and whether he's he king of "Hillbilly Rock" or not, Stuart understands the importance of maintaining one's roots and one's civility. Especially when one is in the eye of the storm.

"I'll tell you what changed me last year. Willie Nelson's birthday party was down in Austin and I got to work with Bob Dylan again. It's like anytime I'm around Willie, he just makes music and doesn't put a label on it.

"So, there I was in Austin with B.B. [King], Bonnie [Raitt], Don Was, Dylan, Travis [Tritt] and Waylon--a real reflection of the world I grew up in. But somehow, me and Dylan ended up in the back dressing room. I played mandolin and he played guitar, and we played this ol' bluegrass song called 'Little Maggie' for about 10 minutes, fast and furious, over and over and over again.

"We'd just look at each other and laugh, because we were sitting there in he middle of all our roots, the real deal, and it felt gooood! Every now and then, he'd try to sing a verse.

"The thing about it was that whole thing made me realize this is where it's at for me. Being real was what it's about more than having hits. It also showed me that I'd done a really good job with the first chapter of my life, setting up the next 10 years."

This morning, Stuart is scruffy. His hair is a little wild, his stubble something to behold. Yet even as he cuts into an omelet, there's something proprietary about him.

Only Marty Stuart has those stories about Cash, Dylan, Flatt, Willie, Emmylou, Gram, Bill Monroe. Only Marty Stuart has that old-line hillbilly style that takes over a room as soon as he enters it. And only Marty Stuart can bear witness to what country was, is now and probably--when the country hunk dust settles--will be.

Stuart, like fellow turbo-traditionalist Dwight Yoakam, knows his future lies in the past. Not that his music is archival--anyone who's ever heard "Tempted" or "Now That's Country" knows the black-haired Mississippian plugs in and plays hard. It's just that those roots aren't something that can be pulled, cut or burned out.

"It's understood that we're in the present going for the future," Stuart begins, offering his personal philosophy about music. "But what's been before us doesn't have to be neglected.

"Sometimes I get so bored! I see my press and I always lean too far that way. I was reading some articles last night from when I was 14 years old and I was saying the very same things."

Dublin, Ireland, 1988. Marty Stuart is the only one without a record deal or larger-than-life reputation at the Bloom's Hotel, and he's in town for a series of super-session BBC-TV tapings. No one rushes to help John Prine, Don Everly, Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark or Joe Ely with their gear, but Stuart never carries his own amp or guitar.

Even then, with the smoke from his aborted Columbia deal swirling around him, Stuart was a star. He walked like it, he talked like it--and he talked it real good.

"I'm not born to be a brain surgeon," Stuart says, stabbing at his hash browns. "I'm not born to be a carpenter. I was born to be a hillbilly star--and I can't help that. If I were to paint myself black, I'd be a black hillbilly star. But no matter what, I'd be the same."

Stuart has spent a lot of years chasing his dream. He's worked with legends, lived the life of a marauding highwayman and always kept his heart in line with his playing. If he's got more stories about more people than your average Joe, it's because Stuart gets out there and chases it--and his quarry always senses his deep respect for what they do.

County music is what he, a young boy who'd otherwise have ended up in the Mississippi cotton fields, used to get out. But music burns him down. "The reason I play music is because of 'High Heel Sneakers' and Buck Owens' 'Tiger By The Tail,' 'Folsom Prison Blues,' any Pops Staples record and bluegrass. It's all stuff that made me cry because it felt so-o-o-o goood.

"There used to be this radio station in my hometown when I was a kid that had a lot to do with how I feel about music. It'd sign on with country music early in the morning and go 'til noon. From noon to one, they'd play Southern gospel, then it was rock 'n' roll 'til five. From five to seven, they'd play R&B and soul music--and to close the day, they'd play classical.

"My mom told me something one time when I was 9 years old. My heroes musically were Bob Dylan, Lester Flatt, Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb--those kinds of people--and Keith Richards, who I liked a lot. My Momma said, "I worry about you because all your heroes can't really sing, or they're in jail, or they're on dope or dead."

Stuart laughs at this memory, a big hearty rolling laugh. "All those guys as I look back had an image. They all looked like their music. There's more personality than there are notes, just feeling and heart, which is what you need. All those artists had it, and it's what made them connect."

Listening to him talk, it's obvious Stuart is in love with picking and listening to music. There's an intensity to what he does that goes far beyond the drugstore cowboy's dream of spotlights, Silver Eagles and pretty girls. For Stuart, this is a mission.

As part of his pilgrimage, he collects artifacts from those who have come before. He owns some of Hank Williams' suits, Jimmie Rodgers' autograph, Ernest Tubb's bus--and boxes of his own papers that document the tar-headed musicians way in this world.

Though he's country, there's something more to it. There is that rock 'n' roll intensity. He plays hard, he hits the notes as far as he can--he means it.

So it's no wonder he got a little antsy, sitting around watching the Xerox cowboys come and go. Not that Stuart wishes them any ill--"But my passion probably doesn't matter a damn to John Michael Montgomery or Faith Hill"--it's just that he's got a bag to tote.

When Columbia Records let him go in the late '80s, Stuart had some re-evaluating to do. He was one of the hot-shot pickers and he understood the impact of attitude and image, but what he wanted was a solid career.

Flipping through a Billboard, he started scanning credits on records he liked. When he ran across Steve Earle's breakthrough blue collar country album Guitar Town, he saw something he liked a lot--the name Tony Brown.

"I called Tony and said, 'Let's do lunch'," Stuart recalls of the path that eventually lead him to MCA. "I told him I needed help getting going. There's a couple of people in town I always want to do better for, that I want to impress, and Tony's one of them. Ever since I was 12 years old, I've wanted to impress Tony Brown because he was so cool.

"When I as working for Lester Flatt, he was working for Elvis. He always had a bigger car. He always had a better job. He's like a big brother to me."

Brown, then a vice president of A&R at MCA Nashville and now president of the label, brought in guitar-slinger Richard Bennett, known as much for his six-string bass work as his archival knowledge of classic country. The pair put together Hillbilly Rock and Marty Stuart was on his way.

When the title track broke through at radio, the walls finally seemed to have crumbled. He would record two more albums, though, before cash registers started ringing up precious metal sales, and a duet with fellow redneck rocker Tritt would bring home a sense of the buzz that he'd soaked up onstage next to Cash each night for years.

"When we'd cut 'The Whiskey Ain't Workin', I'd gone to see Travis somewhere and he said, 'Why don't you come out during the second verse and help me sing it?"' So I came out of the wings and the place went wild! We both looked at each other--we didn't know if it was us together, alone, the song, or what, but we definitely knew something was going on."

That momentum, "the buzz" as Stuart likes to call it, has carried him through the last year or so. Though This One's Gonna Hurt You was certified gold, getting to his new album Love and Luck hasn't been easy. Along the way, he's found himself doing a lot of soul searching and asking a lot of probing questions about what he wants.

The path hasn't been the easiest to tread, but it's the only one Stuart could walk and look himself in the mirror. "I was very lonesome this year," he concedes, turning reflective like a fall cold snap. "When it's your duty to do something, well, believe me, out there at my end of the string, you don't see a whole lot of soulmates. I see Dwight and Travis, Patty Loveless, Emmylou. I see Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash, the Rolling Stones and Willie Nelson, Muddy Waters--but there ain't a lot of company.

"It's like if you're a boy scout or a soldier. I wear country's past simply as a purple heart on my Nudie suit. It's like, 'Hey, we survived!' It's not a burden, it's a joy.

"But you get back to that side of me that's lonesome, those lonesome old bluegrass songs. Last summer, I turned off the radio and listened to myself, what was inside me. At the end of the day, when nobody's looking and I'm just alone, my favorite thing to do is get my mandolin or acoustic guitar and sit in the corner with one light bulb hanging down in the dark and sing about sick people or dead people.

"A lot of things leave me lonesome. And those ballads ("That's What Love's About" and "That's When You'll Know It's Over" from Love and Luck) have a tear on 'em. I'd never thought I could deliver a ballad. I just proved that if I looked inside and got real honest about what I was doing, I could."

Just dropping out and tuning in didn't bring Stuart to this point. While Love and Luck is surely his most mature album to date, an album that marries his historic mandate to his commercial dreams, it's an album that took an awful lot out of him to achieve.

Stuart had recorded eight sides with Bennett when he realized it wasn't working. He went to MCA Nashville Chairman Bruce Hinton with the news. "The good thing about a label as hot as MCA is they have the ability to get things right." He also went to work on Brown in an attempt to lure him back into the studio. "I told him I needed him. It was up to him to help me figure this out because Richard and I had gone as far as we could and we still hadn't got where we needed to be."

And he was trying to recover from some video foolishness that'd gone bad. "I was tired of my tight pants and hopping around onstage, which I'll probably never really get tired of, but I felt something deeper trying to come out of me.

"I was working under the effect of a concussion, trying to shake pain pills and get that crap out of my system. The hardest thing I ever had to do was walk up to Richard and say, 'This isn't working.' And then I had to figure out how to move forward.

"I'd always felt like before we had the records, it was based on that flash-in-pan, hot-dog kind of thing. I never took my image all that seriously, but I wanted more. I wanted to get out of the way of myself, step out of my path--and sometimes it takes a lot of guts to do that. You gotta use your fingernails sometimes--and you're totally out there on faith, hoping God don't drop you."

By digging in, Marty Stuart found himself. Moving from flash to substance, the mantle of his heroes subtly past to him. "Love and Luck," written with Pam Tillis spouse Bob DiPiero, is a song that sums up everything Stuart took with him when he left small-town Mississippi years ago. "I wish you luck and love, love and luck/Life's a treasure, so go dig it up. Be what you are and that's enough/I wish you luck and love, and love and luck...."

In many ways, Love and Luck closes a lot of circles. Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill, both bluegrass festival pals of many years past, sing on the album. The camaraderie seeps through the tracks--whether it's the back-alley chug of "Kiss Me, I'm Gone" or the Appalachian call of "Oh, What A Silent Night."

There's a current that runs through Stuart, a power that binds him to his mentors. He talks about meeting Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris when they were first torching the honky tonks, and there's a wistfulness when he says, "You could see what they were going to do," that carries over into his own plaintive reading of the Burritos' "Wheels."

That same synchronicity exists between the spiritual overtones of his remarks about the architect of the Outlaw movement, Billy Joe Shaver, and Stuart's rendition of Shaver's gently searching "If I Give My Soul." And there's the sly boy relish with which he discusses Slim Harpo's "Shake Your Hips"--"You know, I watch the groove and it's gotta have some shank on it..."--that bleeds over into his somewhat menacing delivery of a song that's all lust and promise.

He absorbs the song's emotion, the writers' lives and he glows with what he's seen, heard, savored. Stuart filters a life only a lucky few can live into a potent mix for his fans to enjoy--and in the process, he still manages to keep a few things for himself, things for later.

"I've always swung with everything I've got, but I don't believe the future of country music is a trendy night spot with dance music. I think it's great, but we've always had people who danced. This boom has given me a lot of work over the years,'s not the future.

"I mean, I don't see me five years from now dying my hair blacker or wearing my pants tighter, redoing Nudie coats. That's not being true to the music or your soul.

"Truthfully, this music is often miles above its roots. So you have to stand up whether you're popular or unpopular, selling out stadiums or not selling out clubs, you've got to tell the truth about where this music came from. You should always. When it comes your time, when they come upon your index card, there should be a point of view by your name.

"This is all becoming very disposable. Look at Randy Travis. It's terrible that (the industry) snubs him like that. But it's a whole different power trip. From club owners to concert promoters to radio programmers, it's their business to understand that Willie Nelson is over, Johnny Cash, Ricky Skaggs. It's very cold--and I know they'll do the same to me in two or three years. That's why you've gotta keep your soul and not sell out to 'em.

"That's why it's about being uninhibited for me right now and making commercial music that's true to my soul. I know I'm one hit away from breaking--I think I probably have it on this record. But I'm not going to do something that's not me just to break through.

"When it's my time, that's okay too. I'd like to start an acoustic band. There are lots of ways to play these songs, so when it's time for me to quit being a hillbilly star, I'll hit it from another angle. There's lots of ways to make music and just because you're 45 and your hair is gray, that doesn't mean you have to fade away.

"Stephanie Grappelli is 80-something and he's still incredibly valid. Bill Monroe's still out there, writing those wonderful mandolin songs every day. I think it's a questions of values--and both Cash and Lester stressed that longevity is what matters, being there every January 1."

The ensuing pause is louder than a freight train. Stuart has a lot on his mind these days. Sometimes when he gets on a roll, it can't help but seep into what he says--and this has been one of those moments.

Not that Stuart wants to be some kind of serious, ponderous hillbilly star. He settles an off-shaped Western hat low on his brow, then he smiles.

"The night I joined the Opry," he says, beginning to lean close, "I got together with Richard Bennett and I said, 'Why don't we celebrate after the second show?!' He said, 'Yeah, after the first show we can celebrate joining the Opry--and after the second show, we can bitch about having to play it'!".

Stuart laughs at the story, an obvious icebreaker. The traditions are what brung him, and he'll dance with 'em always. But he's smart enough not to be bound to the past.

Sliding the check off the table, he reaches for his wallet. Smiling at the waitress, he plunks down a tip, heads to the cash register and gets ready to disappear down the battered Tennessee two-lane.

The man who once brought the reigning Miss America to this very Waffle House pauses in the cold for a moment. Squinting, he looks into the sky, then lets out a whistle.

"It wouldn't matter if I were a mandolin player in a bluegrass band, a songwriter, a journalist or a photographer--it's all part of it. Being a bright shining star at this point means I have more access to more stuff, more avenues you don't always get to.

"It's about playing true music and the music means more to me right now than it ever has. I'm not worried about getting noticed as much...I've done that. What it means now is bringing the whole thing together, bringing my rock 'n' roll friends and my country friends into the same room and letting 'em play music."

With a conspiratorial wink, Marty Stuart leans closer, smiles and confides, "Stardom is good---twinkle, twinkle."

By Holly Gleason

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