Rewind: The Marty Stuart Interview

This apepared on - 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 he’s done it without compromising anything. ... Marty has a sound that belongs to him. He’s earned it the hard way, and once he reaches gold, as long as he continues to work so hard, he’ll have it for a long time, like Johnny Cash. Nobody loves country music like Marty Stuart. He’s a walking historian. This business needs him.”

Twenty years later, Stuart still works hard, refuses to compromise, and there’s 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.

Let’s start with Tony Brown’s comments. Your response?

Guilty! I think, yeah, it’s 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 wasn’t happy and I didn’t 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 doesn’t matter whether it sells one copy or 1 million copies. Lester Flatt once told me that it’s not about making money, winning awards and being forgotten. The idea is to make sure you’re welcome in town every January 1st. That’s staying power. And that’s good wisdom.

Your road hasn’t 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. There’s always a wilderness journey between man and maker. I stay true to that and things always work out.

What’s changed and what’s 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 what’s in your heart. It’s 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 I’m always around them, but to formally sit and learn is not my style. I’ll play for five minutes, then walk off, think about it and come back. There’s 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 [1999]. 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 I’d 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 [2003], 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. I’d 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 don’t take on anything I can’t 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. It’s a team effort. It’s about casting. You have to be true to each project. Bad casting makes for an uncomfortable time, so before you cast you’ve got to know the lay of the land and who does what. In Nashville, I know everybody’s style and true gifts, and that’s 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 [2005] was recorded at the house, and one night I looked around and thought ... and she said, “Don’t even think about it.” She’s 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. It’s 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 I’ve ever felt in my life. If I’m not at the top, I’m mighty close. How do you stay there? Keep doing what your heart tells you to do, and don’t worry about what anyone else is doing. If you’re 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, there’s no question that you’re 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 I’m 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. We’re a family, and it’s 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 he’s the biggest band junkie you’d ever hope to meet. As kids, we all aspired to be in bands. It’s important to know when you have the band of a lifetime, and I do. I document everything pertaining to the Superlatives because it’s 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 it’s 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 don’t know. If you check in with the bluegrass and jazz communities, they still jam a lot. I don’t feel it in country as much as it ought to be, but I’m guilty too. I don’t do it anymore. I stay home and write. Sometimes it’s 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 couldn’t 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 it’s nice to have a second guitar. Things happen — Kenny and me, we like weaving tapestry; we complement each other’s touch, tone and sense of phrasing. We don’t talk about it; it just happens. We admire the rough and tumble relations of Mick and Keith; they’re locked at the hip, whether they want to be or not; they’re musical soulmates, and when they go off independently, it’s OK, but when they get back together, it’s 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 — it’s OK to go down a road and it’s OK to come back, too.

I view it from the Native American perspective: it’s 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. We’re charged with handing it to the next generation of kids. Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood — there’s 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 — they’re the energized system where true power lies, and it’s healthy. Country is a bit more house divided than ever, but I’m not so sure it isn’t 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, there’s always that crop of stars that’s manufactured, and those people that are sent to Earth to be quasars, and there’s a difference. Some people are 8x10 glossies and products of television talent shows. I don’t need a panel to tell me if someone is a star. If they’ve got it, they can’t hide it. I’m a hillbilly star and I love it. It’s wonderful to know who you are — and what you’re 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’ “I’m Not Alone.” It’s way beyond words. It comes from the deep place.

By Alison Richter

Return To Articles Return To Home Page