The Superstar Next Door

The Marty party is steamrollin' with a hit album and tours in the US, Europe and Japan. A regular guy makes it really big--thanks to a helluva downbeat and a downright refreshing sense of what's important.

This appeared in Single Styles Magazine - June 1995

County music's rich, moving and diverse traditions should never be forgotten, according to Marty Stuart. Stuart, a hard-driving, guitar-pounding, soul-stirring country musician, takes the long view; he remembers exactly where his roots are. His sound, his look, his natural down-home friendliness pay homage to the culture and the grand ole artists who shaped country music. Stuart has electrified this past, recast it, and made it his own.

But that's not the end of Marty Stuart's reverence. He is also the curator of a great stash of memorabilia that was a part of the inspiration, not only of his music, but of what has become the national country music phenomenon. His museum, for the time being, is a warehouse in Nashville, full of costumes and guitars and "stuff" that belonged to the legends who lit up the hallowed halls and expectant faces at the Grand Ole Opry.

When he strides out on stage to sing and play, Stuart is a culmination of this history, this heritage. He paid his dues with a list of bands that reads like a country retrospective CD jacket. His music is a hodge-podge of traditional country music, rockabilly beat and ballad. There is synergy in Stuart's fusion of past and present. He can rock and he can snatch at your heartstrings. In spirit, one can feel something of the Merle and Hank and Patsy and Lester and Loretta and whoever else of yore, that found rebirth in a hot new 90s frame.

The heat he is generating is more than just the music which, not surprisingly, is piercing into a listener niche broader and more mainstream than just country. Stuart's hot and sexy image is a big draw; his pull is enhanced by the clothes he wears and the songs he sings. Moreover, he is dark and handsome and not at all remote. The fact that he is a single man of striking demeanor makes Stuart that much more of a hit with his many fans who intuit that his affection for them is genuine. Candid and forthright, Stuart says he appreciates the "Camelot" world of choice with all the women that are available to a top country music performer. This kind of sincere, small Mississippi town frankness is equaled only by his accomplished musicianship. When you get close to him, it is apparent that, despite all the glitter and staging of his performance, his real aura comes from a heart of gold and a respect for what got him where he is today. And, dang it, that sounds like what got country music going in the first place.

On a cool overcast Saturday, Marty Stuart arrived in Tampa to perform two shows at the 60th annual Plant City Strawberry Festival. It was a typical non-stop day in the life of this 36-year-old country music star--two hour-long concerts, a "meet and greet" with nearly a hundred fans, a half-dozen media interviews, and a little rest.

Stuart's job begins the minute his bus hits the parking lot behind the performance stage. "I figure my work day starts as soon as I arrive," he says later. It does. It has been a long night already. Stuart's tour consists of two passenger buses for crew and band and an equipment truck. One of the buses had broken down the night before when a radiator overheated, so the crew had to bunk with Stuart and his band aboard one bus. Consequently, nobody got much sleep and Stuart comes off the bus shaking hands with officials and media types, needing a shave and looking tired. But he smiles and says "howdy" with sharp eye contact and without hesitation. He dodges around the security to hug his fans. He sidesteps the police escort to help fans get autographs and photos. An hour later, after a brief rest, he assumes his performing persona; when he walks on stage, he is every inch the Country Music Superstar. And every inch, Marty Stuart is jammin', sexy--in a word--hot.

His black hair sweeps to a peak in front, suggesting height and body. His torso is dressed in a sequined bolero jacket, the stage lights ignite sparks of color off the embroidery. A heavy silver belt--a series of rectangular patterns linked together--rides low on his hips and butt. Hulk Hogan would kill for this belt; Cindy Crawford would die for such a tight butt.

The light, tight blue jeans have the pockets sewn together to further slim the profile. Creases radiate out from the zipper in front, and the cuffs are frayed and torn but come to a point over the white and brown pointy-toed cowboy boots. He is slim, compact and precise--just like his music.

With less than a dozen songs, Stuart gives his audience a wide range of selections--items off his newest album, The Marty Party Hit Pack and some rock, some typical I-lost-my-love country music and some nicely modified Johnny Cash.

The selections smoothly transition through Stuart's talents for singing, instrumental and audience involvement. A number of songs invite the crowd to clap along or sing a refrain. "Touch me, turn me on, and what.....?" Stuart sings out to the 4,000-plus fans. "....BURN ME DOWN!" they sing-shout back. The distance between Stuart on stage and his fans in the audience is small. That short distance is part of Stuart's charisma. He is one of a handful of Nashville stars who embraces his fans at every concert date--literally.

For an hour after his first show, Stuart meets and greets each fan in turn, posing for photos, signing every imaginable item of fandom from T-shirts to ticket stubs, hugging each and every one. He is given armfuls of gifts--roses, pictures, calendars, even a hand-embroidered vest. His energy never flags, his smile never waivers. He interacts with each fan individually. Some he recognizes from previous concerts, from previous meet-and-greets. For good reason.

There are Marty Stuart "groupies" who attend dozens, even scores of concerts through the U.S. Kathy J. Meador is one such Marty fan. This Plant City Festival will be her 110th Marty Stuart concert. Meador is a Nashville letter carrier who migrated from California to Nashville to be nearer to country music--and to Marty Stuart. Since 1989, she has posted herself to as many Marty concerts as she can manage, using up her four weeks of annual vacation as a Marty fan.

What is so special about Marty Stuart? "Lots of things," Meador says, while standing in the meet and greet line which is funneled between Stuart's two road-show buses. "His personality. He truly cares about his fans. He never takes things for granted. He's extremely talented," she says. "And not bad on the eyes either," she adds.

A true believer, Meador knows her Marty fan stats. "I'm six weeks older than he is and four inches shorter. But our hands are the same size," he assures, noting that she's measured hers against Stuart's cement hand prints at Nashville's Music Valley Wax Museum.

"He was born September 30, 1958 in Philadelphia, Mississippi, on Route 8," Meador says. Stuart started his music career with Lester Flatt at age 12, she adds. All true. "He entertains," she repeats, explaining her choosing Stuart out of all other country music stars to follow. "A lot of 'em just stand there and sing."

In full agreement, standing next to Meador in the meet-and-greet line, is her good friend Pat Johnson. Johnson is from New Milford, Connecticut and she may hold the Marty fan record for concerts--150. "I started going seven years ago," she says. As a registered nurse, Johnson has a flexible schedule that lets her attend Stuart concerts hither and yon. As an added bonus, Johnson and Meador have become fast friends, often linking up to travel to Stuart's concerts together.

"He really cares about his fans," Johnson offers. "He knows my name," she says and notes that, while a lot of country music stars meet their fans, "a lot of them do it because they feel they have to. He does it because he cares."

As the line continues past Stuart, his black felt pen signs "Marty Stuart" on CDs and jean jackets and even a giant plastic baby bottle; many Marty fans seem genuinely nonplussed to receive a moment of Stuart's time, and a flash of his smile, and a hug.

One woman makes a request," she says softly. "Can I touch your hair?" Marty Stuart doesn't hesitate. He bends over as the woman touches the top of his swept-up hair; her hand darts back like the hair is red hot. She is delighted. Later, Stuart is posing for a photographer while the wind worries his hair. Fans lining up for a second concert shout and squeal as they catch sight of Stuart.

Every time--every time--he hears a "Yo, Marty!" from below, Stuart turns and waves back, flashing a V with two fingers. As he works his body back and forth for the camera, Stuart makes a confession. It's not easy keeping that slim, trim body in shape, no sir. Temptation lurks in nearly every corner in nearly every town: Waffle Houses. Marty Stuart loves Waffle Houses.

The outfit Stuart wears for both shows is typical. The bolero jacket is custom-designed by a one-named craftsman in North Hollywood--Jaime. "Me and Dwight Yoakam were his first customers," Stuart notes. Stuart also likes to wear concert clothes by Nudie Turk and Manuel, all top names in design. The belt was bought in New Mexico; it was made by Walter Doran. Each rectangular, silver buckle features a different authentic cattle brand from the Old West.

The one element missing from this day's concert garb is the history. Often, Stuart wears clothes and plays guitars more famous than even he. He's been collecting country music memorabilia for years. In a warehouse in Nashville, Stuart has more than 400 costumes, he says, including suits once worn by Hank Snow, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Sr. He has perhaps 50 guitars once played by country music greats. He has a makeup case that once belonged to Patsy Cline and a fishing lure that Johnny Horton made--a gift from Johnny Cash.

He also once had a bus that had belonged to Ernest Tubb. It was his tour bus, but has since been retired. "I've always been a fan of buses," Stuart says. "I was raised on buses. I'm a gypsy. Gypsies don't come to stay. They come to leave." Nicknamed "E.T.," the bus rolled up 3.5 million miles before it was retired. Stuart recalls, about a year and a half ago. "It broke down a lot. So the last thing I did was take my .45 pistol and shot it in the floor and put it out of its misery. The bus didn't seem to mind," he adds, sardonically.

When Stuart visited his first Hard Rock Cafe with its vast array of rock-n-roll knick-knacks and detritus, Stuart was struck by the absence of a similar outlet for country music memorabilia--especially since country music has a longer history. "One of the only glitches I see in the popularity and huge expansion of country music in the some of the pioneers that invented country music have been forgotten," he says.

"I don't see any reason to forget these people. I'm not proud of that." Stuart gives an example of a forgotten One--Bashful Brother Oswald. He played dobro for Roy Acuff, who was on the Grand Ole Opry for 56 years--but was never inducted as a member. A couple of months ago, with Stuart's help, Oswald was inducted. Stuart sent announcement telegrams to Bill Clinton and Al Gore, among others.

Another example involves a songwriter named Ola Belle Reed. "She's a country music pioneer from up in Pennsylvania, from the early '40s. She had a stroke," Stuart recalls, "and they were in need for funds to help care for her." Stuart discovered that Reed had written a song on one of his albums, "High On A Mountain Top." When the album went gold a number of years ago, he made sure Reed got a gold record and "the publisher made sure she got a lot of money."

There are plans for a permanent Marty Stuart wing at the Country Music Hall of Fame, he says, where his collection will be displayed for the public. In his personal history, he's known he wanted to be a performer since he was 5. "I got a Johnny Cash record and a Flatt and Scruggs record and stood in front of the mirror and pretended I was them," he remembers, I would stand like them, walk like them, wear my hair like them. I knew I was a natural-born ham. I wanted to be like them." And so he has. "God has truly blessed me," Stuart says. "I'm truly living my dream."

Although still in his mid-30s, Stuart has more than two decades of performing behind him. As a teen of 13, he was playing mandolin and guitar with Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash. When Flatt died in 1979, Stuart branched out musically, playing what he describes as sort of "bluegrass-fusion" style with fiddle player Vassar Clements and acoustic guitar virtuoso Doc Watson. He also began a 6-year string touring and recording with Johnny Cash, a relationship that developed into a mentorship and a friendship and then into family. Stuart married Cash's daughter Cindy "for a while." They were divorced in 1987. "We were both young and hot-headed," he says candidly. "It was hard on us both starting a career and starting a family."

Now Stuart is single and focusing on his career. There is no significant other--other than his music, he says, and a '54 Telecaster guitar that once belonged to Clarence White. "The true desire in my heart would be to have a family. I love kids (but) I truly enjoy being a gypsy," Stuart says.

"You have to love yourself before you can love another," he says. "I'm totally comfortable with myself. I work on myself all the time. I'm spiritually comfortable with God." Stuart paraphrases a passage from the Bible: "If you draw close to Me, I'll draw close to you." This self-improvement seems to be a very big part of his connection with his audience. "When you pull yourself together, the rest kind of falls into place."

"The best advice I ever had came from Johnny Cash, who said, 'Keep your eye on the big picture and don't sweat the small stuff.' I think time will tell you the difference."

By Fred W. Wright, Jr.

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