Angels And Devils: A Q&A With Marty Stuart

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For fans of traditional country and roots music, there may be no more hotly anticipated fall release than Marty Stuart’s Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, a double album to be released on September 30 on Marty’s Supertone label. Featuring his ace band The Fabulous Superlatives and some very special guests, the double-disc shows this versatile, charismatic songwriter and performer at the top of his game with sides devoted to both traditional country fare (Saturday Night) and gospel music (Sunday Morning.)

Marty spoke to American Songwriter recently to talk about how these disparate sides of his musical personality intersect, his affection for classic country songwriting, and fateful encounters with Bob Dylan and a crow.

What made you decide to make this new project a double-album that would include a rollicking country side and then a gospel side?

Well, both of those forms of music are essential parts of The Fabulous Superlatives. We understood from the minute we started playing music together that we were a country band. But gospel music was something that I didn’t quite see coming. Singing gospel songs in dressing rooms and in buses going up and down the road in the beginning was how we got to know each other musically and that’s how we learned to sing together. And Harry Stinson brought this world of gospel music knowledge with him when we put the band together. Kenny Vaughn did the same thing. I come from a gospel background of sorts or played in bands where gospel music was always part of our thing. Paul Martin came to the band, and he brought gospel music. So it was just a natural thing. We knew the language. We had our favorite parts of gospel music. Somehow it worked out that that’s how we learned to sing together and we still write those kinds of songs and sing ‘em. So Saturday Night and Sunday Morning seemed to be a natural fit to me. It’s just an honest reflection of who the band is and what we do.

What struck me about the album is how there much musical common ground there was among the rocking country songs, the bluesy songs, and the gospel songs. Sometimes only the lyrics were a giveaway as to whether it was Saturday Night or Sunday Morning.

Well, I think that’s my Mississippi roots showing. Because if you go down into the legacy of Mississippi music, and you check first of all who came from there and what the styles were, whether it was Jimmie Rodgers or Muddy Waters or Charley Pride, on and on and on. It’s crazy how much roots music came from Mississippi. But everything was blues-based, whether it was country or rock or gospel, and the church house was ground zero.

Really, if you get in your car today and go to Robinsonville, Mississippi this coming Sunday morning, and walk in to Pastor Evelyn (Hubbard’s) church, that’s the lady singing on that song “Cathedral” (a track on the new album), she has this little cotton-patch church in the Delta. There is no difference in the amount of rock and roll hittin’ the air at her church Sunday morning that you would find at Po’ Monkey’s Juke Joint on Saturday night. Everything down there, it’s just all a part of that feeling.

On the gospel side, you got the chance to work with Mavis Staples on a really wonderful rendition of the Staples Singers’ classic “Uncloudy Day,” a song on which you use Pops’ Staples famed Fender Telecaster guitar. What was it like to work with such a legend of the genre?

When I talked about how all the four Superlatives bring gospel music to the dressing room, The Staples Singers were like family to me. Pops was one of my best friends. I spoke at his funeral and we played music together. We were buddies and when he passed away Mavis and Yvonne presented me with that guitar. And it was like being handed Excalibur.

“Uncloudy Day” was the first song recorded for this project and it was nine years ago. I’ve been building this project for nine years. It was fresh in my mind that Pops was gone and I really wanted to pay tribute to him. It was about that sound. They sounded like ghosts singing in a cotton field. And that guitar was a big part of it. So it was a wonderful experience to have Mavis sing alongside of us. Or us sing alongside of Mavis.

Speaking of vocals, the vocal arrangements, particularly in the Sunday Morning section, are really striking and powerful. I get the feeling those ornate harmonies are something you and the band really enjoy putting together.

Absolutely. And one of the coolest compliments I ever had about our gospel songs is there was this kid that came out to a rock and roll show we were doing one day and he was Jewish and he said, “Man I love your gospel songs.” I said, “Thank you very much.” He said, “I don’t know whether to drink, praise the lord, or fight.” It comes from a lot of different directions, the truth, and the vocals are a big part of it.

You also got the chance on this album to do some cover songs of country classics by artists like George Jones and Hank Williams and they really fit in seamlessly with the originals. Are you trying to strike a balance between putting your own spin on those songs while still doing honor to those artists?

Absolutely. To me, that style of writing, that style of song, the reason I brought ‘em forth, first and foremost because I love them, but that style of song is in danger to being lost to the ages. Hardly anybody writes them anymore because there’s no outlets for them in general. So those particular songs you mentioned, they seemed to me to be worthy of being brought along into this century. Just as a personal thing, I didn’t want them to get lost. I just admired the writing style, admired what they said.

I’ve always had an affinity for “I’m Blue And Lonesome.” The way it came about is that Bill Monroe and Hank Williams wrote it backstage one night at the Grand Ole Opry. That’s the only thing they ever wrote together. And that’s always kind of been an obscure bluegrass song. But I always thought it was a hard-hittin’ country song too.

And when you include songs like that on an album, it must want to make you raise your game as a writer to have your originals live up to the standards of those classics.

Without question. When I listen to song like “Old, Old House” or “Talking To The Wall”, that song that Warner Mack did, that’s about as textbook perfect as that particular style of country music could ever be. And it does inspire me to try to write a better song.

How fulfilling was it to be able to express these two sides of your musical personality all at once in this way?

It’s really fulfilling. You know it’s just another day at the office for us. That’s what we do. And I have to tell you, a big part of the muscle of this and the confidence of it all came from our television show. That RFD television show (The Marty Stuart Show) gave me about 150 episodes worth of reasons to write songs, to fill the shows with respectable songs. At the end of the day, the way show turns out is really all based around the quality of the songs. And so it really sharpened my point on how to go about finding a great country song or writing a great country song, gospel song, bluegrass song, whatever. It is really rewarding. It gave us a lot of extra muscle as a band, because the repetition of it was good practice. At the end of the day, I look back at this record and I’m very proud of it.

I get that “They don’t make them like this anymore” feeling listening to this double-album, which sounds to me like that’s exactly what you were going for.

Well, I appreciate you saying that, and it’s right. I go back to the Florida television show. It was almost like a theater or like a laboratory. When those traditional country artists or traditional country songs would come across and it was time to present them, we would call on Pig Robbins, who played piano on so many of those old songs, or Jimmy Capps, or whoever else played on those classic songs that’s still around. Because, again, the word is the language. The language is in danger. And we wanted to do it authentically. I wanted to come from the bottom of my heart with it. Living with Connie (Smith, Stuart’s wife and Grand Ole Opry star), you know she is one of the last ones standing that understands that style from top to bottom whether it’s to write it or sing it. Every time I’d get through with one of these songs, I’d think, “I have to play this for Connie.”

You’d get an honest opinion, right?

Yeah, so the bottom line was that we learned how to make ‘em like that again and it was a long research project starting with our Ghost Train project, I wanted to get it right. I wanted to prove that, yes, this language is still alive. Should anybody want to come to it, and do it this way, it is available.

So you tried to preserve it?

And I hope we furthered it. The new songs are the only way we have to further it. That’s the vision.

Switching gears, your 1999 song “Observations Of A Crow” is such a clever way to depict the nightlife. How did you come up with that idea?

It was when I was writing The Pilgrim. My antenna was up really high if you know what I mean. And I was riding through the West. I think we were pulling off of the interstate and we pulled off on Route 66 somewhere just to get fuel in the bus. It was like one of the places, it looked like a ghost town. There was just a few locals around.

But I happened to look up. And there was a crow sitting on the electrical line. And I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I’ve always been fascinated by crows, I’ve always loved crows. Bus as people would come and go, the few people that there were, that crow never left. He kept hanging out. And I thought, “The Observations Of A Crow.” And it was that simple but it was an occurrence that came to me on Route 66 somewhere.

I bet you wish you could have thanked the crow.

I have in my heart many times.

Were you aware that when you Google that song, a lot of message board discussions pop up that claim that the song is a soundalike to Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed,” which came out shortly after your song? Is there anything to that?

Well, actually, one night, this is probably close to ten years ago now, Bob and I hung out. I took him to my warehouse to see all the country music treasures I have. Bob said, “Hey, I like that ‘Crow’ song. I might borrow something out of that someday. I said, “Well, I probably borrowed it from you in the first place. Go ahead.”

So it falls in with the tradition of melodies being passed from artist to artist?

Well, you know what, back in the 90’s, I used to send Harlan Howard a crisp $100 bill every January 1 for everything I was going to steal. It was a running joke with us. I did that for years. He would call us younger guys juveniles and he’d say, “The juvenile era has an account with me.”

It’s amazing to me that in Nashville, which is basically a three-chord town, right, that we don’t tromp all over each other. The amount of songs that’s been written here and still written here. How do we keep off of each other toes as well as we do?

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