Marty Stuart Rediscovers His Roots In Latest Album

Country musician returned to the family farm for inspiration

This appeared in the Ann Arbor News - November 22, 2003

Hillbilly Rock. That was the title of Marty Stuart's 1989 breakout album, and that moniker describes his music as well as any other. Indeed, Stuart's music is a seductive but heartfelt mix of twangy honky-tonk, '50s rockabilly and high-lonesome bluegrass.

Most casual country fans know that Stuart did an early-1980s stint in Johnny Cash's band and was married for a time to Cash's daughter Cindy. But not everyone knows that Stuart got his start playing mandolin and acoustic guitar in bluegrass bands when he was just 12 years old - first with the Sullivans and then with the legendary Lester Flatt.

Stuart's synergy of old-time country music and a more progressive sensibility surfaced on The Pilgrim, his prog-bluegrass 1998 release. But after that stellar outing, he didnt know what to do for a follow-up. So he laid low for two years, scoring a couple of films and putting together a Cash tribute album.

And when it came time to get back to work, he returned to the old family farm to drink in the Southern rural influences of his childhood. The result - an album titled simply Country Music - surveys various country and southern-roots styles. We hear crying pedal steel, spritely fiddles and growly, low-note guitar twang, along with occasional Jordanairres-style backing vocals.

Many of the tunes are country-roots covers, including a few obscurities as well as Porter Wagoner's "A Satisfied Mind" and Cash's "Walls of a Prison." In many respects, the disc recalls a Dwight Yoakam album of the late '80s or early '90s.

"Going back to the farm was a real rediscovery for me," says Stuart, who comes to the Convocation Center in Ypsilanti on Sunday. "I got to see pigs and donkeys and tractors and gardens, and listen to the whipporwills, and smell the same pine trees smelled as a child. It really put me back in touch with all the things that inspired me as a kid."

Of all of the artists who've made inroads on country radio, and reached the country-pop audience that emerged the '90s, Stuart (along with Yoakam) is the one who's alrways stayed closest to the genre's rural roots. Sure, he's not shy about employing modern-day production values, but it's typically been at the service of real country music.

"I guess that's just because of the way I was trained," says Stuart by phone from his home in Nashville. "If you look at all the great crossover stories, whether it's Johnny or Willie Nelson, or Lester Flatt, people who had appeal outside of the Nashville community, they never really changed what they did - they just kept making authentic music, and the people came around to them.

"I think authenticity is important, and that we come to the table with songs and players that are the real deal, and then you can build on that."

For the last 23 years - ever since he joined Cash's band in 1980 - Stuart's "main axe" has been the guitar played by the late Clarence White in the Byrds. From 1968-'73, White used that guitar to create the gnarly string bends and stinging tone that was the centerpiece of Byrds' progressive-country-rock during that period. White was killed when he was hit by a car in 1973, and Stuart bought it from White's widow in 1980.

Last spring, after the death of Cash's wife, June Carter Cash, Stuart got a call from Cash, who said he wanted to get back into the studio. "So I canceled everything else I had planned and went into the studio with him," says Stuart, who helped Cash record "more than 50 sides" and played acoustic guitar on more than 20 of those tracks.

"It was something he could do that gave him some relief, and the microphone was his friend," says Stuart.

When asked about Cash's legacy, Stuart says that Cash was "a unique messenger, and he left an enormous void in my life when he passed. More than anything, he stood for artistic integrity, and his work has a timeless quality, and an eternal ring to it."

By Kevin Ransom

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