Remember Marty Stuart?

This appeared in The Tennessean - June 3, 2012

Country singer Marty Stuart was a major label star in the 1990s.

But the poor guy hasn’t had a Top 40 country hit in 15 years.

Fifteen years was seven albums ago. It was 1997, when Steve Jobs returned to Apple Computer and Princess Diana died, and Rebecca Black of “Friday” YouTube fame was born (OMG!!!) and Sony Records released music from newly signed band The Dixie Chicks.

Fifteen years ago is, as Darrell Scott later wrote for those same Dixie Chicks, “a long time gone.”

And so Marty Stuart won’t be playing the big LP Field stage at this week’s CMA Music Festival, where the hot contemporary country stars frolic and wave.

And Marty Stuart is signed to independent record label Sugar Hill, not a major. And his television show airs on RFD-TV, a channel some people don’t get and the ones who do get it may never find it.

The weird thing is, Marty Stuart is on a roll. He has spent the past decade not so much reinventing himself as whittling away at excess and artifice until he emerged at his sharpest and truest, most creative and, somehow, most successful. Check this out:

He fronts the Fabulous Superlatives, a band that rivals or bests any other for virtuosity, immediacy, adaptability and entertainment value.

His work as a producer has revived popular and critical interest in country legends Porter Wagoner and Connie Smith, the former of whom is his wife. Wait, make that the latter, not the former. I always get those confused. (Porter and Connie, I mean. Not latter and former. I know those like the back of my hand.)

Though stuck way up in the triple digits of television receivers, Stuart’s RFD-TV show draws guests including Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton, Lyle Lovett, Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, Willie Nelson, Dierks Bentley, Ray Price, Merle Haggard and Emmylou Harris. It’s also a rollicking showcase for Stuart, the Fabulous Superlatives, Smith, Leroy Troy and other regulars. “Musicians of every genre watch us, and it’s become one of the favorite shows to watch on rock ’n’ roll tour buses,” Stuart says. “We’ve got hay bales and rhinestones, but I knew this could be a profound, Smithsonian-level document.”

Stuart’s more than 20,000-item collection of country music memorabilia features Hank Williams’ boots, Jimmie Rodgers’ railroad lantern, the guitar on which Johnny Cash played “I Walk The Line” and thousands of other treasures.

Stuart’s making the finest, most traditional music of his career, the latest evidence of which is the tremendous Nashville, Volume 1: Tear the Woodpile Down. “When I reconnected with traditional country music I found myself, my calling,” he writes in the album’s liner notes. “The job seemed to be to champion it, love it, protect it, care for its people, attempt to write a new chapter for it and to make sure that everybody understands that it’s alive and well in the 21st century.” Done, done, done, done, done and done.

While not a part of CMA Music Festival proper, beginning in 2002 Stuart has headed the festival’s decidedly unofficial kickoff, Marty Stuart’s Late Night Jam at the Ryman Auditorium. “It’s the pirate ship of the week, and it was kind of a necessity,” he says. “When I started this, I knew that the big stage comes and goes, and I knew I didn’t want to play a lesser stage. So I thought, ‘Let’s start our own show. And let’s try to offer the fan an alternative to everything else they’re going to see, and set it up as something different.’ And along with buying the ticket came the contractual handshake with the ticket buyer: You have to trust me.”

The Jam has featured a dizzying roster of artists, many of whom haven’t appeared during the official CMA Fest. Stuart has had Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Duane Eddy on stage with up-and-coming western swing the Quebe Sisters Band. He’s hosted Earl Scruggs and Shooter Jennings, Old Crow Medicine Show and The SteelDrivers, Cowboy Jack Clement and the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band.

This year’s jam includes Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, Connie Smith & The Sundowners, Wynonna, Roger McGuinn (yep, same Roger McGuinn that led The Byrds), the Oak Ridge Boys, Grand Ole Opry star Stonewall Jackson and grass roots gospel quartet The Chuck Wagon Gang.

Will it be any good?

We’ll just have to trust the poor guy.

By Peter Cooper

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