Marty Stuart

This appeared in Up Close Magazine - February 1997

It's mid-January and Marty Stuart, like many other artists, is enjoying some time off the road. Seated in front of his fireplace with a cup of coffee to sip on, Country Music's "Renaissance Man" seems content to simply "lay around the house."

With its Southwestern touches and framed portraits of Indian leaders by famed 19th century photographer Edward S. Curtis, Marty's abode has a distinctive yet homey feel. "Houses," he says, "are like art collectors. They're always evolving."

The same could be said of the artist himself. Since hitting the road with Lester Flatt at the age of 13, Marty has a slew of accomplishments. Yet, he's still excited about new, ventures, such as his feature film debut with Steven Seagal.

"It won't take you long to watch it," he says of his small role in the upcoming Fire Down Below. "I had never seen one of Seagal's movies, but we had played a show together. He was on the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show last year as a guitar player. I heard he was doing a movie, heard a list of country people were in it (Mark Collie, Kris Kristofferson). I went up there to Kentucky (where the movie was being shot) and we wrote a couple of songs. It wound up he liked them and asked me to put together a bluegrass band for the movie. Since then, I've watched one or two of his movies and they all kind of have the same form. There's always a music scene of some kind. I guess I'm the 'some kind' of music scene in this one. I'm the leader of a fearless bluegrass band. It was a big stretch.

"We filmed at night out in the mountains around southern California, and it was cold. We went to two or three in the morning, and you have to put on that happy grin each and every time. Those folks earn their money. I think it's twice as tedious as a video. A video, you have a three-and-a-half minute work to deal with. In movies, it's just scene after scene and take after take, angle after angle.

"I'll tell you what's a kick. Seagal, I understand, makes zillions of dollars for his company, so they've awarded him planes and helicopters, so you're definitely into the big time. It's great to know that Lear jets and helicopters and trinkets are at your command. I got a kick out of it."

Seagal projects a certain arrogance and swagger when he makes public appearances. Marty, however, had the opportunity to see past that public persona. "The most honest, vulnerable spot I've found in Steven is when he picks up a guitar. When Steven puts a guitar in his hand, he's totally accessible, totally vulnerable and totally honest. That other character just fades off into the distance."

It's precisely that experience with Steven Seagal which endears the art of music to Marty. "We make product a lot, but sometimes we forget about making music. That is the most important reason we're here, I think. The other night I was at home watching the Kennedy Center Honors. I watched Johnny Cash and Jack Lemmon and the ballerina Maria Tallchief, Benny Carter and the playwright Edward Albee. I really thought about what I'm doing right now. I thought whether you get to this honor or not, this is the way you should make music or do songwriting or make videos or whatever it is that we do around here. I understand it's always been a struggle between commerce and art, but I think that you just have to realize that what we do comes from a soulful place, and it has a soul factor that can't be denied."

As president of the Country Music Foundation, Marty has made a huge commitment in preserving Country Music's heritage. "That's the equivalent of the Kennedy Center. I really think that the ultimate accolade that any artist could have as a country performer is not how much money they have in the bank or how many records they've sold...winding up in the Country Music Hall of Fame is the ultimate Country Music honor.

"I went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year. I'm interested in seeing us having one better than theirs. I just believe in the program. I don't know why I do, but I believe in all those old things. Sometimes people criticize you for hanging out with the older cats too much. Well, it's just as easy for me to go and hang out with Keith Richards or Rick Rubin or Don Was as it is Hank Thompson or Porter Wagoner or Grandpa Jones. Both sides are my friends. It's like family.

"A real wake-up call came to me when Jerry Rivers, Hank Williams' fiddle player, and Faron Young passed away. Those were people that really made a difference. It's a shame that everybody around here wasn't schooled or remembered the things that Faron and Jerry contributed. There's not a lot of dignity to die as an old hillbilly singer anymore. Living or dying is hard if you're an older country singer, and as this industry as progressed, that is one thing that we forgot to develop. I hope that we get to that soon. The Hall of Fame is one of those places...I've taken so many rock 'n' rollers and pop singers there, and they seem to get it more than some of the country people do.

"I was going through a period years ago where I was really lost and troubled musically and personally, and I didn't know why I played country music. I spent the afternoon down there. I hung out with films and songs and costumes and it realigned my spirit and my soul toward why I played country music, why I was called to play country music and chose to play it. It got me back in gear. It's a source of inspiration for me. It's a place that I totally believe in."

What else does he believe? "I believe Tom T. Hall's hot again! It's a good case in point. Just do what you do. You go out of style or you come back in style, but good songs always last. Sometimes it takes the rock 'n' rollers to reset our watch. Back in the early '70s when country music's soul kind of slipped away, the Dirt Band came into town, did the first version of Will The Circle Be Unbroken album. They uncovered our local gems like Maybelle Carter and Doc Watson and Roy Acuff and Earl Scruggs and Vassar Clements, Roy Huskey, Jimmy Martin, people like that. It took a rock 'n' roll band to resurface the soul of country music and put it back on the tracks.

"We've kind of drifted again as far as heart and soul goes. Last January, we were in California doing those Johnny Cash sessions that are on American Recordings, so here you have a rap producer (Rick Rubin) and Johnny Cash. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers and me are the band. Cash was singing songs by Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Soundgarden and Beck. I was thinking, 'There's more country music going on in this room full of rock 'n' rollers than I've heard in Nashville in a long time, outside of Junior Brown and BR5-49.' It's interesting that it takes outsiders sometimes to get it going."

As to his own evolution..."I think new songs determine that musically...and just trying to better what you do. Last year was an incredible year. I wound up on some cool outside projects like the Johnny Cash thing, played with John Lee Hooker, me and Travis (Tritt) had a tour, had a gold record, a couple of TV specials, got a Martin guitar named after me. There were all kinds of wonderful things to show for last year."

Marty celebrates a significant anniversary in 1997. "This Labor Day it will be 25 years (as a professional musician). That's hard for me to imagine." Sinatra once sang, "Regrets...I've had a few..." Aside from taking back one or two things he might have said that hurt someone, what about Marty? "No, I'm at peace now."

Those 25 years have given him incredible memories, such as the night Roger Miller was inducted into the Hall of Fame. "Dwight and Merle and Willie and me were standing backstage. Dolly came up and talked to us and then walked away. Merle said, 'I believe she just gets prettier all the time, her waist just gets smaller and smaller and her top just gets bigger and bigger.' I said someemthing about her lips being pretty and Dwight took off on how beautiful and gorgeous she was. Willie was just standing there listening to all of us and he finally looked at me and said, 'Do you think she's got any rolling papers?' I told that to Dolly and she loved it!"

By Janet E. Williams

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