Marty Stuart - The party may come to an end, but the road goes on forever
When his most ambitious record -- a lengthy country music song-cycle into which he poured all of his heart and his soul -- found critical acclaim but only a handful of buyers, Marty Stuart took the turn of the millennium off. Rested and reinvigorated, he's now back, producing an impressive variety of good work at a phenomenal rate. Indeed, as he nears his 47th birthday, the one-time child prodigy from Philadelphia, Mississippi, is in almost constant motion -- a singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer, photographer, bandleader, film score composer, historian, mandolin player, journalist, advocate and instigator, not to mention owner of one of the finest and most extensive collections of country music memorabilia in the world (20,000 pieces and counting). Defying conventional wisdom that warns against market saturation and mixed messages, Stuart is set to release three very different albums and five volumes of photography within the space of a year on his newly minted Superlatone imprint, a joint project with Universal South, the Nashville label co-founded by his former producer, Tony Brown. Leading the way on August 30 is Souls' Chapel, an inspired record filled with the gritty sounds of what Stuart calls "Delta gospel." Kicking off with the vibrato-heavy guitar tones of Roebuck "Pops" Staples and ending with a simmering instrumental title track (which in turn follows a passionate reading of Pops' "Move Along Train" that features a guest vocal from Mavis Staples), the disc is an evocative and spiritual homage to his Mississippi roots. Its broader mission, though, is to set Stuart on a course to bind the strands of his unique experiences and interests -- without sacrificing their distinctiveness -- into an intensely rewarding whole. Marty Stuart spent his teens playing mandolin with bluegrass legend Lester Flatt and followed that with a years-long stint as a member of Johnny Cash's band (and a briefer one married to Johnny's daughter, Cindy Cash). He became a prince among the royalty of early '90s country hitmakers -- an accomplishment that earned him a core of devoted fans, but also the disdain of the emerging alternative-country audience -- then bid farewell to the hunt for mainstream popularity with the 1999 release of The Pilgrim, a concept album that told a story of love betrayed and then redeemed with help from guests including Emmylou Harris, George Jones, Earl Scruggs and Ralph Stanley. When the disc was pronounced commercially DOA by an indifferent marketplace, he knew it was time to retrench. "At the end of 1999, I was out of gas," Stuart says as he launches into an explanation of how he's reached today's whirlwind of activity. "Every trick I had was gone, and it was just time to call intermission. Connie [Smith, his wife] and I went on vacation, just to do anything but put on a cowboy suit and go play music. I had two dates on the books that year, when we went on vacation and came back; I had the Sundance Film Festival and the Billy Graham Crusade on the calendar for 2000. "And after that was over, somehow, without really intending to, I wound up scoring films, I wound up writing songs for other people and producing other people. I staged art exhibits, did book signings -- anything but get on a bus. "But while I was in California, doing a project with Faye Dunaway, Connie brought me a Wynn Stewart box set, and I got into listening to Ralph Mooney and Clarence White play, and I got to missing it. I knew it was time to go home and think about it again. "And then Faye came by. I said, 'I've gotta go home and go back to work, but I'm really scared because I left off with a really cool record and I don't know where to even start.' She said, 'Just go home and follow your heart.' And I thought, well, that's pretty simple. So I went back to Mississippi, stayed down there for a couple of weeks, sat on my grandpa's porch and just visited the land. Got back in tune with the things that made me love it in the first place. And then I came home." Stuart had two things on his mind on his return in 2002. The first was to put together a solid new band; as it happened, he succeeded beyond all reasonable expectations. "Modern masters," he calls the trio he dubbed the Fabulous Superlatives, and he's right. Kenny Vaughan, a Denver-born guitarist who followed a stint in front of Chicago and New York punk audiences with years on the road and in the studio supporting, among others, Lucinda Williams, Kim Richey and Patty Loveless, was the first to sign up. "I always was a fan of his," Vaughan says of Stuart, "ever since I heard 'Arlene' [a 1985 single that edged into the country top 20] on the radio. I thought, who's this guy? And then I figured out he was the kid mandolin player made over to a guitar-slinging country star. "So when we talked, it sounded like fun from the first two minutes of the conversation, and so I said, 'Sure, I'll do that.' I'm always up for something new. It just so happened that this one flew." "I told Kenny, well, you find us a bass player and I'll find us a drummer," Stuart recalls, and he was the first to succeed, lining up Harry Stinson, whose career has wandered across a dizzying number of musical borders. One of those rarities who actually grew up in Nashville, Stinson has worked as a drummer and/or singer with everyone from Etta James to Peter Frampton to Steve Earle to Earl Scruggs. He's written hits for Martina McBride, but he was also a partner in Dead Reckoning, the artist-run indie label that built up a catalogue of quality recordings by artists such as Kevin Welch, Kieran Kane and David Olney. He'd also known Stuart for a long time. "I played on some of those first singles he had, like 'Little Things' and 'Tempted'," Stinson says. "He called me and said, 'I want to try this thing, and Kenny Vaughan's involved, are you interested?' I would have looked at it a lot deeper if it had been anybody else. But to me, Marty is just part of the real line of country, and of real artistry, so it just made sense. This felt like something that was fun for me, and musically satisfying. Why wouldn't I want to try something like that?" For his part, Vaughan came up with a wild card -- young Michigan-born bassist Brian Glenn, who had grown up playing in a family band. "People see 'Michigan,' they think Detroit, Motown, and me being as young as I am, they ask, 'Where in the world was the country music influence in your life?'" says Glenn. "But where I'm from -- Cadillac, near Traverse City -- there's a huge country base, and my dad was a Chet Atkins-style picker. So being from the family I was, and from the area that I was, it was country music all over the place, and to me, it didn't seem to be eclipsed by any other kind of genre." Glenn came to Nashville at the beginning of the '90s with a couple of singing gal cousins. "We were going to be the next trio -- there was the Gatlins, the Whites, we were going to be along that line -- and we just watched that horse ride over the hill a few times," he says with a rueful laugh. When the group dissolved in 1995, he spent a few years at Opryland, then began to work the Opry itself, playing first with Jack Greene, then Billy Walker, while building up his work as a demo singer and bass-player-about-town. "My phone rang one day, and it was Marty," he recalls. "He had gotten my number from Kenny Vaughan, who had seen me playing on Lower Broadway, and in church, too. Kenny didn't have my phone number, but he had enough information for Marty to track me down through the Opry staff." "We were auditioning bass players, because the three of us had gotten together and we knew something was kind of cooking there," Stuart says. "But when Brian showed up, it was like, there it is, and we called off the auditions. From the first show we played -- from the first rehearsal -- I knew it was something special. I've been in bands all my life; this one's just got something unique about it. "More than anything else, it's about the creativity. More than anything else, it's about the music. Everybody gets a chance to shine here. And you know, I always thought that was a mark of a great bandleader. Lester sure never got in anybody's way. Johnny Cash never got in anybody's way. Bob Wills never did. Count Basie never did. Louis Armstrong never did. I get to pay the bills, but everybody's the star. So it was a unique time, a unique moment, and there it was." With its lineup set, the Fabulous Superlatives hit the road in 2002. The back road. "I went to the booking agent I was with at the time," Stuart recalls, "and I said, 'You have one assignment, and one assignment only, and it's real easy: Hide me. Get me just as far back in the sticks as you can. I don't want to compete with anybody.' We have a band, and a point of view, and the next twenty years to put together here, and that's all there is to it. Back roads. And the more of those back roads towns I played, the more I fell in love with the atmosphere -- what was left of old America." The touring shaped the band's first release, 2003's Country Music, but it wasn't, at least in Stuart's mind, an unqualified success. Issued by Columbia, it was, he says, "a one-off project. It was signed to do one thing, and it kind of got sidetracked -- all of a sudden, there we were, getting shoved into 'we need to make a radio single' again. And the vision of the record got a little split along about there. "I think that 70 percent of that record was there," he continues. "I thought there were moments on Country Music that were really special. I loved 'Sundown In Nashville', I loved 'Satisfied Mind', I really loved 'Walls Of A Prison'." That last track, which closed the album, was a cover of a lesser-known late-'60s Johnny Cash tune. "One of my favorite memories is sitting with my hand on John R.'s shoulder, and him saying, 'Excellent,'" Stuart remembers of Cash's reaction to the recording. "I could see it got him. I said, 'This is the best song you ever wrote.' "You know, Cash told me one day after The Pilgrim, he said, 'I really love that record, and I've gotta tell you, once you make one like that, you can't go back.' But Country Music almost started going backwards, and it just didn't work. And I thought, when I get done with this record and get through touring this, I'm gonna take it back to the barn one more time, and forever more never compromise again." As it turned out, it was the tour to support Country Music that led Stuart and his band "back to the barn" -- literally. This was no ordinary itinerary stopping in the usual cities and venues a country act might play. Stuart had something entirely different in mind, and he dubbed it the Electric Barnyard Tour. The inspiration came from a gig the band had played at a firemen's carnival in Pennsylvania. "We were playing with a Conway Twitty revue," he recalls, "and there were John Deere tractors and bikers and babies and princesses and funnel cakes, and we were on an open-air stage next to a cornfield, and it looked like a Fellini movie to me. "I called Harry Stinson and I said, 'Here's the deal right here: We need to develop a rock 'n' roll show to play country music and take it to the backwoods like it's an old French circus troupe.' "The first person that came to my mind was Haggard, and the more I thought about it, the more I talked about it, the more I thought, this is doable. We're going to make a lot of mistakes, but it's doable. So I got on the road and went to Louisville where Merle was playing, and set down and had a talk with him about it. He said, 'I like it, we're playing to the forgotten people.' And I said, 'That's it.'" With Haggard, Connie Smith, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, BR-549 and the Old Crow Medicine Show on board, the Electric Barnyard tour skipped the big cities in favor of fairgrounds and other down-home venues in places such as Klamath Falls, Oregon; Middletown, Ohio; Marshall, Missouri; and Hutchinson, Kansas. Get to those, Stuart says, and you find "the truth of our nation, the truth of us as a culture. The truth just shows up. The American spirit, it's pretty indelible in a lot of ways, but it's pretty bent up in a lot of ways as well. "But the thing that I know about America is that when you get out where you can smell the dirt -- hear the trains, hear the cows, hear the church bells, and see what Wal-Mart has basically demolished -- in a sense, you get to the remnants of Woody Guthrie's message. You get to the seed of those people, and the seed that they produced. And that's what country music was always for, to me. That was the message right there." During those shows, the conceptual framework for Souls' Chapel began to emerge. "When I first put the band together, we were listening to everybody on the bus," Stuart says. "We actually had a band school. We visited a lot of different bands we visited rock 'n' roll bands, and bluegrass bands, and old-time bands, and gospel quartets -- and the Staple Singers were one of our bands and groups that we just got into as a group research thing. And the more I did, I realized that in Harry and Brian I had a harmony structure that would allow me to get into those kind of songs." Stuart had been a huge fan of the Staple Singers, and especially of guitarist/singer/songwriter Pop Staples, since seeing them play with The Band in the 1970s documentary film The Last Waltz. "I had never seen or heard the Staple Singers, and the camera panned around on the profile of this silver-haired guy with pork chop sideburns playing a rosewood Telecaster. I said, 'Who is that guy? That may be the drop-dead coolest man I've ever seen in my life.' "Well, it was the Staple Singers, and they were doing 'The Weight'. I fell in love with them right there, but I didn't know much more about them until the early '90s. Don Was and Tony Brown were doing that Rhythm, Country & Blues record, and they asked me if I wanted to do a track, and I said, sure. [They asked] 'Who with?' And I said, the Staple Singers. So I did 'The Weight' with the Staples, and that's when I fell in love with them as people. I mean, I walked in and it was like, where have you been all my life?" "Doing this kind of album, Mississippi gospel, that was Marty's deal," Vaughan says. "He's a big Staples man -- Pops is his man. Just the other day, we were looking at this magazine, and there was a picture of Pops and Martin Luther King, and there was a picture of Bob Dylan. Myself, I've always been into him, and Marty and I are big Bob-ologists. "But Marty pointed at Bob and said, 'Now, that's just a circus right there. Now this is the real thing.' And he points at Pops and says, 'Nobody's touched him.' And you know, he's right. I saw the Staple Singers in 1969, and I didn't even know who he was, but within 15 minutes I did, and you just knew that this guy's got it more than anybody you've seen. He had that certain something, he was just one step cooler than anybody else -- just one extra oomph of cool that nobody can touch." As the months rolled on, the album began to take shape. "At first it was just something we were doing in the back of a bus," Stuart says, "and all of a sudden I started writing songs, and Harry and me and Kenny started writing songs, and I started finding songs, and the next thing I knew I had twelve songs that sounded real good, and it was time to make a spiritual record." It was nearly derailed when Stuart was arrested twice for drinking and driving. "I felt worthless," press materials for the album quote him as saying. "How do you explain to yourself that you're trying to live right and make a gospel record and live what you're singing, and you're in jail?" Souls' Chapel gained new life when, providentially, Yvonne and Mavis Staples came to a Fabulous Superlatives show in Chicago, the night after Stuart was released from jail (after the second arrest), and presented him with Pops Staples' guitar. The last piece fell into place when the group decided that, in order to get the live feel they wanted in recording, they would bring in a small group of outside musicians to handle many of the instrumental chores, rounding out the group's sound (notably with Barry Beckett's Hammond B-3 organ) and leaving Stinson and Glenn free to concentrate on singing. Stuart and Vaughan kept hold of their guitars, trading licks and filling in around the vocals with lines that recall a hundred classic African-American gospel records. But the focus was on the singing; even Vaughan takes a turn in front of the microphone for the chugging "Come Into The House Of The Lord", co-written with Stuart. "That was something we all agreed on," Stinson says, "because we were going to cut it live. You know, our favorite records have been the ones that were done live. And it's all around the singer. And since we were singing leads -- I have two or three leads on that record, and Brian has a song -- we wanted to be the quartet. And sing. So we set up at Marty's house, and we were all in the same room, with no headphones. It's so easy to sing that way, and you go for the performance." "This wouldn't have been the record it is if we had not had time and the camaraderie and all the experience we had working all those places, and trying the music out in front of people," Vaughan adds. "It would have been a much different experience. Because we were really ready when we went in there. We did the thing in two and a half days -- literally -- and most of it was done in one day. The first day we didn't get much. The second day we got everything, and then the last day we did one more song, and that was it. We knew what we wanted, and we were ready for it." Listen to the album, and it's easy to hear what they're talking about. Like the Sullivan Family, with whom Stuart worked as a child before joining Lester Flatt's band (Stuart has produced two bluegrass gospel albums by Jerry & Tammy Sullivan since then), the Staples' repertoire concentrates almost exclusively on the redemptive power of faith. And the songs the band found or wrote to go with the two Pops Staples originals that begin and (almost) close the album are very much in the same vein. If there seems to be a gap between the kind of grass-roots, anti-corporate populism he expresses in talking about the Electric Barnyard Tour and his adherence to a religion that's often used to abet corporate power, Stuart has a ready answer. "I take my cue from the main man -- Jesus. He felt the same way. Jesus didn't hang out with the socialites. My Bible tells me that he hung out with the unlovely. He hung out with the real people -- the people of the land, the poor people. "Good for the church for doing all its numbers. I hope it's a positive force. But I tend to go where the spirit is found, and that's the one place in my life where I don't welcome any pretense whatsoever. You know, the business of the gospel and the gospel are two different things to me. I'm real happy that I don't have to make a business out of it. I can try to live as best I can -- as Cowboy Jack Clement says, I'm a D-plus Christian. But I'm trying. "I think it's an unbeatable combination when you have a man or a woman that's in a position of authority and power that truly has the right stuff in their heart. That can be a good thing for a lot of people. But when that gets confused with politics, when that gets confused with other agendas, it can really get murky real quick. Which always leads me right back to the same place: Boy, I'm glad I'm just a guitar player that writes and sings, and can sing about this, and go off. "One of the greatest points of communication with God in this world is to sit down at a table and have the words from heaven flow down through a pen -- words that become a song. Or to sit down in front of a mandolin, and not know what you're gonna play, and move a room to tears. I've got enough sense to know it ain't me. It's called the Holy Spirit. And that's what's missing in a lot of places, I think." As stunning as Souls' Chapel is for its blend of heartfelt sentiment and deep grasp of African-American gospel traditions, there's more to come. Badlands, a set of songs about Native American issues and, in particular, the Lakota Sioux, with whom Stuart has spent time since an early '80s visit to the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota with Johnny Cash, is due in October. It's being advanced by an engaging episode of CMT's road diary/biography show "In The Moment," built around a June concert at the reservation. And next spring, Superlatone will release yet another Stuart disc, this one documenting a Fabulous Superlatives bluegrass show at the Ryman Auditorium in 2003, with guests Charlie Cushman on banjo and Stuart Duncan on fiddle. And there are photo books, too -- five of them, including a kind of supplement to Badlands and one he calls Blue Line Hotshots. "You know on the old maps, the two-lane roads were in blue, the interstates were in red," he says, by way of explaining the latter title. "I started noticing, everywhere I played, there was some character, or set of characters, that showed up that had just enough Elvis in them to be hotdogs in their county, but probably more sense than to try to get out and do anything about it." Still, he says -- and the rest of the Fabulous Superlatives seem to agree -- these days, it's all about the touring. "There's a fan base that's going to drive anything within a 500-mile radius -- or more, in some cases," Brian Glenn says. "They've been Marty fans from the beginning. But recently it's been getting younger, and I don't exactly know why, because none of his product has really taken things to a new hip factor. And what I'm looking forward to, and what I think what Marty would ultimately like to see, would be to see a new influx of young college-age kids kind of getting into his music again. And I think all three of these albums have the potential to make that happen." If it happens, Stuart will know why. "Every single thing that I'm up to right now is the product of being on the back roads for the past three summers," he concludes. "And now we're on the edge of that cornfield, and headed toward something else." ND contributing editor Jon Weisberger is a father, touring bass player, songwriter, and music critic who now calls Nashville home. When he's there.