Rewind: The Marty Stuart Interview
|This apepared on Examiner.com - January 24, 2012|
In a 1992 interview, producer Tony Brown, then executive vice president and head of A&R for MCA Records Nashville, remarked that Marty Stuart was on the verge [of breaking through the top ranks] and hes done it without compromising anything. ... Marty has a sound that belongs to him. Hes earned it the hard way, and once he reaches gold, as long as he continues to work so hard, hell have it for a long time, like Johnny Cash. Nobody loves country music like Marty Stuart. Hes a walking historian. This business needs him.
Twenty years later, Stuart still works hard, refuses to compromise, and theres no questioning the role that he and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, play in championing the heart and soul of country music. Stuart spoke about all this and more while recording Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions.
Lets start with Tony Browns comments. Your response?
Guilty! I think, yeah, its interesting that it has played out that way. I look back, and there were times I made compromises to keep up with the popularity parade. I wasnt happy and I didnt like talking about it, but when I went back to what I truly believe is the sound in my head and in my heart, it doesnt matter whether it sells one copy or 1 million copies. Lester Flatt once told me that its not about making money, winning awards and being forgotten. The idea is to make sure youre welcome in town every January 1st. Thats staying power. And thats good wisdom.
Your road hasnt been easy, but you now have the luxury of doing what you want. What got you there?
Persistence and pure faith. One of my favorite stories is that of Abraham. Time and time again, his faith got him to where he was going. Theres always a wilderness journey between man and maker. I stay true to that and things always work out.
Whats changed and whats stayed the same?
The biggest change in my life is that I have made peace with things. I have enough money, the girl of my dreams, a great guitar, a tank full of gas and the best possible band. Why would I ever worry about anyone thinks I should do? You have to answer to whats in your heart. Its OK to not be the most popular kid on the cover of Teen Beat, and to be thought of amongst those who are considered archaic but come up as the Old Testament figures in country music.
Do you still practice?
I doodle. There are guitars all over my house, so Im always around them, but to formally sit and learn is not my style. Ill play for five minutes, then walk off, think about it and come back. Theres a new song I wrote [for Ghost Train] on the electric guitar and I had to woodshed day after day until it felt right and lined up. In the early part of this decade, I wiped the decks after The Pilgrim . I knew I was on a different road and that I would never pander again. The album flopped, as I expected it would, but it still broke my heart. It set me in a new direction. I took a vacation with Connie [Smith, Stuart's wife], the first one Id had since I was 12, and I came home to two employees, no record deal and no manager. I started over and that was fine with me. After I put the Fabulous Superlatives together, the band of a lifetime, I had no home, musically, anywhere. The Opry gave me home, the places I played in the 1990s gave me a place to play, but I wanted to get my band together and just play. So we played small-town America, farmer festivals, Americana events, and I saw the beauty of and the disappearing of old America. I called Merle Haggard and did the Electric Barnyard tour , which was a moderate success, and my recording-making since then has pertained to the roots of America, and still I had no place to drive my sword and say, "This is mine." Then I saw the RFD TV network and I said, "There it is. Rural America for rural people." Then I put together some music exhibits, my photography book, and now Ghost Train appears along those things. We recorded in [RCA Victor] Studio B, which is a museum [Note: As part of the Country Music Hall of Fame]. We relit the flame. It took me seven years to write this record, and it is unapologetic, authentic hardcore country music. Id play it for Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and George Jones at the same table and never bat an eye.
There are so many facets to your career touring, recording, photography, television show, radio show. How do you devote enough time to each?
I dont take on anything I cant fully devote myself to, and I say no a lot more than I ever have. I understand the amount of time it takes to make a record or do a television show, and I have a wonderful group of people around me to take the load off. Its a team effort. Its about casting. You have to be true to each project. Bad casting makes for an uncomfortable time, so before you cast youve got to know the lay of the land and who does what. In Nashville, I know everybodys style and true gifts, and thats half the battle to putting the ensemble together. Connie brings great balance in that respect. My house looked like the Country Music Hall of Fame. She brought order to that and quietly suggested that we let our home be a home and not a warehouse. Souls' Chapel  was recorded at the house, and one night I looked around and thought ... and she said, Dont even think about it. Shes 100 percent right: work is work and home is home. Life before Connie was a series of studios, busses, rhinestones and the smell of diesel fuel. I knew things were out of order and out of balance. She did it all without saying a word. Its nice when your heart has a home.
Are you at the top of your game? If so, how do you stay there, and if not, how do you get there?
I feel as peaceful and in the moment as Ive ever felt in my life. If Im not at the top, Im mighty close. How do you stay there? Keep doing what your heart tells you to do, and dont worry about what anyone else is doing. If youre the only person on planet Earth who thinks Santa Claus wears a green suit, well, stand there until he does!
Why is it important to be a band member and not just a frontman? While you are billed as Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives, theres no question that youre a part of the band.
I was trained in bands. Lester Flatt made everybody a star and had no problem throwing it to us. Johnny Cash had no problem stepping me out front. They were secure enough to share the spotlight. It makes for a better evening and a better experience. At the end of the day, I have the bills and headaches because Im the leader, but I love to go to work, I love the ensemble, I love the camaraderie between us and Mick and Philip, our two crew guys. Were a family, and its a way of life that I cherish. Merle Haggard and the Strangers. Buck Owens and the Buckaroos. Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. The Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. On and on. I love bands. Merle is still Merle, and hes the biggest band junkie youd ever hope to meet. As kids, we all aspired to be in bands. Its important to know when you have the band of a lifetime, and I do. I document everything pertaining to the Superlatives because its rare to find something like this.
How do you keep challenging each other?
By writing new songs. Thomas B. Allen, the great illustrator, once said that its always very important to keep a project and somebody in front of you who knows more about you than you know about it.
Have musicians lost the great art of jamming?
Probably so. I dont know. If you check in with the bluegrass and jazz communities, they still jam a lot. I dont feel it in country as much as it ought to be, but Im guilty too. I dont do it anymore. I stay home and write. Sometimes its wonderful to step off and remember why you do this: for the pure love and joy of it.
Why are two guitars better than one?
In reality, ten years ago I couldnt stand onstage alone and sing. And to break through to that place inside me, I had to do that. One night I was hosting a show at the Kennedy Center. I had just written "Dark Bird," about Johnny Cash after he died. I called the band to a halt, stood at the edge of the stage by myself and became a solo artist. It worked fine and I thought, If I can do that here, I can do it anywhere. Sometimes it's wonderful to try the wings of a song by yourself with a crowd. I believe anything after that is good, but its nice to have a second guitar. Things happen Kenny and me, we like weaving tapestry; we complement each others touch, tone and sense of phrasing. We dont talk about it; it just happens. We admire the rough and tumble relations of Mick and Keith; theyre locked at the hip, whether they want to be or not; theyre musical soulmates, and when they go off independently, its OK, but when they get back together, its great.
"Touch, tone and phrasing" what do those terms mean to you?
One thing I had access to as a young musician off the bus was that I was amongst the masters of country music: Vassar Clements, Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe all those players. Guys like Ralph Mooney their tone was their autograph. Tones and licks. Not homogenized. It was touch, tone, timing and phrasing. Every act was identifiable; you brought your culture to the table as an artist, musician and songwriter. In the early 80s, during the Urban Cowboy scare, the old guard was dismissed and country moved aggressively toward being viewed alongside pop culture. Twang became sophisticated and watered down, and I was guilty too in the beginning. My age, trying to get a deal to be noticed its OK to go down a road and its OK to come back, too.
I view it from the Native American perspective: its a wheel. Life goes in circles. You start as a water boy and then move on to brave, warrior, chief, statesman and then you pass on. It's the natural order. Look around at Willie, Merle, Little Jimmy Dickens, Ray Price those folks are treasures. Connie, Kitty Wells, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Dwight Yoakam, myself. Were charged with handing it to the next generation of kids. Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood theres face value there too. I find my hope and encouragement looking at bluegrass festivals, kids playing Western swing, the Old Crow Medicine Show, Rhonda Vincent, Del McCoury theyre the energized system where true power lies, and its healthy. Country is a bit more house divided than ever, but Im not so sure it isnt healthy. I like to fight.
Has the Internet taken away the charisma and mystery, the aura that artists used to have? There was excitement and something larger than life that happened when the band came to town. Now, not so much.
Yeah, I do think so. Also, theres always that crop of stars thats manufactured, and those people that are sent to Earth to be quasars, and theres a difference. Some people are 8x10 glossies and products of television talent shows. I dont need a panel to tell me if someone is a star. If theyve got it, they cant hide it. Im a hillbilly star and I love it. Its wonderful to know who you are and what youre not.
What inspires you these days? What are you listening to?
The song spinning in my player right now is a Starday recording of Wallace Lewis Im Not Alone. Its way beyond words. It comes from the deep place.
By Alison Richter
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