Marty Stuart's Focus Is The History Of Country Music

This appeared in The Providence Journal - August 30, 2007

Marty Stuart’s been making country hits for more than 20 years, but his achievements have as much to do with preserving the history of country music as with making it.

The singer-songwriter has made hits out of the classic ingredients of country music since “Cry Cry Cry” in 1983, and he hasn’t stopped there. He’s been on the board of directors of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. His collection of country-music memorabilia — everything from guitars to song manuscripts to the rhinestone-studded Nudie suits that used to be de rigeur among top country performers — numbers more than 20,000 pieces. He’s also written about the history and music of the Delta and of Mississippi, where he grew up. He and his wife, singer Connie Smith, even curated a country-music exhibit for the Tennessee State Museum.

June was quite a month for Stuart: He released Compadres, a compilation of the duets he’s recorded over his career with stars such as Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Travis Tritt, and Country Music: The Masters, a collection of Stuart’s photographs of country legends he’s met and worked with over the years. Also Wagonmaster, a comeback album from country icon Porter Wagoner produced by Stuart, also came out.

Stuart describes working with Wagoner as “returning him to his own skin. He’d made a lot of different music over the years, but I wanted to take him back to his original sound, that he and his band arrived in Nashville with a long time ago. It worked. And the cool part is, the kids are getting it. It’s like a new life for him. It’s a new wind in his sail; it’s wonderful to see it.”

Stuart credits his historical impulse to “the way I was raised,” but also recalls the influence of the Native American photographer Edward S. Curtis. “At the edge of the 20th century, he saw the tail end of the old world of the Native Americans, and he called them ‘the beautiful vanishing race.’ And as a photographer, that caught my eye — and my ear and my soul.

“And I started looking at the old world of country music, and the people who had raised me, basically, because I started so young” — Stuart hit the road at age 12, playing mandolin with The Sullivans — “and it was just a strand of my family in a way, but it was also a strand of American culture that was vanishing. And I just felt a sense inside myself to shepherd a little bit. To place it firmly in this century and move on. It was a point of honor.”

That was an unpopular stance in the early ’80s, Stuart says. “In truth, the Nashville music industry was pretty much done with that, and they had moved on to an Urban Cowboy kind of sound, to get the different demographic. And I agreed with all that up to a point, because I was a part of that,” says Stuart, referring to his early records and recalling Chet Atkins defining the Nashville sound by jingling the change in his pocket.

“But I didn’t agree with throwing everybody away who didn’t fit that mold. Didn’t feel right, spiritually. . . . That music will be relevant a hundred years from now. It stands.”

Stuart says that it wasn’t a stretch to find the history. Indeed, in his early career as a sideman to Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash, it was all around him.

“It was kind of like working at the Library of Congress. They were both current-minded bands, but they had a lot of tradition. Just by proxy, anybody who was a part of those organizations, it was there if you wanted it. It wasn’t like history lessons every day, but in both those bands, I felt like I was part of a lineage, and part of a history.”

In 2005, Stuart started his own Superlatone label, on which he released two records near to his heart, both with his band, The Fabulous Superlatives: Souls’ Chapel, a collection of classic and original gospel songs; and Badlands, an album of songs inspired by the past and present culture of the Lakota Sioux in South Dakota.

Of the gospel record, Stuart says, “When I got the Superlatives together, one of the ways that we learned to really sing with each other was, we sat around backstage and sang familiar songs. And Harry Stinson brought a lot of gospel influence to the table, and I had my own Mississippi kind of influence.”

The roots of Stuart’s interest in the Sioux go back almost as far: In 1980,while a member of Johnny Cash’s band, Stuart played a benefit show at the Pine Ridge reservation, in Shannon County, South Dakota, the poorest county in the United States. “And that was the night I fell in love with these people. … As you and I speak, it’s still the poorest county in the United States. It’s like a Third World country up there. And once again, those people go beyond statistics to me.”

He’s since been adopted into the tribe, and was married on the reservation. “Did I think one record was going to change a lot of things? No. But at the same time, I needed to say it and the story needed to be told. And every word on that record is true and inspired. It has made a small difference in some ways up there. It had to be done.”

Stuart says that he’s got three or four new songs “that I really like that I think will stand,” and hopes to have a new record out by spring. “You know the writing process is: You stumble through it, and suddenly you’re done, and there’s enough songs to make a record. …

“When I write a song, in my mind I go, ‘First, does it sound like an old friend?’ and then I think, ‘Would I sit down and play this face-to-face to Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash?’ When I hit all of those, I know it’s a good song.”

ALL THIS and running a band with a full touring schedule as well. Stuart says he sees the band as the next step in the continuum of history.

“I figure it’s my job to create that same kind of band, and try to make moves that are authentic and legitimate, and heartfelt, and hopefully some kid sees the same thing I saw in the former situations I was in. That’s what it’s all about.”

And if this sort of thing isn’t quite as popular on the charts as the ultra-modernity of other performers in the field, that’s OK with him.

“I quit minding the chart game so much. That’s a very specialized game. We all need hits from time to time. We really do. But sometimes there are different kinds of hits to chase. To me, helping out a nation of people on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation, that a hit that’s way beyond any kind of chart business. …

“Putting together the history of country music and throwing it out at the Tennessee State Museum, that’s a different kind of hits. So there are hits and then there are hits.”

By Rick Massimo

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