A Hillbilly Rocker Comes of Age

This appeared on Country.com - October 13, 1999

Marty Stuart could truly be labeled country music's Renaissance Man. He's a man of many interests and, at any given time, he's got half a dozen irons in the fire, running the gamut from assembling fine art exhibits to producing records for other artists, to helping out his fellow man.

So, just what is Stuart up to these days? In short, a lot.

Marty recently sat down with country.com for an interview to talk about his latest album, a forthcoming book, his volunteer work with Native Americans and an assortment of interesting topics. Sitting in his office just off Music Row, Stuart is surrounded by a dozen or so oil paintings and sketches by noted artist Tom Allen, which translates into yet another project for the 30-year country music veteran.

Stuart's most recent release for MCA, The Pilgrim, is arguably the best album of his career. Loved by music critics, the record has largely been ignored by radio programmers. (It did, however make an impressive showing on the Americana chart) Nashville music writer Charles Earle called The Pilgrim a "modern masterpiece" and "the best country album released to date this year." Does the record live up to such a glowing review? Most definitely. This album is not a typical '90's country record. It is conspicuously absent of insipid little radio ditties. The Pilgrim is a dark concept album that contains politically incorrect themes such as death, cheatin', drinkin' and more. In essence, it's a solid country record with lots of pedal steel, fiddles and banjo. Throughout the recording, Stuart offers glimpses of the musical styles and performers that have fired his musical passion for decades including Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons, Buck Owens and Bill Monroe.

In creating The Pilgrim, Stuart drew inspiration from a true story about a man in his hometown of Philadelphia, Miss., reflections on his own musical pilgrimage, and the 1996 death of bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe. Stuart enlisted former boss man Cash, Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Pam Tillis and George Jones to serve as tour guides along the Pilgrim's journey.

Stuart is well aware that if sales don't pick up, he could lose his current record deal but stands proud in knowing that he's created a record that goes beyond current musical trends and has some grit to it. "I feel like I've put out some good songs and recorded some good records, but this is the first project that rang true for me," says Stuart. "We had great setup for this record, but when they (MCA) hit resistance to radio, which we all knew would happen, everybody just got quiet all of a sudden.

"It wouldn't surprise me if I got a phone call and they (MCA) said, `Yeah it's been great, but it's been great.' If I happen to lose my record deal, well, it would be that record deal that I lost. I hope it doesn't happen, but if it does, I'm ready for it." A video for the honky-tonker, "Red, Red Wine and Cheatin' Songs," the album's sole single, has just been released to CMT due to popular demand and hopefully will generate radio exposure and boost record sales.

Although it's been tough going trying to break a new album without radio's support, Stuart and his band, the Rock 'n' Roll Cowboys, are meeting the challenge head on. "It's been a real summer to go to war," says Stuart. "There's something cool about playing 'Tempted' and then picking up the mandolin and playing 'Dark as a Dungeon' and standing on the classics. It's nice to just let soul rule. This album has given us as a band a new stand. I find there's a real pride that I've seen inside my band lately. A dignity that I love.

"When it's time to hit the stage with my band, they take pride in being good musicians, and that's something I haven't seen in country bands a lot lately. There's not a band spirit that lives in the air inside of country music right now. When we pull up to a concert and there's a newly signed Nashville sounding act that's out there konking 'em on the heads, goosing the crowd at every turn just to round some applause out of 'em, I know those tricks, they're kind of stadium tricks. It's down to raw-boned music and time to let all the gags go and let the music speak for a lot. You can always go back to the gags."

Meanwhile, Stuart is not sitting around fretting about his future. He will be launching an art exhibition at Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium in the Spring of 2000 featuring Tom Allen's artwork. For fans of bluegrass music, this will be a rare opportunity to see the artist's original paintings and drawings that have been featured on Flatt & Scruggs album covers as well as in the pages of Esquire magazine. This winter Stuart will again be sitting in the producer's chair when he works with singer and old-time banjo player Leroy Troy on Troy's Rounder Records album.

Stuart is also putting the finishing touches on a book featuring his photography titled, Pilgrims, Sinners, Saints and Prophets, due out October 22. Inspired by an off-hand remark made by a fellow musician, Stuart started snapping photographs as a hobby while working on the road as an adolescent. Explains Stuart, "We were at a show and either Curly Seckler or Paul Warren (both Lester Flatt sidemen) said, 'I'd give anything if I had a camera and tape recorder when I first started all of this. Think what I would have had now.'

"I thought to myself 'I can afford a camera,' so my mama bought me one for Christmas, and I bought a little tape recorder and terrorized everybody," laughs Stuart. The book, which will contain roughly 200 images of musicians and friends Stuart has made along his musical travels, includes that first photo he took in 1970. "The first picture I ever shot in my life was of Connie (Smith) when she came to my hometown to play," says Stuart. "I borrowed my mama's camera to shoot that picture. That's pretty priceless." Stuart is also penning the accompanying text for the book. "I basically wrote stories about what was going on at the time, like the Bradley Barn Sessions (with George Jones and Keith Richards) and the weekend I hung out with Merle Travis. The book basically just treks my journey beginning with the Sullivan Family, then Lester, Johnny Cash, on down. It's a good way between the album and this book to close down my part in this century," says Stuart.

In addition to his country music travels, Stuart makes yearly pilgrimages to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. A long-time champion and supporter of Native Americans, Stuart began going to the economically depressed community in South Dakota a decade ago. A few times each year Stuart heads West to rejuvenate his spiritual side and to work with members of the Oglala Sioux Indians. Stuart and his wife, Connie Smith, sponsor students at the nearby Oglala Lakota Community College, and more recently, the musician turned over all of his proceeds from his signature Martin guitar line to benefit the school.

A few weeks before this interview, Stuart and his band performed a pre-semester concert for the students at the community college on the heels of President Clinton's trip to the reservation as part of his New Markets Initiative plan last summer. Says Stuart, "I thought it was important to go in there after (President) Clinton on the first day of school and offer up a pep rally just to keep the hope alive. We had dancers from Phoenix and Marvin Helper, a medicine man from Redshirt. It was a good pow-wow."

After the interview was wrapped up, Stuart talked briefly about the impending Bob Dylan-Paul Simon concert set to play in Nashville that evening. And yep, you guessed it. When the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famer hit the stage, Stuart was there to sit in with Dylan's group that night. Standing to the left of the legendary performer, Stuart grinned the night away as he alternated between playing guitar and mandolin, adding fire to the evening's performance. Now wouldn't that be an interesting project down the road?

Written by Chris Skinker

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