Clip: Marty Stuart, "Creatively Pardoned"
January 8, 2006
BY MARY HOULIHAN Staff Reporter
With his rooster haircut and flashy rhinestone-studded Nudie suits,
country singer Marty Stuart made a flashy entrance onto the country
music charts in the early '90s. Spouting a rebel attitude and a
country rock aesthetic with deep roots in traditional country, he
breathed new life into the genre. With songs like "Tempted" and "Burn
Me Down," he scored half a dozen top 10 hits and four gold albums, as
well as hit duets with fellow country singer Travis Tritt.
And then, as is often the way in Nashville, Stuart fell out of favor
and country radio stopped playing his songs.
"I was a radio darling and then it just cooled," Stuart recalled. "It
was like a curtain went down and I had to rethink the way I was doing
Since that time, Stuart has proved he was no flash in the pan. He's
had no more chart-busting hits but instead has managed to form a
solid, varied career and in the process become one of the more
interesting characters in Nashville. He will perform two shows Jan. 15
at the Old Town School of Folk Music with his band the Fabulous
Superlatives, featuring Kenny Vaughan (guitar), Harry Stinson (drums)
and Brian Glenn (bass).
In 1999, Stuart drew a line in the sand with the compelling and
ambitious concept album, "The Pilgrim." He had one record left on his
contract with MCA and he could either pander and try to get back on
the radio, or he could "walk to his death honorably."
"I decided this was how I was going to make music from now on," said
Stuart, in a conversation from his office in Nashville. "I felt it at
the box office, and I felt it at the cash register in the record
store. But it's leveled out, and I'm loving what I'm doing now more
than anything I've done in my life. I feel creatively pardoned."
In 2005, Stuart, who is married to country singer Connie Smith,
released two more distinctive albums off the mainstream Nashville
track -- the gospel drenched "Soul's Chapel," and "Badlands," a
musical telling of the story of the Oglala Lakota people on the Pine
Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
But Stuart has also become a sort of country music Renaissance man;
his interests do not stop at making music. As a diehard collector, he
has amassed one of the biggest and most important collections of
country music memorabilia and served six terms as president of the
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Also a writer and accomplished
photographer, Stuart is compiling several books, featuring country
singers, the Badlands and old church signs.
Stuart, who grew up in Philadelphia, Miss., has been performing since
he was 12 ("I think I was born with a guitar in my hands"). Like his
peers Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill, he has roots in country music that
continue to define his music and his life. Somewhat of a child
prodigy, he played mandolin early on with the Sullivan Family Gospel
Singers. In 1972, he came to Nashville with the legendary Lester Flatt
and the Nashville Bluegrass Band. He later joined Johnny Cash's band
and the man in black became a mentor.
"We got to hang out with the people who invented the music and that
was a really wonderful thing," said Stuart, adding that from Cash he
learned to be "creatively fearless and morally good."
It was Cash who introduced Stuart to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation
in 1983, when his band performed a benefit concert there. The poverty
of these Native American people and the integrity and dignity that
surrounded their lives impressed Stuart, who continues to return there
(he and Smith were married at Pine Ridge in 1997). His goal with
"Badlands" was to tell the story of Pine Ridge and spell out some of
the issues and problems and challenges that "no one outside the
reservation pays any attention to."
"Do I think my record will change anything," he asks. "Probably not.
It's simply a flag of awareness and hopefully a beacon of hope for
Stuart, 47, has done studio work with a wide range of artists, from
George Jones and Merle Haggard to Neil Young and B.B. King. His coming
out as a solo artist began during a recording session at Sun Studios
in Memphis for the album, "Class of '55," which featured Jerry Lee
Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash.
"It was a magical week," said Stuart, who was a member of the studio
band. "That was kind of the back door of being somebody else's musican
and the front door of getting out there and figuring it out on my own.
Experiences like this made me so much more ready for what I've been
through in the last 20 years of my life. There's a lot to learn from
people who were there before you."
Stuart has authentically explored many different musical styles.
Recording a gospel album was a project he had been thinking about for
years. Released on his own Superlatone Records, "Soul's Chapel" is an
eclectic affair that is rootsy, reflective and takes Southern soul and
rock to new heights. A highlight is "Move Along Train," written by
Roebuck "Pops" Staples and featuring the mighty vocals of Mavis
"A lot of people talk about Lester Flatt raising me and Johnny Cash
being my mentor but Pops Staples was as much an influence on my life
as anybody," Stuart said. "He and his whole family have had a very
powerful and positive effect on me."
Stuart first met the Staples when together they recorded the Band's
"The Weight" for the 1994 album "Rhythm Country and Blues." The
friendship carried through to 2000, when he was a pallbearer at Pops'
funeral, but the relationship with the family did not stop there. When
Stuart got in trouble in June, 2004, for driving under the influence,
the second such arrest in three years, it was Mavis and Yvonne Staples
who came to his emotional rescue. The day after being released from
jail, Stuart was performing at FitzGerald's in Berwyn when the sisters
showed up with a gift.
"I was feeling worthless and just going through the motions that
night," recounted Stuart. "And in walked Mavis and Yvonne toting this
black guitar case. I thought they wanted me to put strings on Pops'
guitar but instead they gave it to me. I considered it the most divine
gift at the most divine time. It was God's way of saying put this in
your hand and go on. I used that guitar all over 'Soul's Chapel.' "
Stuart sounds like a man reborn. He may not be on country radio
anymore, but he's content to be as busy and as happy as he's ever
"My life is a full tapestry. It doesn't depend on one aspect to make
it work or not work. I get up every day and there are books to work
on, a collection to oversee, records to make and songs to write. I
like being a part of it all. I've spent my whole life trying to get to
Stuart the collector now a curator
In the early '80s when the hip urban cowboy trends infiltrated country
music and the old legends and styles were relegated to the pasture,
Marty Stuart became their savior.
"I loved the costumes and the artifacts," said Stuart, who began
collecting records, magazines and autographs at an early age. "And
outside of the Country Music Hall of Fame, no one was doing anything
to preserve and protect these treasures. I wasn't ready for that to
happen. So I made it my mission to start seriously collecting."
Stuart has amassed a stunning collection, from clothing, autographs,
guitars, boots and handwritten lyrics. About 10 years ago, he acquired
a large collection of Hank Williams' personal effects from Williams'
"I went to dinner with Irene, and I could tell she wanted to talk
about something," recalled Stuart. "Back at her house, she started
pulling out original manuscripts of 'Your Cheatin' Heart,' " the death
certificate, family pictures, boots, suits, hats and guns. I couldn't
even speak. It was almost like coming face to face with the man."
What began as a small collection scattered around Stuart's house is
now stored in a Nashville warehouse. Hopes are to find a permanent
home for the invaluable artifacts. In the time being, Stuart is in the
planning stages of a traveling exhibit, "Marty Stuart's American
Journey," that will debut in the fall of 2007 at the Tennessee State
Museum in Nashville.
MARTY STUART; OTIS CLAY
When: 4 and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 15
Where: Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln
Call: (773) 728-6000; www.oldtownschool.org