Revival Time With Marty Stuart

This appeared in OffBeat Magazine - August 6, 2010

On White Linen Night, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art opens The Art of Country Music, a collection of personal effects, folk art and iconic objects collected by musician Marty Stuart, along with his own acclaimed photographs. Stuart’s been on both sides of the Nashville fence, starting his career in bluegrass, playing in Johnny Cash’s band during the 1980s while married to his daughter Cindy, then achieving mainstream success as a solo artist playing then-contemporary, rock-oriented country throughout the 1990s. In the 2000s, he returned to more traditional country with his excellent band, the Fabulous Superlatives (guitarist Kenny Vaughan, bassist Paul Martin and drummer Harry Stinson), recording albums that touched on gospel, soul, blues and bluegrass. His upcoming album, Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions, continues to assert the vitality and relevance of country in its most classic form.

Stuart obviously enjoys his role as ambassador for traditional country, approaching it with good humor, ministerial zeal and a hint of salesman. He’s got a lifetime of stories about the greats of country music, and he can tell them all with a quotable line. When talking about the action on Bill Monroe’s mandolin, Stuart said, “It took two men to play that thing.”

Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives play the Ogden Museum’s Taylor Library tonight at 8 p.m.

What’s the significance of Studio B?

Go online and type in “RCA studio, historic city.” There were two places in the early days of Nashville’s legacy that really mattered. One was the Quonset Hut and the other was RCA Studio B. All the things the great days of Nashville are known for were generally cut in one or two of those places. RCA had a studio system that was kind of like the old movie studio system, where the stars were all on that label and recorded there. Elvis cut gobs of stuff there, Porter and Dolly, Waylon Jennings, Don Gibson – the list is crazy. I think there’s somewhere you can go on one of the Web sites and it’ll show everything that was cut there and it’s just a jaw dropper.

It went out of business in the late ’70s I believe, and there was a fellow named Mike Curb who is a business man and music executive in this town who purchased it and donated it to the Country Music Hall of Fame. It’s now kind of a tourist destination for the Hall of Fame, and Curb is involved with Belmont University of Nashville, and it’s also used as a classroom. As we were making the record – it’s not an operating studio but still is a magical place to record – tour groups were looking at us in the glass and students were coming to watch us work. I didn’t care; it didn’t matter. We were a working band in the middle of history and academia, so it all worked out.

I wanted to go there when I produced Porter Wagoner’s last record because that’s where he cut most of his stuff. They weren’t in a place where they were renting the studio, so we missed there, but I took another pass at it when we started this record and it worked because spiritually it was the right place for this record and it was full circle for me because it was the first place I’d ever recorded in Nashville when I was a kid.

You were 13 when you first recorded there?

With Lester Flatt’s band, yes. I left Mississippi for a weekend because I got kicked out of school. When I was 12, the summer of my 12th year, I went to work with a group called the Sullivan Family Gospel Singers from St. Stephens, Alabama. They were big Pentecostal church house Bluegrass stars in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. That summer I was introduced to the music business, and our concerts consisted of bluegrass festivals, camp meeting revivals, church meetings, and George Wallace campaign rallies. That summer I discovered applause, money for music, girls, cool clothes, hanging out with bohemians and it was like, “Oh this is my life.”

When school started, the Sullivan Family Gospel Singers dropped me off. It was like being a part of circus and then being dropped off at the edge of town and having to go back to school. I cut my hair, conformed, and I lasted about two weeks and got kicked out. I called a buddy of mine in Nashville named Roland White who was in Lester’s band. He said, “Come to Nashville. Maybe Lester will let you ride along sometime.”

When I got kicked out, I talked to my mom and dad and they let me go to Nashville for a weekend, Labor Day weekend. Lester heard me play on the bus on the way to a bluegrass festival that weekend and said, “Why don’t you do that on the show if you’re going to ride along and earn your keep?” At the end of the weekend, he offered me a job and about two weeks later, my mom and dad met with him and worked out how things would be arranged, you know the business end of things.

The very first thing we did after I went to work was go to Studio B and made a record. I didn’t really sense where I was when I was 13, but I sensed the importance of the place. I knew a lot about it because I read about it on album covers. There was this grouchy old engineer named Al Pachuki. Lester looked at me and said, “Why don’t you kick off this next song?” I didn’t know what to do other than go to Al Pachuki and ask, “Do I count it off?” He said, “Just go out there and do it.” It’s like being thrown out there with the Navy, but that kicked me off with Studio B.

We made a couple of records there after that and as time has gone on, its always hit me as a precious place. Along with traditional country music, it was just kind of fading. It was too important to let go away without raising a flag for it one more time.

In a press release about "Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions," you spoke about this being the right place to record “brand new traditional country music.” Do we need brand new traditional country music?

I think we do. I think it’s a part of American culture that’s important, it’s valid, it’s the empowering force to me of the face value of country music that you hear on the radio today or see on the video channel. To me, it’s no different than dismissing traditional jazz and giving it all to contemporary jazz. It’s all good.

After helping country music to sound the way it does on contemporary radio now – so many of the records I did in the early ’90s drove it in that direction – traditional country music became a piece of American culture and a piece of my life and my heart more than anything else. I noticed if I were riding down the road listening to contemporary country radio, I might tap my foot, but if I’m riding down the road and Hank Williams hits me just right, it breaks me down into a puddle and sometimes I pull over to wipe my eyes. To build on that foundation and not to let it slip away – I think it is important. It is to me, and if I’m a party of one so be it.

Country music has always been a reflection of its culture, and as times have gone on, there’s not as much about barns and cows and tractors as maybe once was. It is more of a reflection of an urban culture. The people who were in power, the star makers in country music for the most part were country people. As time has gone on, it’s about more rock ‘n’ roll, executives, corporations and really has nothing to do with country music. I understand all that, but I really don’t need some guy from L.A. who doesn’t know shit about Ray Price telling me what country music ought to be because I’ve lived it since I was a little kid and I do have an opinion on it, and I know how much power there is in there. I know how forgotten a large part of that audience is because they don’t look a certain way, but people are people. I promise you if you live long enough and hard enough, country music – the real thing – will apply to you whoever you are. The truth doesn’t go away in country music, and real country music is the truth.

The thing that has disappointed me with country music in the last few years has been the amount of phony nostalgia that dominates its lyrics.

Well, it’s kind of interesting being in my dressing room. From the time I have been on the road, it’s had Keith Richards in it one night and the Staple Singers the next and a bluegrass band the next. It’s just all over the place. That’s just how I like life; it’s really interesting that way. Interestingly enough, the hardest people to sell country music to are the country industry sometimes. We played a concert this past weekend with a couple of brand new white hot young country acts on it, and when me and the Superlatives were onstage, it’s interesting to watch the wings fill up because it’s almost like class because there is a lot of authenticity there.

These kids want the real thing, but they don’t have a lot of places to go to see it anymore. I grew up with masters on every turn. My world was full of country music architects, the great ones. So I had total access to those guys – the songwriters, the players, the stars, the bus drivers, the booking agents, the whole family – I had it. These days, the young people don’t have a whole lot of that to see. I like what Wynton has done for jazz. I think he has been a great ambassador for that culture. I like what Stevie Ray had going with the blues before he lost his life. Those are kindred spirits to me. It’s a wonderful thing to have a great overview from where God handed A.P. Carter those songs in that little cabin up in the east corner of West Virginia all the way to the current crop of stars now, and to be a part of all of it is a pretty cool place to be.

What in your mind are the essential characteristics of traditional country music?

Well, I go back to the finest of the finest. Merle Haggard and I had this very conversation two weeks ago when we were down in Meridian, Mississippi helping them to get the Jimmie Rodgers Festival back on the rail. Merle and I were talking about Jimmie Rodgers and his songs. He was truly a star. His songs became the template of what the world sometimes clichés country music for: train songs, cheating songs, drinking songs, songs about home and love. Jimmie Rodgers was the guy who laid down the blueprint. According to my newspaper this morning, every one of those subjects is still valid today. If you write an honest song that speaks, especially something you’ve lived through, then chances are that there’s somebody else out there that has gone through it as well. There are a couple of pieces on this record that I wrote with John (Johnny Cash) before he died and there’s a song about Porter Wagoner (“Porter Wagoner’s Grave”). I couldn’t have dreamed those songs up; I have to live through those songs. Those are the best kind of songs that speak to the ages, the ones that are lived through in real life.

I was going to ask you about “Porter Wagoner’s Grave.” One of the things that made me curious about that song was its structure, with the short musical introductions, the lengthy story, and then the conclusion. It reminded me a lot of the structure of the Louvin Brothers’ “Satan is Real.” Was that in the back of your mind at all?

Not at all. It’s kind of an old template. The country narrations, especially with Porter; he was a master at the kind of rural sonnets. He had a few that he used on his television show that were really effective, and he was so good at telling them. The way that song came about was after that last year of life with him, he was like almost a part of my life on a daily basis because of the record we’d made and the things he was doing alongside my band, then one day he was gone. After his service, I crawled on a plane and headed to Alaska for a concert. I pulled out a piece of paper and wrote one of those little country narrations that I thought I could sit in front of him and do and I think he’d dig it.

He would take you out to that mystical zone and eyeball you in that rhinestone suit and you had to listen. He had this one called “What Would You Give” that I used to love. It talks about if Jesus came to your house and knocked on the door would you have to hide magazines? There’s another that he did called “Trouble in the Amen Corner” about how the little country church had grown, got a new building, and how they wanted to keep up with modern times. There was one voice in the choir that needed to go who belonged to Brother Ira. A whole committee got together and went to Brother Ira’s house and they talked about how he wasn’t needed in the choir anymore. Of course by the end of the story, the next day he had passed away and gone to heaven. When I was a little kid, he would captivate me with that stuff on the green, green grass of home. He was just great at that stuff. As a sideway tribute to make myself feel better about losing him, here comes that song.

I think Porter Wagoner’s one of those people that I don’t think people appreciate outside of country music.

And it was just starting to happen. I went looking for him a record deal for that last record we did and nobody in Nashville cared. He was just that rhinestone-wearing guy on the edge of town that nobody wanted to deal with anymore. I got him a deal at Anti Records out in L.A. His label mates were Tom Waits, Mavis Staples, and Betty LaVette. He didn’t know who any of those people were. What I wanted to do was not do what Rick Rubin had done or what Jack White had done with Loretta (Lynn) and John, which was make them eccentric pop stars. Nobody had tapped Porter on the shoulder in about 40 years and said, “Go be Porter. It’s really the coolest thing you could do.” He went, “Oh okay.”

All of sudden, we were walking him around the room and he was playing cool shows with us. His crowning moment came to when he opened for the White Stripes at Madison Square Gardens in front of kids that barely knew him. He was up there singing a song about killing somebody in this rhinestone suit and these kids were going crazy, and it was just catching on. The thing that was beautiful about it was exactly what you said. He was not overexposed to the whole pop pantheon. It wasn’t like he was out there trotting the globe like Willie (Nelson), John, or other of those guys. He was kind of a shadowy figure that was finally coming to the front of the curtains and the pop critics and kids were digging it. Had he not died, it would have gone on, I believe.

When you write, are you consciously writing the traditional idiom or does it come to you naturally?

It always helps to have a bull’s eye instead of just piling up words. When I was into the record I did a few years ago called Badlands, I loved it. There was one song on there called “Three Chiefs.” When I quit writing it, it was 10 minutes and 27 seconds and it was wonderful. I had elbow room. I thought the radio wasn’t going to play this, but as long as it’s interesting and keeps traveling, it doesn’t matter if it’s three hours long. So that was the extreme end of it. Scoring movies, that was another issue. The hardest song to write is a 2 minute and 38 second country hit; it’s a hard thing to do. It appears simple and off the cuff, but it’s a hard one. I love it when those simple less-than-three-minutes country songs falls out of the sky. That’s what I live for but it doesn’t always happen.

Those songs sound so effortless that it seems like you ought to be able to write one every day.

Hank Williams songs come to mind or Willie Nelson. Willie basically writes in the same form: verse, chorus, solo, repeat chorus, go home. That’s how guys in that era wrote because it was about the jukebox. Harlan Howard was another one who was like lightning, and Dallas Frazier was just crazy great. Merle was another one; he always goes a little deeper. Those kinds of songs came from a genre of great songs. There’s a lot to look at and go, “Boy, that’s a pretty good pile over there.” One of my favorite writers was Roger Miller. He was so brilliant and fast and always in search for that country rhyme. Roger called me one day and said, “Hey, I finally figured out what rhymes with orange,” I went “What?” he went, “Door hinge, bye.” That was the only thing we talked about that year.

You accompanied Johnny Cash to L.A. for the recording session for the Rick Rubin-produced "Unchained." What were your thoughts when you watched the sessions?

The song that meant the most to me was the Jimmie Rodgers song “One Rose.” There was something that happened in the room that spun the room around, flipped it upside down, and put it back where it was. I walked into his vocal booth and at the end of that take I asked, “Did you feel that?” He said “Yeah, what was it?” The more we sat there we didn’t have much to say we just stared at each other. I looked at him and said, “You know, we’re coming upon a new century and I think country music’s spiritual clock has just been reset.” He said, “I think you might be right.”

It was fun to watch “Rusty Cage” come together, but at the end of the day it was about that one Jimmie Rodgers song. I thought, “Who better than him to get this job done and in the spirit world realm of country music before he gets out of here?”

How do you feel about those sessions?

I don’t really know. I love Rick Rubin for showering down his love, his creative genius, and his budgets. They hit a lick with taking John to the edge and they rescued him from Branson, and they rescued him from an undignified way for such a great American musical pioneer to go out. Rick put him up on a wonderful place. I love every bit of that part. The other side of that is that I think you can take every American Recording and boil them down to get one great record.

If I want to hear Johnny Cash, I think about music from about 1958 to 1968, early ‘69. If you want to hear Johnny Cash, go there because that’s when it was at its very finest.

I was thinking as the records were coming out that it’s great for him but it also felt like Rick Rubin figured out how to make the caricature of Johnny Cash.

I think their first American Recording was just him and his guitar, I thought that was dead honest, but he did that for free every day. The second record became a groovier marketing campaign that just kind of took on a life of its own, and I’m glad that it did. But, I can tell you that it didn’t get any better than from about 1962 and as burned out as he was in the mid-’60s, his creativity was ripping. To me the subtotal of every bit of that is the Folsom Prison record. Take the editing away from it, strip the applause, and just forget all that. Just gather the power of the artist, the vision that he had and that’s about as good as it gets. I think time will agree with me on that.

Did Souls’ Chapel (2005) start a new phase in your career?

No, The Pilgrim (1999) did. I dreaded the results, but I kind of knew them when I was making the record because I knew that MCA national wasn’t geared to promote a record like that. It took me from chasing a trail that was successful for me during most of the ’90s. Anybody would have been a fool to walk away from it because there was ‘cha-ching’ in every corner and that was great.

There came a part that my deeper self called that I knew I had to go back to it because I walked away from it to go be a ’90s country star. But I knew it would give me a better platform to stage what I really wanted to do. So The Pilgrim got me started and the first record of this decade with the Superlatives was called Country Music. That was bit of a confused record because it was still trying to reach for one more hit and go out there to hearten soul land as well. After we got past that and I got into that trilogy of the Superlatone records where we’re parked right now, I can live with every bit of that as legacy. I think that’s honest music, it’s honest perspective. Once again it’s been lived through. It’s not about gags or marketing, it’s about following the heart.

I was in no man’s land after Katrina when I got a copy of "Souls’ Chapel," and it was the first record I listened to during that time that took me out of everything that I was in, and it was the record at that time that I felt like listening to again and again.

That’s what gospel music is to me. It’s not about pointing fingers, it’s not about anything other than inspiring and helping you stand above the current mud puddle you’re in, and that we all get into mud puddles in life’s circumstances.

Do you remember that song on that record, “There’s a Rainbow After Every Storm”? Harry Stinson and I wrote that song by a swimming pool in Florida just a few weeks before Katrina happened – had no idea. When Katrina happened, that song got adopted by a lot places as the go-to song as a banner for that situation. I got a call last week from the state of Mississippi. They’re having a 5th anniversary service for Katrina victims and families. We’ve been requested to come back down and CNN is covering it. We’re asked to sing that song at the service in Gulfport.

That’s what happens with those kinds of songs sometimes. So if they don’t find a chart, once again there are different kinds of charts. If somebody tells me what you just told me, that means more to me than anybody’s chart. That touched your life and I couldn’t ask for no more than that out of it.

Tell me about singing with Mavis Staples.

It’s like singing with the queen of Heaven. I have this piece of footage from the last ’60s – there was this peace rally in Harlem and Mahalia Jackson was on the rally. Mahalia was getting old and she kind of adopted Mavis as her baby. The Staples were on the show and Mahalia was out on the edge strutting and doing her thing and when it came time for the high note and to really push it out there to get it across to the back of the room, she reached out her hand for Mavis and pulled her forward and handed her the mic. I still get chills just talking about it. You can just see that mantle fall down on Mavis and to me Mavis is our new queen. I know there’s a lot of stars that come and go in that realm but to me, Mavis is the one to keep your eye on for the long haul.

I saw you at South by Southwest. You alone were accompanying Mavis just on your mandolin.

She looked at me and said, “What’s that little guitar?” I said, “Mavis it’s a mandolin.” “Yeah? Play that thing fast.”

What were you thinking about at that moment?

Not caving in, hanging on, and making it up as we went.

You’re doing your show at the Ogden Museum. How does your visual art connect to your music?

I think my private collection has about 20,000 pieces in it now: costumes, manuscripts, boots, suits, guitars, instruments, folk art, and my photography. To put the music on top of that totally works when you put it all together.

Part of my mission for this past decade has been to further country music as a culture inside the world of the arts. It’s never been done before really. We’ve played the Kennedy Center. I’ve staged a museum exhibit called Sparkle and Twang that’s had a great walk around the nation. It’s currently in Meridian, Mississippi alongside the Jimmie Rodgers Archives. It’s been about preserving that culture, restaging it, promoting it, and it’s just as fresh and fired up as it ever was. I promise when you stand in front of the hand written lyrics of “I Saw the Light” signed and dated by Hank Williams, it does something to you. If you stand in front of the boots Patsy Cline was wearing when she lost her life, that does something to you. Johnny Cash’s very first black suit on stage – it touches you. That’s the level of stuff that I’ve got on tour.

One of the other things that I wanted to do is this show, called Marty Stuart: The Art of Country Music. We combine photographs that I’ve taken for my book, some folk art of hillbillies, costumes, a few manuscripts and personal effects, and scale it down to a certain museum and kick it off with an acoustic version of what we do. That’s what we’re experimenting with and doing at the Ogden. It seems like a totally cool way, a fresh way, and an honest way to come into New Orleans.

By Alex Rawls

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