Marty Stuart’s legendary country music career started five decades ago, and he’s still not slowing down: on May 19, he will release his nineteenth studio album, Altitude (via Snakefarm). He and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, knew they were ready to do another one simply because “the songs were there,” he says. “We worked them up, and they all held together and were entertaining and fun. They were cool and quirky, and they performed well, as far as playing guitar around them. So all the boxes got checked off, and that’s usually when it’s time to make a record.”
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This time, Stuart found songwriting inspiration when he and the Superlatives went on the road supporting Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, two of the original founders of the Byrds. That tour commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the Byrds’ seminal 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which is widely credited for popularizing country music with a wider audience.
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“The sound that surrounded that tour, and the feeling that surrounded that tour, the amount of love and admiration that we had for those two boys—just so much of that followed me back to my writing tablet every night,” Stuart tells American Songwriter. “The sound of Roger McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker guitar that played on “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn, Turn, Turn” and all those hits, that sound was there.”
During that same timeframe, Stuart and his band also played shows with the Steve Miller Band and Chris Stapleton, which also inspired him. “Steve can stand onstage and it’s like watching a baseball player swat ’em across the fence: it’s just one gargantuan hit after another hit,” he says. “And Chris Stapleton, in my opinion, is carrying country music across the planet on his shoulders as the front runner—and I cannot think of anybody more deserving or more qualified or more equipped to do it, because he is a once in a lifetime kind of singer-songwriter [and] performer. So these shows were so well stocked with great songs, and that helped me start putting the words on paper and sounds into my head.”
As with his previous albums, Altitude finds Stuart putting his own stamp on a traditional vein of country music. “There’s a twang down at the root of it all,” he says of his distinctive sound. “Country music can take any kind of experimentation that you want to throw at it. But I’ve always known where the foundation of it all was, [so] I don’t seem to get too lost regardless of where I go. It always comes back to the authenticity of it all.
“I love looking into the past,” he continues. “It’s like a treasure chest. But at some point I have to go, ‘That’s what happened then, but here’s the most important thing now: writing the new song that finds its way into the future, finds its way into the heart of a new songwriter or a singer or a guitar player out there that has their eye on the same thing we’re working on here.’ So it’s about passing it on. I look at myself and Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, on and on—it’s our turn to pay back now and pass it on.”
Stuart knows from firsthand experience what it’s like to get a life-changing helping hand from established, respected musicians. His own story has been, he says, “almost a fairy tale, in some ways.” Born and raised in small-town Mississippi, he hopped on a bus bound for Nashville by himself when he was only thirteen years old, where he joined the backing band for iconic bluegrass musician Lester Flatt.
“Walking into the Opry with him was like walking into the Vatican with the Pope,” Stuart says of Flatt. “After one of the first shows I played with Lester at radio station WSM, maybe two or three weeks after I was in Nashville, I remember thinking, ‘You got the gig!’ And I heard this other voice coming up inside my head that said, ‘Now see if you can keep it!’”
Stuart did keep that job until Flatt retired in 1978. Two years later, Stuart joined Johnny Cash’s band, where he remained for the next three years. “It’s an empowering force, to have known so many of the old master architects and been in their presence and played with them,” he says.
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Much as he appreciated these experiences, though, Stuart realized he had to strike out on his own. “At some point, I had to go, ‘I can’t just exist on what I used to do. I have to figure it out for myself.’ But I had a lot of inspiration and knowledge and wisdom and access to a lot of cool people to talk to as I created my own path. And so I think it’s a divinely ordered path. It’s also been a blessed path, but I’ve had to work hard at it.”
He has gone on to release almost three dozen singles that have charted in the U.S., won five Grammy awards, and become one of the most recognizable and respected figures in modern country music. Stuart is modest about his achievements, however, pointing out that his songwriting follows the example set by other legendary musicians.
“If you go all the way to the father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers, the thing that resonates, and will always resonate, is the subject matter in his songs: drinkin’, cheatin’, divorce, ramblin’, gamblin’, bein’ in jail, sin, redemption, heaven, hell, all points in between, murder—all those things that the newspaper is still full of today,” Stuart says. “His legacy is the grandest, to me, because of the subject matter in his songs. And that tells me that it’s OK, as a country songwriter, to write songs about real things and real people, that will touch people’s hearts and their lives, that they can reach out and connect to.”
As for exactly how Stuart creates his own songs, he can’t say precisely. “It’s the most mysterious of all forms, right? Songs just appear,” he says. “I’ve done everything from get out of the shower, squirt shaving cream on the mirror and write words with my fingers, to screaming it into a cell phone or pulling over on the side of the interstate trying to find a piece of paper to write words down. I never know when they’re going to appear, or what they’re going to look like.”
When searching for those elusive song elements, Stuart says that self-imposed discipline helps immensely: “If I know what I’m writing for or about, and a deadline to put alongside of it, it makes me a better songwriter. I don’t care if you’re writing books or plays or songs or poems or greeting cards—getting up and going to the well every day and seeing if anything can be learned or achieved is how a writer gets better. It’s a craft.”
Stuart recalls that he was serious about his musicianship right from the start. “I would have never gone to school one day in my life had I not been forced to,” he says. “The only thing I wanted to do is play my guitar and be on TV like those guys in Nashville that I loved.”
With that goal in mind, he began mastering the guitar and the mandolin. At twelve years old, he started writing his own songs after he was put on the spot. “Friends of mine were going to play in a church service that night, and they invited me to come sing a song. I did not have a song to sing, so I made up one that afternoon. That night, when I did it, people started clapping their hands and applauding and stomping their feet. I went, ‘Oh, this is how this works. I like this!’”
In fact, it made such an impression on Stuart that he still vividly remembers that song, and he proves it by singing a verse from it: “All aboard the Silver Eagle, if you want to take a ride—its destination is a city where the soul of man never dies…”
The year after that performance, Stuart made that fateful bus trip to Nashville. Now, as he looks back on the legacy he’s built for himself since then, he sounds astonished. “It’s unbelievable,” he says. “I just followed my heart, and it’s taken me to some amazing places.”
Photo by Alysse Gafkjen / Missing Piece Group