“I am a road specialist! »: Marty Stuart’s Five Decades at Country College | Country
OWhen Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman honored the 50th anniversary of the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album in 1968 by spinning it for the first time, there was only one man who could lead their backing band. : Marty Stuart. When Ken Burns began filming the 2019 documentary series Country Music, it was Stuart who guided the director through the genre. From Porter Wagoner to Johnny Cash, many Nashville icons have called on Stuart to play with them. Stuart is country’s great thinker – a musician whose talent on guitar and mandolin is matched only by his encyclopedic knowledge and immense enthusiasm.
If you’re only going to one country music gig, then it’s Marty Stuart’s – he’s about to tour the UK for the first time in five years, then the chance is yours. waits. “I love playing in the UK,” says Stuart. “First of all, I think there’s an appreciation for authentic country music there that sometimes gets lost in America. I love your knowledge of what we play, the roots of our music.
Affable and engaging, Stuart, 63, wears a wry smile, elaborately tailored stage costumes and a mop of salt-and-pepper hair. His band’s dynamic performances, the Fabulous Superlatives, are a high-flying act involving split harmonies, a capella gospel numbers, honky tonk pathos and kinetic country rock. Unsurprisingly, they command a large church. Recently, he says, “we played for a Grateful Dead type audience and they loved what we did. I think music touches just about everyone who hears us.
Stuart has been obsessed with country music since a young age. Born in Philadelphia, Mississippi, he joined country-gospel group The Sullivan Family when he was 12 and, sharing the stage with Lester Flatt’s bluegrass band one night, the 13-year-old mandolinist made quite an impression. . So much so that he was asked to join Flatt, who had achieved huge crossover success as one half of bluegrass duo Flatt and Scruggs by contributing the theme music to the television series The Beverly Hillbillies (and Foggy Mountain Breakdown at the car chase of Bonnie and Clyde). So in 1972, Marty’s formal education ended and he began criss-crossing the United States playing the mandolin with Flatt – long before he was old enough to drive a car or buy a beer.
Didn’t his parents worry that he played bluegrass instead of getting a formal education? “I don’t think they would have let me go on the road with Black Sabbath,” Stuart replies. “I had to live with Lester and his people and it was very structured. I tried to study during the tours but” – he laughs – “I’m a road specialist! I tried by correspondence but there was no one on the bus who could help me. They were all old and I dropped everything around ninth grade.
Flatt was forced to disband his band due to failing health in 1978, so Stuart joined Johnny Cash’s band (and married Cash’s daughter Cindy in 1983). It was a friendship that would endure even after Stuart struck out on his own in the late ’80s. “Every day with John was a life lesson,” Stuart says. “He was a country boy, but he was a worldly country boy – he could talk with a head of state or a farmer. He was very down to earth. He pauses. “I miss his humor. I miss his wisdom. I miss playing music and hanging out with him. His songs pretty much tell you who he was as a person.
Stuart’s enthusiasm for working with his elders led him to produce artists like Porter Wagoner and produce married singer Connie Smith. Stuart first saw Smith sing at a funfair when he was 11, even then he told his mother “one day I’m going to marry her”. In 1997 he did, and they remain together today.
“Connie took Covid badly,” Stuart says. “She was hospitalized for 11 days and almost died. She had struggled for months and months and months to get back to normal, but she’s kind of there now — she started singing again and we made a new record and she’s performing at the Grand Ole Opry again.
Stuart produced Smith’s 2021 album The Cry of the Heart, but he hasn’t released anything on his own since 2017’s Way Out West, a fine album that found input from Native American musicians emphasizing on Stuart’s expansive view of “American music”.
“I had a period of producing big records in the ’90s that got me into the charts and gained me a huge following,” says Stuart, “and I’m grateful for that. But I don’t like the sound of these records – like a lot of traditional country they were trying to sound like what you hear on pop-rock radio. That’s not what I mean. I’d rather pursue my own vision. I may not be playing country radio these days, but I don’t mind. What about new material? “I have three albums in the box – they’ll be out soon.”
Stuart is a longtime collector of all kinds of country memorabilia. I met him once in Nashville and he showed me things like Johnny Cash’s Martin guitar and Patsy Cline’s cowboy boots. Having raised the necessary funds, he is now building a Country Music Congress in his hometown, a cultural and educational center, a museum and a concert hall dedicated to the preservation of the traditional country.
“Mississippi is a pretty interesting place because if you go upstate upstate, you have Elvis Presley’s birthplace in Tupelo,” Stuart says. “On the other side of the delta, BB King has a wonderful cultural center dedicated to the blues and the culture of the delta. The father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers, is from Meridian, 35 miles from my hometown, so I feel like I’m helping celebrate the musical riches of Mississippi.
Stuart sees Congress as a place to celebrate interracial solidarity. “In Philadelphia we have Choctaw culture, black culture and white culture and all three communities want Congress to move forward. Charley Pride was originally from Mississippi, and we’ll celebrate his legacy alongside that of Ray Charles, who brought country music to a whole new audience. Gospel and blues artists will be present. We are inclusive.
For Philadelphia, I note that the cultural center must be a blessing: Stuart’s hometown has since been destroyed the kidnapping and murder of three civil rights defenders who were arrested while driving through Philadelphia in 1964. “Well, thank you for acknowledging that,” Stuart says, “because that’s central to my mission. The kidnappings and murders were a horrific event and there has been a dark cloud over Philadelphia for all these years. Already, the town is coming back to life. So it’s wonderful to step back and see people smile again and see the city rebuilt around this thing.
As for traditional country, I mention how surprised I was when Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives joined the surviving Byrds to shoot Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the album that represents the genesis of country rock: the hardcore of Nashville not avoiding LA fusionists?
“Not at all,” he said. “I bought the LP from a discount bin at the record store nearest Lester Flatt’s house when I was 15 and it blew my mind. It was the first time I had heard country music, bluegrass, gospel, folk and rock’n’roll collide successfully. Even when Stuart was on tour with Flatt, he stayed tuned to what was happening in California. “We played Michigan State University in 1973 and the headliners were the Eagles. The opener for us was Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. black nails and spoke in a bullshit Cockney accent. He laughed at the memory. “It was fun spending time with him.”
There is also another connection to the Byrds. “Their late guitarist, Clarence White, was the brother of Lester Flatt’s mandolin player, Roland White – and he was the one who recommended me to Lester. I now own Clarence’s guitar and played it on tour. So you could say I came full circle being a Byrd.
Unfortunately, the Sweetheart of the Rodeo tour never reached Europe. “I don’t know why,” Stuart says, “because we have to have so much fun. Me and the band were like teenagers – we had to be the Byrds! There was a magic in these shows. People love these songs and they love Roger and Chris. I think we gained a lot of new fans, people who probably didn’t know who we were.
The same was true for Ken Burns’ famous Country Music series. “We worked on this show for eight years,” says Stuart. “It was a labor of love. I love the documentaries Ken does and no matter what he puts his mark on, you’re automatically connected to a different stratosphere of people – people who care deeply about film. history but who have probably never heard country music before. No doubt a lot of people have come to see our shows after seeing this. And they keep coming back.
Stuart agrees that Burns’ series did more to introduce the beauty and complex, sometimes difficult character of country music to a general audience than any previous effort. For anyone who is not yet converted, he says, just listen to the stories the songs tell. “Country music’s original themes – love, drink, hikes, gambling, heartache, divorce, mother, faith, home, sin, redemption, murder – are universal and, if you pick up the Guardian this morning , you’ll find each of those themes there, so when traditional country music talks about those themes of life, of the human condition, I think it crosses borders and has a universal appeal.