Marty Stuart Makes Country Music

This appeared in Country Standard Time - July 2003

When an album is called Country Music, the singer had better make good on the claim.

Marty Stuart was not exactly worried about coming through. No need to worry that Stuart was going to go soft with a pop country sound.

In fact, the Philadelphia, Mississippi native is a stalwart and die hard supporter of country music as he knew it.

"Well, that's what it is," says Stuart, 45, in a phone interview from Nashville when asked why he called his new album Country Music.

"I don't know what it is, but it seems like every time I make a record and it's probably my fault because people keep asking me 'what's this one about?' It's time to stand up for the church and say what this is. The title explains everything that the record is about."

As in the church of country music, something near and dear to Stuart's heart.

"I think it's like a soldier in the army. You surrender your suit for a sabbatical. I think right now country music needs all the true soldiers it can get."

"I must be becoming an old curmudgeon. I think it's also okay to stand up for what you believe in. Regardless if somebody believes in the country disco movement, they should absolutely stand by their convictions and stand up."

But that's not, of course, where Stuart is coming from. No, he's a dyed-in-the-wool honky tonker with traditional country music on his mind.

"This is a place that I feel great right now," Stuart says of the music on Country Music.

This is an album where Stuart pays ode to stars of yesteryear, starting off with his version of "A Satisfied Mind," a hit for Porter Wagoner in 1955 and putting his own twist on the semi-spoken word "Tip Your Hat," paying homage to folks like Merle and Hank and Willie where Stuart sings, "Tip your hat to the teacher."

In fact, the Hag even sings with Stuart on "Farmer's Blues," a song written with his wife, Connie Smith.

Stuart hasn't been heard from too much in the past four years. His last album was The Pilgrim, a rarity for country, a concept album. The premise was a love story involving a strange guy in his hometown who marries above him and later commits suicide when she has an affair.

The album was not typical country fare, at least for the end of the 20th century.

While receiving great reviews, that did little to bolster album sales.

"I was absolutely disappointed," says Stuart. "I was devastated. When any artist pours out their heart and soul and really gives the audience a truthful offering, and it's not accepted for whatever reason, it hurts."

"But it's not something that took me by surprise," says Stuart, adding he knew very well it was far different than most all of the music being made then.

He also says he did not benefit from MCA Records, his label at the time.

"I didn't have that (record label) support," he says. "I had a one record deal. I wanted to go out on my own terms. I wanted to walk on my own death." And that's just what happened. It was over.

Stuart ultimately feels, however, that he was on solid ground in making The Pilgrim.

"The whole 'O Brother' phenomenon occurred, and I said it just tells me that I was at the right place without any support," says Stuart. "What it does when you have that much commercial disaster, it basically puts you out of business for a year or two."

Stuart headed out west where he did film work. He scored music for the movies, Daddy & Them, All the Pretty Horses and Yellow Bird with Faye Dunaway.

Stuart also found himself behind the control panels in producing the Johnny Cash tribute, Kindred Spirit and actor Billy Bob Thornton's debut disc.

It seems that Stuart's time out west helped him stick to his guns.

"One of the things that followed me home from film world (is) it's real evident to me from soundtrack work that the image and the music have to line up. During my time of reentry (into country music), during my time on the farm in Mississippi, I'd look at gardens and trees, just basically nature. Country things. Barns, silos, fields and cows, and when I'd listen to country radio, it didn't always line up with what I was seeing. I totally understand that we (have) more of the urban sounding music these days. When I listen to this record, it kind of lines up with what I feel and see."

Sensing it was time to record again, Stuart says he had several indie labels approach him, but Stuart was not ready to go that route. Once an artist has left the major label fold, it tends to very hard to mount a career in the same way with touring and distribution.

"There's always a major deal to be had around here if you have the right idea and the right songs," he says.

Stuart ended up at one of his first labels, Sony.

"We both have a chance to get it right this time," says a jocular Stuart. "We got John Grady in control (at Sony). He's totally about the music. He's the freshest breath of air this town has seen in years."

After one self-released disc and Busy Bee Café on Sugar Hill in 1982, Stuart eventually signed with Columbia, which released Marty Stuart in 1986.

When things with Sony didn't work out, Stuart went to MCA where he enjoyed his greatest success. From 1990 to 1992, he scored top 10s with "Hillbilly Rock," "Little Things," "Tempted" and his biggest hit, "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'," recorded with soul mate Travis Tritt. He had another hit with Tritt as well, "This One's Gonna Hurt You (For a Long, Long Time)" and on his own with "Burn Me Down."

But after enjoying moderate success with "Now That's Country" (as you can see, Stuart's been plying for country music for a long time), Stuart continued a downward spiral commercially, culminating in The Pilgrim.

Stuart says he feels he's at a better place now with Sony. "First and foremost, they let me alone, and I think that's great."

"I always had the benefit of an A&R staff that I'd never had the benefit of before," says Stuart, referring to the label staff that signs artists and also helps them with recording.

Having written 5 of the 12 songs on Country Music, Stuart relied on staff to find "Tip Your Hat," Mike Henderson's "Wishful Thinking" and "If There Ain't There Oughta Be."

"Tony Brown (former MCA label head) and MCA just depended on me to bring it all in," says Stuart. "The upside to that is it's totally my product, but the downside is a lot of work to put on any artist when they tour. It's the hardest thing."

"Finding 5 or 10 great songs, finding things that will stand the test of time is the hardest thing of all," says Stuart.

When "Tip Your Hat" was presented to Stuart, he, at first, begged off. "I thought I've talked this kind of language for so long," says Stuart. "I passed on the song."

But the more Stuart listened the song of former Boy Howdy lead singer Jeffrey Steele, the more he liked it.

While calling it "well written," Stuart put his own stamp on it. The second half mentioned bands like Charlie Daniels Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival, 'which are absolutely valid bands, but I wanted to rewrite the song...and make it more traditional. The song felt like a sermon that I wanted to preach."

Stuart had another motive in mind as well in recording the song.

"I didn't know that I wanted to tackle that again," he says of the subject matter. "Why just tell the same old joke one more time? The more I thought about it, the more I listened to became a vehicle to use (Dobroist) Uncle Josh Graves and Earl (Scruggs) on the record, and that made a lot of sense to me. It gave it a platform. Go back to my old alma mater of the Foggy Bottom Boys. Josh and Earl are true masterful teachers. I can tell it, but you can also hear it."

When Stuart was 13, he left his home to hit the road with Lester Flatt of Flatt & Scruggs fame.

Merle Haggard also appears on the album singing "Farmer's Blues" with Stuart. That's an outgrowth of the Electric Barnyard tour they are doing this summer.

"It just seemed like country music marketing 101," says Stuart. "If we tour, we should sing a song together. It was a song that Connie and me wrote. That I think that is one of the finer things I've ever been a part of. Of course, with Merle on it, it gives it another whole level of credibility and interest."

The Barnyard tour also includes bluegrass star Rhonda Vincent, BR549 and Smith.

"A year ago when I first put the new band (the Fabulous Superlatives) together, my request to the booking agent was to hype me. We don't have any records out. The '90s have run their course, and we're basically starting over again. I said let's go back to places where there is not so much pressure. Be ourselves. We started playing small towns across America. I noticed people were starting to come again. The more I played these small towns, the more I fell in love with the atmosphere of small town America. I also saw it as a life that country music had gone off and kind of forgotten. Everything is so urban and pop driven that our original country audience has been left behind."

After thinking about the old Grand Ole Opry shows with Roy Acuff, Stuart went with the idea of having making "a hillbilly circus out of it. The first person I thought about was Merle because he's written the soundtrack to the common people. We've put a blue collar price on the ticket. Made it a very affordable."

Stuart closes Country Music with the haunting, mournful "Walls of a Prison," a song recorded by Stuart's ex-father in law, also known as Johnny Cash, about 40 years ago.

The melody is the same as "Streets of Laredo" with the song about a prisoner determined to break out.

"This my very favorite Johnny Cash song ever ever ever. The way it came about is in truth is a happy accident. We had a recording session booked one night, and it was full of musicians. I didn't have anything else to record, and we had more time on the clock. I said, 'let me play you this one.' What you real is the original recordings, live performance, no overdubs, second take."

Stuart clearly is happy with the end result of Country Music. "The main thing on my docket right now is this tour and make this record happen hopefully," he says.

"I totally feel like there is plenty of commercial (possibility)," he says of Country Music. "I think it's balanced out with heart and soul. There are songs - 'If There Ain't There Oughta Be,' 'By George,' 'Here I Am' - as commercial as you could ask. We'll see."

By Jeffrey B. Remz

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