Marty Stuart Interview

This appeared in Now Dig This - March 2011

Trying to cram all of Marty Stuart's achievements into a brief introduction to an interview is pretty difficult. He is, after all, a picker, singer, songwriter, photographer, producer, historian, collector, bandleader, multi-instrumentalist ... and that's just a few of the hats he wears.

So instead, here are just a few basic facts and career highlights of the rockin' rollin' country cat who came into this world on September 30, 1958 in Philadelphia, Mississippi. He was named after Marty Robbins and got his first guitar when he was only two years old. He started his first band in 1968 and landed his first professional job with The Sullivan Family Gospel Singers three years later. In 1972 he joined bluegrass legend Lester Flatt, eventually replacing Roland White on mandolin, regularly playing the Grand Ole Opry and touring across the States until Flatt's death in 1979. Following a brief stint with fiddler Vassar Clements and guitarists Doc and Merle Watson, Marty joined Johnny Cash's band where he stayed for six years. During this period, he married Cash's daughter Cindy and recorded his first solo album Busy Bee Cafe. He also produced Cash's gospel collection, Believe In Him, and worked countless TV shows, concerts and projects with The Man In Black, including The Survivors (the live album that captured the reuniting of three quarters of the Million Dollar Quartet) and 'The Class of 55'.

Marty Stuart embarked upon a solo career when he signed with Columbia Records in the mid-1980s, though his career didn't fully take off until he switched to MCA in 1989. "Hillbilly Rock" gave him his first of several country hits, followed by "Tempted," "Now That's Country," "Little Things" and others, which led him to hosting his own TV show, The Marty Party. Along the way, he recorded duets with a variety of performers from Johnny Cash, George Jones, Hank Thompson and B.B. King to Travis Tritt, The Staple Singers, Merle Haggard, and Steve Earle.

As producer, he's worked with Jerry & Tammy Sullivan, George Ducas, Pam Tillis, Billy Bob Thornton, Leroy Troy, Kathy Mattea, and Porter Wagoner. In 2002, he produced Kindred Spirits - A Tribute To the Songs Of Johnny Cash on the occasion of Old Golden Throat's 70th birthday, featuring the likes of Little Richard, Dwight Yoakam, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams Jr., and Bruce Springsteen.

His own career continued with albums on Superlatone Records, an imprint of Universal South, including the highly acclaimed Badlands, addressing his long-held interest in the lives of Native American Indians. Since late 2008, he's hosted The Marty Stuart Show on RFD-TV on which he's joined every week by his band The Fabulous Superlatives, Connie Smith (Mrs. Marty Stuart since 1997), Leroy Troy, and a variety of guests -- both veterans and newcomers. These have included an impressive array boasting Duane Eddy, Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Wanda Jackson, Mel Tillis, Jack Clement, Dolly Parton, Dallas Frazier, and Ronnie Milsap. (Here in the UK, the show is screened by Rural TV on the Horse & Country satellite channel.) Marty's latest album is Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions, recorded at the famous Nashville studio where he made his very first recordings as Lester Flatt's mandolin player at age 13.

There's lots more to Marty Stuart, too. Books of his photography have been published; his collection of country music memorabilia tours the States under the title Sparkle & Twang: Marty Stuart's American Musical Odyssey; he's scored movie soundtracks; he's picked up more awards than you can shake a stick at (including five Grammys) ... and there's a street named after him in Sparta, Tennessee.

Musicologist Peter North possibly summed it up best when he wrote: "Marty Stuart seems wrapped in his destiny at this point in time. Not only as country music's most notable ambassador/caretaker, but as its main archetypical crusader. He has, without question, evolved into one of the most important roots musicians and visionaries in America."

So with so much ground to cover, how do you ask Marty Stuart all the questions you want to ask in a fifteen-minute telephone interview? You can't. But a quarter of an hour was all that was allotted to a long line of interviewers he was scheduled to talk to (of which I was one) on a day of press to promote his recent UK tour. I duly took my place in the line and fired off as many questions as I could in the time allowed, trying to cover as many bases as possible.

I was on Facebook the other day and saw a photo of you with James Burton, W. S. Holland, and Kenny Lovelace. What was that all about?

Well, they came in as guests on my TV show. I called that particular show Masters of Twang; we put those three guys together in a clump and we went at it.

It's such a great show -- so refreshing to see "real" music on television .....

Well, that's the way I feel about it. At the end of the day, more than anything else, I'm a fan. And that's the kind of show I fell in love with when I was a kid. It made me want to come to Nashville and be part of this thing. As time has gone on, those kind of shows have become non-existent, and for years I walked around thinking "I wish someone would do a show like that," then one day I thought, "Why don't I do a show like that?"!

Do you select the guests personally?

I do.

Is there a chance of seeing Jerry Lee Lewis on there one day?

Well, the invitation's there and the door is always open. He has a standing invitation. Should he take a notion that he wants to come to Nashville to do some television, he knows he's welcome.

Are ratings for the show good?

It's No. 1 on the network.

I know you hosted The Marty Party before, but we didn't get tht over here. I've seen some clips on YouTube and it was a totally different format to The Marty Stuart Show.

It was, yes. I think it was more about the times, y'know, the 90's and what was going on in country music, but the show kinda walks away from anybody's trend. It goes back to the foundational aspects of country music, in my opinion, and if you don't have real talent, it shows up pretty fast on that show. So it's not about anybody's latest record or current project. It's about kinda the timeless zone, y'know, the spirit zone. That makes for a better show to me.

That's one heck of a band you have on there -- Kenny Vaughan (guitar), Harry Stinson (drums) and Paul Martin (bass). Where did you find these boys?

They're the very best. Harry played on a lot of my earlier hit records and we were always pals. Paul Martin was with a group called Exile in the '90s and we would cross paths on tour and he played with me here and there. And Kenny Vaughan, I first saw him on TV playing with Lucinda Williams. When I finally met him, it took us about three minutes to become friends. And it was one of those bands ... I've been in bands since I was nine years old, Trevor, and from my first rehearsal, I knew we had something special.

The first time I clapped eyes on you was at Nottingham Royal Concert Hall in November 1983 ehwn you were part of Johnny Cash's band ...


... and despite being renowned for his sparse, stripped down sound, he had a large band at that time -- horns and so forth. Why was that?

I don't know. When I first joined the band, it was a little strange because I was like you: the Johnny Cash I knew and fell in love with was about him and those two or three guys. So I was kinda surprised when I joined the band and found we didn't have the same kind of spirit "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" had, or the original recording of "Folsom Prison Blues" had. It was more like a revue kind of situation. And I think, once again, that was just a product of the times. A lot of country artists who'd been out there a long time had gone through Las Vegas or big TV productions, which he had, and it was just a bit cumbersome. As time went on, I was happy to see he pulled it back down into that three band member zone. Johnny Cash was one of those kind of artists, y'know, the less there was around, the bigger he got. To this day, my favourite Johnny Cash records go from about 1955 to 1967 or '68. After that, it just kept gettin' bigger. That said, it was an honour to work for him and it was a lifetime experience to play in that band.

That night in Nottingham he did a request for me. He sang "Rock and Roll Ruby" then he did "Blue Suede Shoes," then he got you to do "That's Alright Mama."

Is that right?

It was a great show.

Yeah, sounds like it was a good night! Y'know. Again, when I first went to work with him, I was kind of surprised at the audiences he ws playing for in America. They were quite older -- senior citizens. And it wasn't about edgy stuff anymore. It was about real safe family-oriented music and patriot Cash. But when we would come to Europe, I could see what he really had in the back of his mind, which was reinventing himself, and I could see the future a little bit better every time we would come to Europe because of the response he'd get and the kind of crowds he drew. It was just different age groups. And he was hip again. The subtotal of all the good things that happened to him at the very end of his life really came from, in my opinion, going back and forth to Europe so much, because that's where he kinds worked it out.

You obviously became very close to him through the years ...

Yeah, He was my next door neighbour, my old mentor, my old chief and my ex-father-in-law at one time, so it was just family -- that covers it all.

He guested on several projects of yours, including your first solo album, "Busy Bee Cafe."

Yeah. That wasn't a great record but it shows, to me, the beginning of the trail I was starting on. I didn't have a band at the time, so my old buddies helped me out -- Earl Scruggs, Doc and Merle Watson, and John came by and all played on the record.

Was he instrumental in getting you your deal with Columbia?

He was. If you remember at that time he was doing a lot of those CBS network Christmas specials, and we did a show in Montreaux, Switzerland. And the guests on the show were Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. And after the concert, we would go back to the hotel and everybody would wind up in one room, passing the guitar around. I didn't know it then, but Johnny and Willie were not friends at that point. They didn't know each other. They became friends from that point on. There was something unique that would happen when they'd get together in one room, and so the idea was that when we got home to America, John and Willie were gonna make a record. We got to the studio and it didn't work; their voices just did not work together very well. But the thought remained in my mind about the four of them in one room -- just the sight of it was better than the sound of it, y'know. My cousin was workin' at Glen Campbell's publishing company at the time, and I remembered a buddy of mine tellin' me about a song that Jimmy Webb had written called "The Highwayman." So I called my cousin and said, "Do you have any songs for John, Waylon, Kris, and Willie?" He said, "I don't think so." I said, "Do you have a song there called 'The Highwayman', a Jimmy Webb song?" I went and picked it up and took it to the studio and I said, "This is the song!" And when that song got recorded, of course, The Highwaymen came to life. And during that period, all these CBS executives were always around and I thought, "Well, this might be a good time for me to talk about a record deal." So John helped me at that particular time.

When would you say your solo career really took off?

Well, the records on Columbia didn't have any fire. They didn't catch. I think the first thing I saw was about 1989. "Hillbilly Rock" was a song we recorded that kinda gave me a reason to get a band and a bus and some cowboy clothes [laughs].

I loved the video you did for "Cry! Cry! Cry! -- Luther Perkins even managed to get on it ....

That's right. We got Luther in there. That was good.

You made some great records for MCA .... "Me, & Hank & Jumpin' Jack Flash" has always fascinated me ...

When I first started travelin' with my band and we were travelin' around the nation in Ernest Tubb's last tour bus -- which was kind of a magical country music bus anyway. And I was sitting in the back of the bus one day. We were riding through the mountains of West Virginia and we came upon this town, the name of which sounded very familiar to me. And it turned out to be the town where Hank Williams was pronounced dead. They parked his car at a service station in the town and took his body to the funeral home, then they made arrangements to get him back to Alabama. Oakhill, West Virginia was the town, and as were were riding through it, I just started puttin' these words down on paper. I never thought they'd see the light of day, but in reality it became that little spoken-word piece called "Me & Hank & Jumpin' Jack Flash."

You've been fairly diverse, too. On the "Love and Luck" album you covered Slim Harpo ...

[laughing] Yeah. "Shake Your Hips." Well, I come from Mississippi and Mississippi is called the birthplace of American music. Townes Van Zant had a great line that went "Whether you play blues or gospel or country, bluegrass or rock 'n roll or classical music, everything in Mississippi has a touch of the blues in it." And that's very true. That kind of music was really close on the radio dial to where I'd listen to country music when I was a kid growing up, and there was a group of guys downtown at this little cafe -- at the Busy Bee Cafe, as a matter of fact. White people weren't allowed but I was just this little bitty kid and they would let me come in and watch 'em play. And "Shake Your Hips" is one of the songs I always loved that got played at the Busy Bee Cafe.

You've always kept thta rockin' edge to your music ...

Well, there's either live music or dead music, and I like music that's alive. Music with a fiery spirit is the best kind.

Your latest album is "Ghost Train" -- another great collection that's full of all the sort of stuff we've come to expect from you. And you're back on Sugar Hill Records -- you've come full circle!

Well, I felt like I owed 'em a good record cause "Busy Bee Cafe" was not a great record and the other thing about Sugar Hill is I appreciate the music integrity that they've displayed over the last couple of decades. To me, the most outlaw, most outlandish thing you can do in Nashville Tennessee right now is play traditional country music [laughs]. It's too precious a piece of our culture, our American history to let slip away -- that's the way I see it. So, we have a television show which gives me the stage to promote it on, and a record company that lets people make like-minded records, so it's the time in life to do it and I couldn't be happier. I feel like I'm doin' somethin' worthwhile, more than at any other time of my life.

You're a great ambassador for country music's heritage -- a sort of keeper of the flame, if you like ...

That's something I feel very happy about. The other side of that is it's very important that we make sure that the path is fit for any young performers -- singers, songwriters, musicians -- that might want to come and play traditional country music. They need to know that there is a way to do it and it's not obsolete and there is a chance and a place to be seen and heard. That's what it's about.

And you're currently filming the third season of "The Marty Stuart Show." ...

Yeah, we're about 10 shows away from being wrapped up for the third season.

Can you give us some indication who some of the guests are you've got lined up?

Sure, let me just get my list out for you. I'm working on this today and I have the list right here. Okay, there's Willie Nelson, Connie Smith, Charlie Louvin, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Lynn Anderson, Doug Kershaw, Loretta Lynn, John Anderson, Raul Malo, Jean Shepard, James Burton, Fluke Holland and Kenny Lovelace, Randy Travis, Charley Pride, Brad Paisley, The Old Crow Medicine Show, Travis Tritt, and Keith Urban. That's a pretty good list.

I sure hope the show continues going from strength to strenth, and thank you for continuing to promote "real" music.

Well, thank you so much. Thanks for your interest.

By Trevor Cajiao

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