By Mark Guarino
Daily Herald Music Critic
Marty Stuart no doubt has firm credentials in country music success. In the late ’80s and early ’90s he was part of the new vanguard in Nashville, racking up many top 10 hits while enjoying his songs getting covered by everyone from the Dixie Chicks to George Strait.
Although his sales have somewhat dimmed, he re-invented himself as a fervent advocate of country’s past. These past few years he worked to shine the light on the music’s aging legends, participating in and organizing tribute albums and serving for six years as president of the Country Music Foundation, the organization that runs the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. In the mid-’90s, he also married living history in the guise of Connie Smith, one of country music’s most underappreciated veterans, who he first heard sing when he was just 12 (she’s 62, he’s 44).
Stuart’s new album, “Country Music” (Columbia), covers the gamut of tradition country styles: honkytonk, bluegrass, ballads, hillbilly novelty and Southern rock. “Tip Your Hat” testifies on behalf of its country’s founding brethren and earns its credentials from guest banjo legend Earl Scruggs. When he was 12, Stuart joined the band of Scruggs’ musical partner, Lester Flatt, and ended up being schooled for most of the ’70s, playing with Scruggs, Doc Watson and Johnny Cash (also briefly his father-in-law in the mid-’80s).
Stuart is hitting the road the old-fashioned way this summer by taking a musical revue to the heart of rural America (the closest it was supposed to come to Chicago was Chillicothe on Sunday, but the show was recently canceled). The “Electric Barnyard” tour also features legend Merle Haggard, Smith, rockabilly revivalists BR5-49, acoustic bluegrass group the Old Crow Medicine Show and fiddler Rhonda Vincent.
Stuart remains an outspoken breath of fresh air in contemporary country and a passionate believer we can learn from our own past. We talked last week about his tour, album and career. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q. Why did you specifically design this tour to avoid major cities but instead hit only out-of-the-way venues in rural America?
A. Well, the concept was to take traditional country music back to the grassroots people. About a year and a half ago, when I re-launched this band, we were playing small places basically to hide so we could get ourselves together. I fell in love with the atmosphere of small-town America. And no one is attending to these people. (The tour is) almost a concept to take it back to the people who sustained (country music) and gave it force in the first place.
Q. How has small-town America changed since your days growing up in Philadelphia, Miss.?
A. It’s almost vanished. The superstores have almost killed it. We all run to the superstores to save three bucks … but we’re putting another nail in the coffin in small-town America. That part I hate. The spirit of small-town America is alive and well but maybe a little weary. From a musical perspective, I was raised in a small town. Had it not been for people like Ernest Tubb, Connie Smith, Flatts and Scruggs who came to my home-town fair – that was the first chance I had to see world-class music.
Q. Is it difficult to attempt a tour outside the Clear Channels of the world?
A. Well, I think the first thing you have to do is go to the outside-the-box thinkers. And that’s why I called Merle. Connie definitely thinks outside the box. The Old Crow Medicine Show was born outside of the box. But year, it’s been a hard one. And it’s not exactly like floating something through the world that’s been done a few times. It’s really day by day. I feel we’re like pioneers going through the west. Every day’s a different adventure. I think the mindset of the corporate touring business is ‘Here’s how we do it, here’s our comfortable little slots you can play.’ But there’s another way to do it. Innovation is always rough.
Q. By calling your new album simply “Country Music,” were you trying to make a statement on the quality of what’s coming out of Nashville today?
A. It wasn’t an intentional finger in the air or anything like that, no. It was simply calling the music (on the album) what it is. The beauty of country music, the beauty of the way country music was designed from the vert get-go, is that you can get everything from fiddle and banjo music to a cappella singing to honkytonk to gospel to pop crooning. You’ve got everyone from “Man of Constant Sorrow” to Faith Hill.
Q. In 1999, your last album “Pilgrim” received critical raves but didn’t sell much. The obvious guess why would be because it was a concept album about the seedy underbelly of a Mississippi town. Is the mainstream country music audience open to music that goes a little darker?
A. Apparently not! (laughs) But at the same time, it was the most credible record I ever made. It sold more and became more famous after it was released than when it did when it was released. That record keeps on coming. I have a feeling it’ll be one of the records I’ll remember the most fondly at the end of it all.
Q. You could say country radio has conditioned its audience to expect one sound, one look, one theme in the music.
A. Country music still has a lot of character in it. I look at the kids that are at the heap of the mainstream, there’s a lot of character going on. Like it or not, Toby Keith and Natalie Maine’s little spat – I love the fact country music can spit a little fire out. But there’s an awful amount of homogenization going on. And that’s the part that I can’t subscribe to. I’ll stand in their face and tell them they’re wrong. Let country music people be who they really are.
Q. Why isn’t that happening?
A. God gives every human being on this earth a particular set of gifts. For you to look over your shoulder to pretend to be another writer, it’s an impossible task. You can do it, but you can’t live with yourself at the end of your day if you are truly a writer. If I look over my shoulder and pretend to be somebody I’m not, it doesn’t work for too long. I think any artist worth their salt knows that they can’t do it for so long.
Q. The alternative country boom in the last decade helped bring attention back to country’s roots, except it mostly came from rock people.
A. It’s always interesting to me that the rock ‘n’ rollers, the hipsters out there, get country music better than most country fans do. It’s always interesting to me that when country music gets into the toilet commercially, it usually takes a movie or a rock band to kick it off again. “O Brother” gave country roots a resurgence and in the ’70s (with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”) the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was a rock band.
Q. It highlights the idea that country music is perceived differently in cities and rural areas.
A. In all fairness, a 16-year-old girl who lives in a city and gets off on country music by the way of Shania (Twain) or Faith Hill, O wouldn’t expect her to understand “Honky Tonkin'” by Hank Williams or “Farmers Blues” by me and Merle Haggard right off the bat. It’s not their perspective. But at the same time, a kid that shoots guns and hunts and hangs out with his girl Saturday night and drives a tractor, I wouldn’t expect him to be comfortable coming into town the first time either. Once again, that’s the cool part about country music. There’s a getting off place for everybody. If you roam around the world of country music long enough, you’ll find your place.
Q. You just stepped down as the president of the Country Music Hall of Fame after six years. Why did you take on that responsibility?
A. It was important to me. The old Country Music Hall of Fame building was built in the early ’60s and had gotten tired. Country Music had outgrown it. People would give the hall of fame artifacts belonging to their uncle or grandpa or whatever and the only thing we could do is say “thank you” and put it into a vault. History simply overwhelmed the size of the building. It was important to me to see a world-class building come up out of the ground that would house the treasures of country music and the people of country music’s lives and memories for a long time. The building that is up now (in downtown Nashville) is a world-class museum and will stand for a long time. It was just investing in the future of country music and taking care of the flame.
Q. Yet your new album doesn’t sound as much like country’s present or future, but more like its past. Why that shift backward?
A. Well, it’s a sense of balance inside myself. When you get that feeling that God’s tapping on (your) shoulder, that this is (your) assignment, (you think), ‘Oh man that’s not going to be very commercial, that’s not going to be accepted, that looks like a whole lot of work, a whole lot of tears, rejection and pain.’ With those kinds of assignments you have to wince and say ‘Here we go again.’ It came at the time I was standing onstage and had exactly the right kind of commercial thing and had people hollering and screaming, but it didn’t really fulfill me. So I learned to stay with what is obviously the right thing to do and is fulfilling.
Q. So many people like Emmylou Harris had to make a stylistic departure from country music in order to return to it later.
A. Just ask Johnny Cash. Of all the people who had to become rock stars to be encountered again. Had it not been for Rick Rubin and American Recordings, he would have become just another old legend. Willie Nelson had to go beyond country music to become a country star. Rock stars and movies have to be the ones to bail us out. It rubs me as pure silly, but that’s just the way it is.
Q. You’re back on Columbia, the label you started your career on but departed for MCA. Why the full circle?
A. I chose it. I produced a record called “Kindred Spirits,” a tribute to Johnny Cash song, that was inside the Sony family. I basically used that record to peek over the fence and see the climate. It just seemed like the right kind of creativity was going on inside that building. I was off to a good start in 1986. I had one single out that was my first hit. Then my second singly came out and the guy running the label dropped Johnny Cash and I stupidly went down to his office and told him what I thought about it. And he pulled my single and destroyed my career at Sony. And so I crashed and burned there and went to MCA for 10 years. And I actually had a great run at MCA. It felt good to go back to Sony. It’s a different regime, new times.
Q. How did you get involved in Lester Flatt’s band at age 12?
A. I was out on tour with a local gospel bluegrass band called the Sullivan Gospel Singers. We were out roaming around playing Pentecostal churches, camp meeting revivals, we were working George Wallace campaign rallies that summer and bluegrass festivals. At a bluegrass festival a mandolin player named Roland White was kind to me and let me play his mandolin and showed me some chords. We sort of became buddies that summer. One of his parting statements was ‘Give me a call sometime. Come up to Nashville and ride on the bus with Lester Flatts.’ It was that simple. I took up his invitation. And Lester heard me play on the back of the bus, and he invited me onstage that weekend. I did it, and it worked and he offered me a job.
Q. You played with him for seven years before he died. That must have been an incredible experience for a teenager.
A. It was like a 12-year-old kid who got his first box of crayons being assigned to Picasso. Or a peewee football player going to hang out with Vince Lombardi. You couldn’t ask for a better beginning.
Q. The back of your new album is a picture of Flatt and Scruggs’ ancient-looking tour bus, wrecked in a junkyard.
A. Earl (Scruggs) gave me a picture of that. Some fan had discovered the bus in a junkyard in Tennessee. The sad part about it is since then the junkyard scrapped everything in it.
Q. That bus must have had years of memories inside it.
A. Yeah, and farts! (laughs)