Interview With Marty Stuart

This appeared on a Blog - April 29, 2010

This is a slightly longer version (if that's even possible) of the piece that's running on He's appearing with his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, at the Sheldon on Friday night.

Country singer Marty Stuart has been busy for the last couple of years with his RFT-TV show The Marty Stuart Show, but found time recently to record a new album (due later this year), and tour with his band, the Fabulous Superlatives. We spoke to him by phone from his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee.

What can you tell me about the new album?

It’s called Ghost Train (The Studio B Sessions). It’s traditional country music. That’s truly home. The RFD-TV show I’m doing kind of gives me a place to stand and do what I do best, and that’s traditional country music. It’s not about being retro, but it’s authentic. It’s totally, in my opinion, a new chapter. It honors where I come from, but it is a new chapter with new songs, for the most part. We went back to RCA Studio B and took it from being a museum back into a being a world-class recording studio. It’s a pretty cool record.

You’re an artist that is very conscious of country music history. What did it mean for you to record in Studio B?

It was the first studio that I ever worked at in Nashville, when I was with the Lester Flatts Band. I don’t remember a lot about those recording sessions other than that I knew I was in a place that was really special. It’s kind of like the Ryman to me. I used to go to the Ryman in the ‘80s, when it was a $2 tourist attraction. I’d shake my head and say, “Man, this place needs to be having shows again. This place is dying to be invited back to being part of the parade.” I got on the bandwagon and helped save that place. And the Country Music Hall of Fame offers Studio B as a tourist attraction now. I went in there recently when I [produced] Porter Wagoner’s last record, Wagonmaster. And I thought that would be a great place to do that record, but they just weren’t quite ready to let session in at that time. I revisited the idea again before I got into the idea of this record and this time they went, “Okay, be good.” When we did it, all it took was one note: It was like putting a match on dry wood. It just took off. The room absolutely exploded. And it was incredible to work there. We did a lot of research as a band. We studied a lot of Studio B records. We went there, we walked around the room, talked to people who helped design it, called old musicians. We really tried to do our homework before we set up and started playing. And it paid off.

Over the last decade or so, you’ve gone in a lot of different musical directions, but they’ve all been roots oriented – gospel, bluegrass, and so on. And now you say you’re getting back to real country. What for you defines real country music?

To back up to the top of the decade, the first record I did this decade was called Country Music. That was the first record we did with the Superlatives. But I was guilty of trying to grab a hit while making traditional country music, and it really was kind of a split message. It didn’t ring as true to me as I wanted it to. I should’ve got on one side of the line or the other. And then I developed Superlatone, and I had nowhere really to drive my sword because commercial country radio didn’t need me and I didn’t have a TV show at that time. Me and the Superlatives as a band in development just started walking around the room and playing the roots of American music. We were honored guests in the Delta gospel world, we were honored guests in the bluegrass world, Americana world. And I noticed that everywhere we went, we made a difference, and maybe inspired and encouraged and put a little new fire into those genres. But I still didn’t feel like I had a place to drive my sword. And in reality, that record I did on Porter really got me thinking. I love traditional country music. I notice when I go down the road and listen to traditional country records, I still cry. I kept writing those kind of songs. And when the RFD-TV show came along, it gave me a place to stage it from. I thought, “Okay, I can go just as hardcore as I want and stage it right here.” And that’s what I’ve been doing for the past couple of years. It works.

The sounds that define to me are traditional sounds: steel guitar, twangin’ Telecasters. The subject matter is back to the textbook, back to the template that Jimmie Rodgers laid down: cheatin’, drinkin’, redemption, murder, jail, mama, love, loss, and on and on. According to the newspaper this morning, those are all still valid topics.

Right. I’m so sick of…I mean, I live in the suburbs, but that doesn’t mean I want to hear a song about it.

Well, you know, that’s just product. That’s just good product is what it is. And country music needs that in its food chain. But down at the heart and the soul of things, it’s a whole lot different. And that’s where I feel at home.

You’ve gotta go with the heart. At the end of the day, it’s what comes out of the heart; what bubbled up and runs over the walls of your heart. That’s what you need to be doing. And if it sounds like Rascal Flatts, well, that’s what you need to be doing. But if it sounds like traditional country music, do that. But be prepared for the consequences either way.

There’s a song on your new album that you wrote with Johnny Cash right before he died. Tell me about that one.

The day after June Carter was buried, John Carter [Cash] called me and said, “Daddy wants to record.” I said, “That’s the best news I ever heard. Let’s go. We gotta keep him engaged.” We recorded songs at his cabin, we recorded songs at his house, we did sessions at my house. We did sessions at John’s mom and dad’s old home. It was just about keeping him engaged at whatever level he wanted to be. I’d just go and have a cup of coffee with him in the morning, if he felt like seeing anybody. But his health kind of dictated it all.

Four days before he passed away, I’d just come in from Folsom Prison. The governor gave me a pass to go there. I wanted to see where that record was made. I wanted to touch it and smell it and experience Folsom. So they showed me. It was made in the cafeteria. They recorded the record twice in the morning. Early in the morning. But behind the back wall of the cafeteria where they recorded was the old hanging gallery, where they used to take people’s lives. It’s now the prison band hall. The day I was there, the country band was playing, so I sat in with them and we played some songs. I went and saw Graystone Chapel, the place that Glen Shirley wrote about in that song that John sang. I got to thinking about the hanging gallows on the way home. It just kind of got to me. And I thought, wouldn’t it be an awful job to be a hangman? When you go home at night, what does your family say: “Great job, dad?” What a tortured soul you’d have to be to be a hangman. I started the song and that day I was over at John’s, we talked about Folsom. I told him what I’d done and said, “I got this song started, it’s called "Hangman” and told him why I wrote it. The words are, "I killed another man today/It’s hard to believe/I lost track at 30/Now I’ve grown too numb to grieve/The bottle helps me cope when I lay down at night/And when the dope rolls through my veins/It all fades out of sight." And I had, “Hangman, hangman, that’s my stock in trade/Hangman, hangman, sending bad men to their graves.”

He just spoke up and said to me, “Who killed who, I asked myself time and time again/God have mercy of the souls of hangmen.”


It’s a good one.

You asked about country music. The real country music to me is the kind that’s been lived through. Just about everything on this record, whether it’s redemption or going to jail or losing Johnny Cash or losing Porter Wagoner, you know, pick a subject I wrote about on this record. I lived through it. And that’s the best kind of music regardless – the kind you’ve lived through.

That’s great that you did that record with Porter, who is from Missouri, by the way. You’ve always been someone who respects your country music elders and helps to keep their work alive.

It’s the old Native American system, basically. It’s the oldest system in the world. In the family of country music you start out as a scout and a water boy and work your way up to being a buck and then a brave. You honor your chiefs and your queens. And somewhere along the way, if you handle it right, you might achieve that level yourself. I’ve always been referred to as a bridge between the past and the future. But I do like where I’m at right now. I’m in a position to bring young ones on and encourage that, but I’m also in a position to see the old ones home and see they get their robes on their shoulders as they go away. That’s a great place to be.

You were certainly brought along at an early age. What were you, 13, when you went on the road with Lester Flatt? Was that the right choice for you? I mean, I’m guessing that going on the road with Lester Flatt is not the same thing as going on the road with Motley Crue. Or is it?

It was very structured. It was a business deal. My folks, it was arranged. Correspondence courses, the taxes, that was all worked out. I got to keep a little money every week. The rest of it went to my mom at the bank. It was well-structured. But was it the right decision? For me, absolutely. I doubt that my parents would have let me go out with Ozzy [Osbourne], however.

Tell me about The Marty Stuart Show. This is your second year?

Yes, this is our second year. My favorite TV shows down through the years…there was an old show in the ‘50s called Grand Old Opry shows. They were beautifully done, in Technicolor. They’re the most beautiful documents of that era of country music ever. They were colorful, happy, just kind of a barn dance situation, if you will. Beyond that, my favorite shows were Flatt & Scruggs, The Porter Wagoner Show, the old Johnny Cash Show. And a lot of those 30 minute syndicated shows that came out in the ‘60s. And for years, I kept asking, “Why doesn’t somebody redo one of those shows? Thirty minutes with a great band, the best guests you can get, hay bales, wagon wheels, the whole bit. Costumes. Hillbilly Hollywood. And then one day I thought, “Well, why don’t I do it?”

I discovered the RFD network because they still air The Porter Wagoner Show. I called them up, we had a talk and a few months later we were in the studio. The guests have been crazy. From Emmylou Harris to John Prine to Dolly Parton to Merle Haggard to [Stuart’s wife] Connie Smith to Earl Scruggs to Jimmy Dickens…on and on and on. The best of the best.

The Cash show was central to my musical education. I remember seeing Bob Dylan on that show and Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. The fact that they were with Johnny Cash told me all I needed to know.

I’m like you. When I was a kid and that show was coming on, I couldn’t sleep the night before for anticipation. And he came through Jackson, Mississippi, during that time and that’s the first time I saw him live. That’s the one that lit the fire in my heart: “I gotta do that.”

Sorry for leaning on the Cash stuff, but I’ve gotta ask you, what was it like being his son-in-law?

[pause] He introduced me onstage as his son-in-law one time. I went to him after the show and said to him, “I love being your son-in-law, but do me a favor -- don’t ever do that again.” He has this perplexed look and I said, “That’s a looonnng shadow. I see lots of other people that are your family members, and that’s how they’re referred to for the rest of their lives. I said, “I’ve been a musician since I was 12 years old. I’ve worked hard for it.” He said, “I respect that.” So we always kept best of friends and that whole son-in-law thing was off in a different department. He was great about it.

I always thought you should have formed a band with the other ex-sons-in-law.

Well, June Carter had a pretty good idea. Before she got sick, she wanted to do a record and the band would be me, Rodney Crowell and Nick Lowe. And call it June Carter and her Ex-Son-in-Laws.

Last thing: You are a very much a preservationist of country music artifacts. Tell me a little about your efforts in that direction.

I’ve always had that knack, I guess, it started when I was a kid, whether it was collecting 8x10 glossies of artists that came through town or asking them for their guitar pick or saving copies of Country Song Roundup magazine. I just kind of leaned that way. It kinda got more serious as time went on. In the early ‘80s, when Urban Cowboy came along, it was the end of an era for lots of things around here. Those old costumes like the old guys wore, the Nudie suits; personality guitars with the people’s names down the neck. Those kinds of things. It was starting to disappear. But I noticed they started surfacing in pawn shops, thrift shops, yard sales. That felt wrong to me. Because I was a part of that new system in Nashville due to my age, but due to my experience and where I’d been, I noticed there was a breach, and that felt wrong to me.

When I was with the Cash show, we played in London, and I met the cofounder of the Hard Rock Café. He took me there and I saw treasures on the walls from the Beatles and the Stones and Otis Redding and the Who and Jimi Hendrix. And I thought, “Man, even though this is a restaurant, they treat that with a lot of respect. The Country Music Hall of Fame was about the only entity out there taking care of country artifacts. And their policy was that they didn’t pay for anything. It was always a donation. And a lot of people weren’t in a position to give it, so they were selling. On the way back home to America, I thought, I’d just bought Patsy Cline’s train case in a thrift shop in Nashville for $75. And I’d seen a famous guitar leave Nashville to go to Japan for $300. I thought, “I can’t do this.” So I started collecting all the suits, manuscripts, boots, guitars…anything to do with the treasures of that world that I could get. It started in my bedroom at my mom and dad’s house, then it became a little warehouse, then two warehouses, and now it’s about 20,000 pieces strong. It’s probably the biggest collection of country stuff out there. In the last three years, we started an exhibit called Sparkle & Twang: Marty Stuart’s American Odyssey which showcases all these things, and is on tour. It’s had a wonderful life. Lots of visitors. The good news is, a lot of those artifacts got saved. It is American culture that I just thought was too important to let slip away.

That’s great. Do you still have Ernest Tubb’s bus?

I didn’t own that. We just leased that years ago. We traveled in that, the old Black Hornet. Somebody out there told me that that bus is still on the road, but it had over three million miles on it when I shot it in the floor. You could never trust the fuel gauge and it t ran out of fuel on me one too many times.

By Daniel Durchholz

Return To Articles Return To Home Page