Marty Stuart Guards Sanctity Of Traditional Country

40 years ago, a teen talent set out to conquer the world of country music. After some hits -- and misses -- he has a new purpose. Make sure the music of his heroes endures.

This appeared in The Tennessean - September 2, 2012

From his home on Caudill Drive in Hendersonville, Marty Stuart can look out the window at Old Hickory Lake and see back across 40 years, over 760 highway miles to the northeast and into a converted Greyhound Scenic Cruiser that idled in a Glasgow, Delaware parking lot.

There, on that bus, at sunset on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend 1972, 58-year-old bluegrass pioneer Lester Flatt crushed a Doral cigarette with his shoe heel and then addressed 13-year-old mandolin-playing hopeful Stuart.

“I remember he had sunglasses on,” Stuart says. “He said, ‘How would you feel about sticking around Nashville and playing with us?’ ”

It was, Stuart estimates today, a “divine appointment.”

How would he feel? To move to Nashville? To play the “Grand Ole Opry” at the Ryman Auditorium, the place where Flatt, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise and Howard Watts had invented bluegrass music in 1945? To immerse himself in the stuff of dreams and legends? To ditch the ninth-grade humdrum of Philadelphia, Mississippi, and replace it with guitars, girls, applause and less-than-rigorous high school correspondence courses?

He’d feel fine, thank you, Mr. Flatt.

In the 40 years that followed, Stuart has proved worthy of his divine appointment. He has messed up, mightily at times: Been jailed, been unhinged, been wounded and been lost. But when that Greyhound arrived in Nashville on Labor Day, it carried an excited boy who would over the next four decades become an integral, outspoken and one-of-a-kind figure in Music City music.

Stuart’s chart run as a 1990s country hit-maker was enough to put his name in bold print in the music history books. But it has been in the past decade — which for Stuart began with inner turmoil and embarrassment — that he has done his most impressive and important work, as a musician, bandleader, producer, writer, historian and television presence.

He’s done fine, thank you, Mr. Flatt.

It’s no coincidence that he’s done that work after he was effectively dismissed from the contemporary country music scene, after he realized that what he’d thought of as commercial country was now outsider art. As traditional country became popularly ignored and endangered, he took the music’s preservation as his mission.

“We need to stand by our heroes,” he says, and he has.

In the process, he revived the recording careers of Country Music Hall of Famers Porter Wagoner and Connie Smith. He has released a remarkable book of photographs (Country Music: The Masters). He formed The Fabulous Superlatives, many folks’ choice for the best band in country music. He has expanded the greatest collection of country music memorabilia that exists outside the Hall of Fame and Museum. He put together a television show that has become a showcase for “old chiefs” including Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Cowboy Jack Clement and Ray Price. He hosts the annual Late Night Jam in June at the Ryman, featuring Earl Scruggs, Old Crow Medicine Show, Duane Eddy and dozens more. And he has released a critically acclaimed string of new-century albums.

“I thought, our culture’s slipping away,” he says. “I thought, ‘The music itself is fast fading.’ I had a talk with (gospel music kingpin) Bill Gaither, and he said, ‘If you love your culture and stand by it when nobody else does, you become the go-to guy for your culture, because of your love.’ ”

Peace of mind

Stuart met Carl Jackson — now a Grammy-winning Nashville musician — in their native Mississippi when Stuart was about 10. Jackson was 17, and Stuart was still about three years away from his big break. He already was obsessed with music, and Jackson’s bluegrass-playing father, Lethal, served as a mandolin mentor.

“My dad showed him a lot, and he soaked everything up like a sponge,” Jackson says. “We both had the bug really bad. You could tell it the instant you met Marty: He was determined to do it, and nothing was going to stop him.”

Stuart bought his first mandolin from Lethal, and he gleaned all the knowledge he could from Carl, who already was playing with Jim & Jesse at the Grand Ole Opry.

“He was like my correspondent,” Stuart says. “He was a wonderful friend who’d bring me stories from the road. By way of Carl, I had a little inkling of what I was stepping into when I got with Lester.”

Stuart began playing professionally with gospel group The Sullivans at age 12. Flatt’s mandolin player, Roland White, heard the precocious talent and invited Stuart to come to Nashville and to ride with Flatt to “a show or two.” That’s how Stuart came to be on Flatt’s tour bus for the Delaware trip, and Flatt heard Stuart jamming on the bus with White and asked them to perform during his show.

The “divine appointment” — first to play guitar with Flatt’s Nashville Grass, and later to play mandolin — soon followed. Stuart lived with White and his family until the spring of 1973 and with Lester and Gladys Flatt after that, until Stuart’s family moved to Nashville in 1974.

“Right after I joined up with Lester, we played a festival and my mom and dad were there,” Stuart says. As he left the festival with the band, “it was one of the most lonesome feelings I’ve ever had.” He adds, “I knew I was doing what I was supposed to be doing, but I also knew what I was giving up. I was 13, saying goodbye to my childhood.”

Six years later, still in the Nashville Grass and just finished with his first solo album, Stuart told Bluegrass Unlimited magazine he was done with the rebellious stage that followed his childhood’s early end:

“I was reckless then,” said a 19-year-old Marty. “The drugs, the snuff queens and other things had turned me into a punk bluegrass figure. I learned what drugs and being an unstable person can do to you. Now I have peace of mind, and that outweighs money.”

Yes, but money began to gain weight. Flatt died, and Stuart worked for a time in the band of another personal hero, Johnny Cash. And then it was time to make something happen.

“I was at that point of ‘I’ll do anything to be a star,’ ” Stuart says. “I was tired of being poor.”

Stuart wound up just needing to make fine, aggressive, hooky country music to be a star. He worked with producers Richard Bennett and Tony Brown to score major hits — including “Hillbilly Rock,” “Little Things” and the Travis Tritt duet “This One’s Gonna Hurt You (For a Long, Long Time)” — and he spent the early half of the 1990s as one of country’s biggest stars.

“That was a big party,” he says. “It was about turning country music into rock ’n’ roll, and living up to it. What happened is that, simply, things changed. All of a sudden, radio went, ‘Nah.’ The ’90s came crashing down on a lot of people, and the things that had been there were no longer there. I chased for a record or two and found that I didn’t chase very well.”

‘Being Otis’

Stuart’s informal separation from country radio playlists came with the release of his finest album, a 1999 concept work called The Pilgrim. The album was a summation of all Stuart stood for, with contributions from Cash, Ralph Stanley, George Jones, Emmylou Harris and others. Stuart was heartened by the responses of fans and critics but stung by the lack of airplay and commerce. He went to talk with Cash.

“I said, ‘I can’t seem to get my hand on the brass ring downtown,’ ” he says. “He said, ‘There ain’t no brass ring, and if there is and if you get it, what have you got?’ ”

In July 2004, the former country music hit-maker answered his cellphone. Andy Griffith was calling. Stuart had produced Griffith’s 2003 The Christmas Guest album. And Griffith had become a beloved and iconic television actor via The Andy Griffith Show, the 1960s situation comedy that which featured him as Sheriff Taylor, overseeing the antics of characters including bumbling deputy Barney Fife and often-incarcerated town drunk Otis Campbell.

Stuart was in a Gallatin prison cell when he took TV sheriff Griffith’s call. He was serving 48 hours after pleading guilty to driving under the influence. Real-life Sheriff J.D. Vandercook let him keep his phone on while incarcerated.

“Andy said, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Stuart recalls. “I said, ‘Being Otis.’ ”

Stuart says he’s done being Otis. Getting clean and coming clean felt like weights let go rather than like weights lifted. It wasn’t, “I don’t get to do this anymore.” It was, “I don’t have to do this anymore.”

After the DUI arrest and prison sentence, Stuart looked at the life he’d lived and dealt with his triumphs and sorrows. For the first time, he stared down the deaths of his mentors, Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash. And he celebrated his aces in the hole: a marriage to Connie Smith and his alignment with his new band, The Fabulous Superlatives.

“I had the home I dreamed of, the girl I dreamed of and the band I dreamed of,” he says. “I thought, ‘You can lose it and you’ll be one more body bag on the edge of Nashville if you’re not careful.’ ”

‘Follow the path’

He’s careful now. More than that, he has become essential.

A 40-year music veteran at the age of 53, Stuart has spent the past eight years on an unprecedented run, championing traditional country music with a preacher’s fervor and an acolyte’s wonder. Put out to pasture, he’s used his musicality and force of will to turn the pasture into a tourist attraction.

“The lid came off, creatively,” he says. “That’s from knowing you’re at the right place, at the right time, doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”

Apparently, what he’s supposed to be doing is most everything, most all the time, in service of traditional country.

He and the Superlatives — guitarist Kenny Vaughan, drummer Harry Stinson and bass man Paul Martin — have released five albums since 2005, with a forthcoming gospel album complete and songs finished for a new country album.

The Marty Stuart Show has become RFD television’s signature program over the past four years, but more than that, it has become a cultural document, a performance-heavy program where country greats show up, knowing they’ll be supported by The Fabulous Superlatives, a band that can capture the spirit of country music of any era. Stuart plans each moment of the show: It’s all by sober design.

In 2007, Stuart produced Porter Wagoner’s shimmering swan song, Wagonmaster, reviving Wagoner’s vintage sound. Last year, he produced Long Line of Heartaches, Smith’s return to classic form after years out of the studio.

“To Porter, I said, ‘All you need to do is make the music you brought to town with you,’ ” Stuart says. “With Porter, and with the people who come to our TV show, it’s been a joy to watch singers come back to life.”

There’s more, as well. Awards for his photography. Museum displays of his astounding collection of guitars, suits, boots and such. And, always, the touring. This weekend, he was back at the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival, the same festival where Lester Flatt offered his divine appointment.

“Marty is crucial not just to preserving traditional music, but crucial to adding to traditional music,” says Country Radio Hall of Fame air personality Eddie Stubbs, the announcer on The Marty Stuart Show. “Look at the body of music this man is creating. Look at his prose, his photography. ... The man is an absolute genius, and I’ve never said that about anyone of his generation.”

Thank you, Mr. Flatt.

All of this, we know, followed failure. And all of this is creation: Things that would not be in the world were it not for Stuart, the prodigy who ran off the rails for a while, until he doubled down on the heritage, tradition and artistry that had been his stepping stones years ago.

“It’s a head full, and a lot of work, but it’s wonderful to have a mission,” Stuart says. “Wonderful to have hope and clarity and sobriety and a reason to get up and go to work, every day.

“The lesson came, ‘When you’re out of style, when nobody cares but you, follow the path.’ ”

By Peter Cooper

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