America’s back roads, littered with colorful characters and towns that the poet of the common man Merle Haggard once deemed “the forgotten” people and places, have served as a seedbed of inspiration for artist Marty Stuart on many a heartland journey. With the breakneck speed at which the world is changing, Stuart says he has slowly observed those dirt roads rolled in asphalt and the shine of those one-stoplight map dots dulled with sameness.
But the landscape looked different back when Stuart began playing music out on America’s rural byways as a budding teen with Lester Flatt. Influenced by the sights, sounds and rich life experiences, Stuart began archiving memories that would impact his work decades later and ultimately drive him back to total immersion in traditional country culture.
The Mississippi-born Stuart has come full circle. Along the way he hit commercial success with songs like Hillbilly Rock, which paid homage to his roots. And on the horizon is a hard-core, traditional, electric country album due out this spring called Ghost Train that Stuart calls “a place to drive my sword in the dirt.”
The acclaimed songwriter, singer, producer, photographer and country music historian has now settled into his “life’s role,” which is to serve as an emissary of traditional country music the world over.
“Ten years ago, I scraped the board clean from all the ‘90s success. My only assignment for my booking agent was to book me as far back into the woods as he could. I didn’t want to see a chart by my name. I wanted to start with music, with people, with real-life circumstances, and we’d play our way out of the woods,” Stuart says.
At firemen’s carnivals, county fairs and local performance halls, Stuart and his band the Superlatives, along with Haggard, fronted the Electric Barnyard Tour. Stuart says he rediscovered the “dirt-road heartbeat that was left in America.”
Over the miles logged were born critically acclaimed albums, including Soul’s Chapel and Badlands and several books of photography. A museum exhibit, Sparkle & Twang, which features Stuart’s vast collection of costumes, instruments, and treasures from bygone eras, also took shape. More recently, however, Stuart spoke with Nashville Arts Magazine about finding the spark which ignited his top-rated Rural Free Delivery-TV (RFD-TV) show the Marty Stuart Show, which serves and honors the family of country music. Notes Stuart, “When I finally got back to square one with traditional country music, I thought, I’m home now. This is where I shall remain until further notice.”
NA: Tell us about the inspiration for the show, which is now in its second season.
MS: For years I wondered why somebody hadn’t redone the Porter Wagoner Show. The show was fun, and it featured serious culture. One day I was driving down the back roads of Missouri. I was listening to FM country radio and looking out at cows, tractors, barns, clothes blowing on the line, and it didn’t really line up. All of a sudden I stuck a classic country CD in the CD player, and I cried. It touched my heart. It came into focus: why don’t I do the Porter Wagoner Show?
Wagoner started the syndicated Porter Wagoner Show in 1960, and it remained on the air for 21 years and was seen by an estimated 3.5 million viewers. The Porter Wagoner Show was a key factor in popularizing country and gospel music across the United States.
NA: Can you recall where you started this journey? Was there a defining moment that you can point to?
MS: The first night I ever played in Nashville was with Lester Flatt at the Grand Ole Opry. That was like walking into the Vatican with the Pope. The only other job I’d had was with Johnny Cash. Those careers didn’t depend on, “What is my record going to do next Monday?” They were part of the culture, and that is what my passion drove me toward ten years ago.
NA: That’s when you refocused?
MS: Yes. I drew a line in the dirt with my CD The Pilgrim. Commercial bomb, but the most heartfelt record I ever made. I saw the culture of country music disappearing. It had very few shepherds, and there were not many places to sing and play it. I thought, it’s too important to let die.
I discovered that the most important thing I could possibly do in my life was to get in line to help save and champion the music. Once I saw a photograph on the cover of Life magazine of Louis Armstrong playing his trumpet in front of the pyramids in Egypt. The caption read: “The ambassador of jazz.” I thought, whether it’s at the Opry House or the Kennedy Center, that was my role, and I have fallen in love with it.
NA: With the way the world is changing, do you think traditional country music is in danger of extinction?
MS: I don’t think so. If you sign up to play traditional country music, you have to write, sing and play the truth. The newspaper this morning tells me there’s a lot of truth to report on. Will it win you all the CMA Awards in town? I doubt it.
NA: Who, in the current country music scene, do you believe has something worth preserving? What will be deemed traditional 20 years from now?
MS: There’s a young girl Amber Digby whose work is worth looking at. Everything Alison Krauss does is worth looking at. Alan Jackson too. Dwight Yoakam has laid some solid rail. The Old Crow Medicine Show has introduced old-time music to a new generation. Del McCoury Band and Ricky Skaggs on the bluegrass side. As far as singers go, Patty Loveless is a new Loretta. Those are the new pioneers of this millennium. But what’s going to make the ultimate difference is the people who come to town with their own songs, who can play and sing them in a timeless manner. Those are the ones to watch out for.
NA: You’ve featured young acts like the Quebe Sisters Band on your show recently. What inspires you to invest in and mentor new talent?
MS: There’s no set of rules. It’s the music. It’s a mindset. It’s a heart. There’s not one word that needs to be said when it hits your heart right. What excites me the most are the kids who are coming along. The Quebe Sisters are the first ones that came through that I went, “Yes. Yes. Yes.” They get it. It’s about pure, unaffected talent that comes out of the chute right. What I’m encouraged by is that the roots of traditional country music are the empowering force that gives contemporary country music its sustaining credibility.
NA: The great songwriter Harlan Howard called real country music “three chords and the truth.” What’s your definition?
MS: My wife, Connie Smith, calls it the cry of the heart. Traditional country music encompasses the stories, the triumphs, tragedies, good times and bad times of a world culture, but particularly American culture. When times are good, there are fiddle tunes to dance to. When times are rough, there’s true country music again.
by Lizza Conner Brown | photography by Anthony Scarlatti