Marty Stuart

Country Music Alive & Well

This appeared in Up Country Magazine - March 2004

In all genres of music, there are stars that seem to have always been there. They are apparently ageless and are regarded as key contributors to their generation of musicians. Marty Stuart must surely be one of these significant figures.

Marty Stuart made his professional debut in 1971 at the tender age of thirteen and has since developed his craft, his own style, and his star status in a prolific and long-running career ever since. Through necessity that career path was re-evaluated five years ago when he lost his recording contract, but he is now back with a vengeance and a new sense of purpose with an album that epitomizes the very core of what Marty Stuart stands for.

Marty was born in the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1958. By the age of twelve, he was already an outstanding mandolin player and was performing regularly with a gospel act called The Sullivans. His prowess was recognized by no less than Lester Flatt, who asked him to become a part of his touring bluegrass outfit when he was just thirteen.

When the legendary Flatt died in 1979, Marty became part of the band run by fiddler Vassar Clements, which also included guitar legend Doc Watson in its line-up. He then joined Johnny Cash as a guitarist and played as part of his band for six years, by which time he had developed his playing skills and was becoming increasingly aware of the potential of combining bluegrass with other forms of country music.

In 1982, Marty moved on in his career when he recorded a solo album called Busy Bee Café on the independent Sugar Hill label. A tribute to his growing reputation was that his backing musicians included Doc Watson, Merle Watson and Johnny Cash on guitars as well as the master Jerry Douglas on dobro.

This first step into recording so impressed Columbia Records that Marty was offered a recording deal; resulting in the song "Arlene," which became his first Top 20 hit in 1985, and the album Marty Stuart released a year later. He then joined MCA Records in 1989 and broke into the Top 10 in 1990 with the single that summed up the style of music he was presenting, "Hillbilly Rock." The name was also the title of the next album and was the style he was to become synonymous with.

As all his music paid tribute to the stars of grass roots country music from the past, Marty also picked up the tag of the Hillbilly Crusader. He had also begun to build a large collection of country music memorabilia, including instruments, pictures, music and recordings, and part of his collection became a major exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in 2001. At the same time, Marty's passion for photography also developed into a consuming pastime, with many of his subjects being the stars with which he was appearing, offering him an opportunity few others would have.

Marty's second MCA album, Tempted, gave him four major hits including the title track, which has subsequently become a classic amongst the British line dance community. In 1992, Marty became a member of the Grand Ole Opry, two decades after his first appearance on stage there as a young teenager and, in the same year, his duet with Travis Tritt, "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'," became a huge hit, earning the pair the Vocal Event of the Year accolade at the Country Music Association's awards ceremony. The following year, they won a Grammy.

Marty's third album, This One's Gonna Hurt You, became his first gold album, selling more than 500,000 copies and featured Travis Tritt in another duet on the title track. For the next few years, a stream of albums followed as his reputation for offering a distinctive blend of country styles grew and he was also able to branch out into other projects, including duets with stars such as Steve Earle, Willie Nelson and George Jones.

In 1997, Marty married Connie Smith, a star of the Grand Ole Opry and two years later released what he thought was his outstanding achievement -- the concept album, The Pilgrim. Despite critical acclaim, sales were poor and he was dropped as a recording artist by MCA.

Deciding that he needed time to reflect on his future, Marty went home to Mississippi. "I just went back home to spend some time out in the country in the woods." he says. "I could hear the same train whistles, see the same stars and feel the same atmosphere that inspired me to love country music and play it when I was a kid; before I knew anything about doing it for a living."

While listening to classic country and western recordings with fellow Mississippi music stars Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, Marty began to get the urge to return to the music scene with a new attitude. "This time it wasn't about home and fortune," he explained. "There was a different agenda. It was purely a musical mission." Thus his latest album, Country Music, was born.

Inspiration came from varied and interesting backgrounds and Marty recalls a conversation with Johnny Cash while recording a guitar track at his cabin. Feeling he had done all he could after The Pilgrim, Johnny told him, "You can never go back after you've made one like that....." Marty knew he had to move on.

At about the same time, he had a long conversation with actress Faye Dunaway, who was starring in the movie Yellow Bird, for which Marty had just written the film score. When he told her he was going to make a country music record, she told him, "You have so much power to draw from, so much to pull from -- don't even give it a second thought. Just go to your heart."

The final influence that clinched his decision came after a trip to and from Europe. On the plane journey, Marty listened to the whole set of boxed albums by Jimmie Rodgers. "After that trip, I finally realized why he was called the Father of Country Music." he explained. "He was the first to go to the subject matter that is all now seen as a cliché. Trains, mama, prison, gamblin', hoboin' -- all the other aspects of that romantic lifestyle and true life blues. And I thought. 'I want to make a textbook record in that regard.' "

So that his recording would live up to its name, Marty searched for like-minded people who also happened to be world-class musicians and singers. These became known as The Fabulous Superlatives and have since become his backing band.

For the songs, Marty trawled through his wide knowledge of the best songwriters and either worked with them or used them as inspiration for the tracks which reflect a wide range of what could be described as country roots music. He still maintains his respect for bluegrass by the inclusion of several tracks where there is a clear banjo or mandolin baking and the song "Tip Your Hat" even includes Earl Scruggs displaying his legendary skills.

Marty has succeeded in creating what he set out to do. "The album pretty much encapsulates a thirty-year journey," he enlightens. "It's very Southern. From the perspective of where I was raised in Mississippi, everything you hear on this record is what I heard on a daily basis in my hometown. In the course of one week, I heard the Grand Ole Opry, saw Flatt & Scruggs on their TV show, played my favorite Johnny Cash records and listened to my sister's Otis Redding records. When I processed them all, it came out sounding like country music."

Marty Stuart has come a long way in an illustrious career. The icon of hillbilly rock has demonstrated that, whatever the style or genre, quality will always rise to the top. Country Music, the album, shows that the still young Marty will be around for many more years to come.

By Alan Perkins

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