Q&A: Marty Stuart Talks Life After Chart Success, The Importance of Preserving Country Music's Past and Writing Alongside Johnny Cash.
Traditional country music champion Marty Stuart hasn't been a major force on the Billboard country charts for some time now.
But don't confuse that absence as a sign of Stuart having slowed down in the least. In fact, the man's arguably more relevant today than he was during his wave of chart success during the late 1980s and into the 1990s, when he and his trademark, flowing locks struck gold with hits like "Hillbilly Rock," "Tempted," and "The Whiskey Ain't Working."
By the time his solo career took off, Stuart was already a well-traveled and respected veteran in the industry. As a teenager, and then as a very young adult, he played in the bands of legendary artists such as Lester Flatt and Doc Watson, as well as everybody's hero, Johnny Cash. It was during his time in Cash's band that he began to understand what one of his primary missions in life would be -- outside of playing the music he loved. And, since that time, Stuart has become a sort of unofficial curator of country music history, a savior to so many musical artifacts and country music treasures that were destined to be forgotten but that now have a permanent home thanks to his desire to preserve the sounds and art that he feels might be too easily tossed aside.
Thanks to his self-appointed, and well-received, role as bridge-maker between the country music glory of the past and the modern sounds of today, Stuart has helped countless fans understand the vitality of traditional country music as an integral piece of the puzzle that is American art. In recent years, Stuart helped resurrect the career of Porter Waggoner, producing the pioneering great's last album shortly before his death in 2007. Add to that his role as host of his own television variety show on the RFD Network and the fact that he and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, are still hitting the road and playing material from his excellent and fairly prolific album catalog of the past decade, and it becomes clear that he hasn't really faded as much from the limelight as his lack of recent chart success might imply. His latest album, Ghost Train - The Studio B Sessions, is a powerful work that reinforces Stuart's claim that traditional country music is still a much-needed and forceful American art form. Oh, and Stuart's also about to start working with his wife, the striking Connie Smith, as he produces her upcoming album. That alone is enough to keep any man with half his schedule busy for a while.
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On Friday night, Stuart and his band will be stopping through town to perform two shows at the Granada Theater, so we were thrilled to chat with him a bit about his place in today's country music landscape, about the role that certain legends have played in his life and about how he was finally able to rent the most famous studio in country music history.
You've been a big name in Nashville for some time now, and you've been steadily recording for years. With Studio B's status as such a legendary place, why did it take so long for you to record your own album there?
This particular set of songs really seemed to fit the room, really. But I got to tell you that I have tried before. When I produced Porter Wagoner's last record, I thought that would be the perfect project for that, to take him back to where he had recorded so many of his hits, but the studio wasn't available for rental at the time. They [the Country Music Hall of Fame] had never been approached about this type of project back then, but this time, everything seemed to work out for this album and it just seemed like the natural setting for what we were doing with this record.
You have maintained a solid fan-base without having a mainstream chart presence for a few years now. Has that knowledge given you a sense of freedom when it comes to choosing which direction to go, artistically?
Oh, without question it has. The bottom line is that we had such a long run from the late '80s to the late '90s, and all of a sudden, what I was offering wasn't being taken by radio anymore, period. I sat around and tried to chase that type of success for a year or two and realized that it just wasn't working for me. It wasn't who I was and it wasn't what my heart was telling me to do. I figured if I never had another big hit, well, we had a good run and let's get to the business at hand. Putting the Superlatives together was the first step, and from the very beginning I knew that I had a group around me that could just do anything. We decided to play the things that we felt needed attention, so, at the beginning, it was Delta-gospel, because the harmony structures really appealed to us. Since then, we've worked our way back to traditional country music. The RFD show I do [The Marty Stuart Show] really gave us a platform to do what we do without having to worry about radio, which hadn't really mattered to us much in the past decade, anyway. Having a TV show with an audience that understands country music was really all I needed. It gave me a bulls-eye towards getting back to what I love the most, and that is traditional country music.
You mentioned your work with Porter Wagoner earlier. As a producer for his last album (Wagonmaster), which was released shortly before his death, did you have a sense that he was near the end?
Actually, we had plans to record, and then he had an aneurysm, which derailed everything, of course. But when we finally started, I would go over to his house two or three times a week and we'd sit on his couch and just, song by song, he played himself back into better health. To answer your question point blank: No, I thought everything was great. He was looking good, he was feeling good and he was on top of the world because he got to be Porter Wagoner again, with an integrity-based perspective. He was booked to help light the Mason's tree at the White House and I went over to help him get his music together for the trip, because I couldn't go with him. I noticed that he just wasn't right, and something was horribly wrong. I told him I'd call him a couple of weeks later, when I got off the road, but then he was gone. I think it surprised everybody. We were on a roll with him and he was taking a big victory lap around the room.
You were also very close for many years with Johnny Cash. Your song "Hangman," from the Ghost Train album is said to be the last song he wrote before his death, four days later. How was that time with him, given his fragile state after the death of his wife, June?
Well, we were next door neighbors, and I would go over there as often as I could. A couple of days after June was buried, his son [John Carter Cash] called me and said "Daddy wants to record again," and I thought that was the best news I'd ever heard. There were a lot of us keeping him busy. We recorded at my house and at the Cash cabin and we piled up songs, some better than others, but we kept him busy. The day we wrote "Hangman," it was four days before he died, and we had been talking. As I got up to leave, I shook his hand and hugged his neck and I asked him, "How you doing?" and he said, "I'm alright," and then I asked, "How's your spirit?" and he said, "Strong." Then, I asked him, "You got plenty of rope left?" and he said to me, "I got rope left; I'm hanging." I had to go to Washington, so I told him I'd see him when I got back. Early on that trip, someone came and knocked on my bunk in the bus and said, "You'd better get up." I knew he was in a fragile place, but I didn't think it would happen that fast, either. The bottom line, to whoever is reading this is: Love the people around you, because you never know.
Your collection of country music memorabilia and artifacts has literally become a museum exhibit in recent years (The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame showed Sparkle & Twang: Marty Stuart's American Musical Odyssey in 2008). Was there a specific artifact, or epiphany that led to you making your collecting into a mission?
In the early '80s, everything about country music was changing. The Urban Cowboy scare came through and the look of country music was changing, the sound of country music was changing, the cast of country music was changing and there was this big dismissal in lots of ways. The people, things and ways of country music I had always loved were all of a sudden out of style. The sparkle suits that Porter wore were out. The one artifact that changed everything for me was when I bought Patsy Cline's train case at a junk shop in Nashville for $75. Then I began to notice old country singers' guitars being sold for pennies and being taken to Japan by collectors. I was in Johnny Cash's band at the time, and we were in London. I ran into a fellow named Isaac Tigrett, who is one of the founders of the Hard Rock Café. He took me to their first one and showed me what they were doing, and all the way back home to America I kept thinking to myself, "This is my culture, this is what I love." For me, it was like when someone finds their grandpa's old fishing pole, or some family treasure. That's how it all started for me. After I started making more than one check in a row, I didn't go out and start buying stocks and bonds or things I didn't care about, I went after country music's treasures, which to me, is the same thing as American culture. It was a segment of American culture that wasn't appreciated outside of what I call "The Family Circle," and that brings us back around to Ghost Train, because it's now traditional country music that's in danger of slipping away. Thankfully, there are still many great young talents. From your neighborhood, The Quebe Sisters Band blew up the screen when they played on my show -- and people love those ladies, and they are doing great work.
Most forms of music consist of different types and styles that make up the respective genre as a whole. There are many different types of rock and hip-hop, but it seems as though country music fans often put a greater importance on what segmented type of country music something is than do fans of other genres. You've just mentioned that traditional country is perhaps slipping away. Is there really enough room for so many forms under the country umbrella?
Well, let's go back to what I consider the downbeat of modern recorded country music, and, I think, one of the single most important events in country music history. The Bristol Sessions in 1927, when Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and a host of others recorded over a whole week. That started country music's journey into the mainstream, and by 1937, people like Bill Monroe were coming along, speeding up Jimmie Rodgers songs, playing them fast on a mandolin and singing them like a woman and people then though country music was going to hell. Same thing with Bob Wills, too. So, there's always been this thing about what is real country, but I think you hit it, because the beauty of it is that there's something in country music for everybody. I think you kind of have to pick your division and go there. The bottom line is: Just get on. Whether that's by getting a Taylor Swift or Keith Urban record and that leads you to Grandpa Jones, then great. If you start with Grandpa Jones and that takes you to Taylor Swift, then great, too. The main thing is to get on and take a look.
Going back to your collection and love of country music history, there will be someone else doing the collecting and preserving 75 years from now. What artifacts from 2011 do you think they will have that will tell the country music fans of 2086 about how great country music was during the early part of the 2000's?
For a well-rounded picture, they'll probably start with Taylor Swift's guitar, with all of the rhinestones on it. That may have been just a video guitar, but it is a cultural piece. But, to give that a bookend, I think they could take the boots, costumes, instruments and manuscripts of Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives -- and that would show people the other side from a fabulous time in country music.
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