Liner Notes - Freight Train Blues

The roots of blues music have been traced to Elizabethan England and further back in western Africa. On American soil these influences and other cultural ingredients entered the musical melting pot during the late nineteenth-century to lay the foundation for the blues. By then, having the blues was commonly associated with a general state of discontent, romantic or otherwise. Shrouded in the mists of time are the key African-American players who formalized the lyric pattern and musical form of classic country blues. Once defined, the music spread quickly through the south by way of itinerant musicians and railroad section crews. As rail lines expanded, the blues spread to white audiences and, most notably, the singing brakeman Jimmie Rodgers. In the late 1920s his blue yodels helped popularize the music nationwide.

It's a long way from the roots of the blues to Sun Studio in Memphis where Johnny Cash recorded "Blue Train" on May 28, 1958. However, Sun had been a focal point of blues evolution since the early 50s when founder Sam Phillips produced sessions with Howlin' Wolf, Little Junior Parker and many others. No doubt Cash felt right at home.

Like many country songs written after the 1920s, "Blue Train" is knee-deep in the blues but doesn't follow the standard A-A-B rhyme pattern of the classic form. Other songs in this collection are comparable to "Blue Train" in this respect with, their focus on “blue” conditions in a variety of manifestations.

Among many accomplishments, the career of Johnny Cash is distinguished by a genuine interest in the trials and triumphs of the human spirit during the course of American history. Railroad themes, from the folk ballad "Casey Jones" to the deeply personal "Let the Train Blow the Whistle," pepper his catalog from his first recording session to his recent CD Unchained. Of these, the metaphorical "Blue Train" is surely one of the most intriguing.

“It's a ghost train! It's a mystery train! Get aboard the blue train and leave your blues behind!,” Marty Stuart shouts at the beginning of live performances of "Blue Train."

“Everyone interprets it differently,” he says. “For me it's a very haunting piece. That's the way I approached it.” After recording "Blue Train" late one night, Marty headed for home. “I was living out in the country and had to take a two-lane road out of Nashville to my place. I remember that it was real foggy that night. So foggy that I had to slow down to 10 or 15 miles an hour. I kept playing the tape of "Blue Train" over and over again and thought the fog is very appropriate. It sounds good in the middle of a big fog.” Marty was raised a stone's throw from the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio line in Philadelphia, Mississippi. “I've never lived in a house where I couldn't hear a train. There's something about the sound of a train that's at the essence of who I am. When I was real young I'd go down to the tracks and listen to the hobos tell stories. One day I told my mom that I'd figured out what I wanted to be in life, a hobo.”

As fate would have it though Marty's parents steered him to bluegrass, country music, and the mandolin. His father was a big fan of string bands and the bluegrass kings of syndicated television, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs. The first record he ever got, at age five, was by Flatt & Scruggs. It became the foundation of his musical education. Watching the duo on TV made a big fan out of Marty too.

Six years later Carl Jackson came into Marty's life to provide important instruction and inspiration. Later at a concert, Bill Monroe made the right impression when he handed Marty a pick and challenged him to learn how to use it. Challenge accepted! Within months, the 13 year-old prodigy auditioned Rawhide for Lester Flatt's band to secure his first professional job.

Five years on the road with Lester set the stage for stints with Vasser Clements, Doc Watson and a six-year run with the Johnny Cash. “Johnny's voice found its way inside my heart when I was 5 years old and that's where it's stayed. He's almost like a dad. No matter the ups, the downs, whatever craziness has come along, I've enjoyed the ride being his friend.”

With Johnny's encouragement, Marty took the first big step toward a solo career. On the 1982 album Busy Bee Café he shares his spotlight with mentors like Cash, Watson and Earl Scruggs. Marty hit his stride in the 90's with CMA and Grammy Awards, number 1 hits, gold records, the publication of a book of his photographs, film scores and three [now six] terms as president of the Country Music Foundation.

In 1999, Nashville's Renaissance Man produced his artistic achievement to date with The Pilgrim, a concept album that includes steam whistles and train songs. In "Hobo's Prayer," The Pilgrim learns boxcar etiquette from St. Peter, the train yard prophet. The album comes full-circle with Johnny Cash's haunting contribution, followed by Marty and Earl's performance of "Mr. John Henry, Steel Driving Man." Ending The Pilgrim with Cash and Scruggs, who've figured so prominently in Marty's development, “takes me full-circle too,” he says.

By Michael Hyatt

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