Once the king of the glitterbillies-the term he coined for the style of music known for a rhinestone suits and rockabilly backbeats-Marty Stuart seems comfortable with more modest apparel, both in terms of music and clothing.
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Once the king of the glitterbillies-the term he coined for the style of music known for a rhinestone suits and rockabilly backbeats-Marty Stuart seems comfortable with more modest apparel, both in terms of music and clothing. Now 50 and with flecks of gray in his once jet-black pompadour, he sits on a leather chair in his tour bus and plays riffs on a well worn mandolin while fielding interview questions. He now prefers music that’s a little quieter and little more raw, but he certainly hasn’t mellowed with age, positioning himself at the center of America’s great bedrock forms with a series of gospel and roots albums. But as much as he seems to be reinventing himself, he’s really just returning to where he started when he was making a living playing music when most kids are booting groundballs in little league. Having gotten his start as a 12-year-old bluegrass prodigy-playing mandolin with the Sullivans and the Lester Flatt before riding shotgun with his hero, Johnny Cash-Stuart’s career has been defined by struggle and success. Whichever one of those options wins out in the future, one thing is certain: he’ll get there on his own terms.
I didn’t realize it, but you once played as a member of Doc Watson’s band.
Yeah, for a summer’s worth of concerts in about 1980, and I felt like we played about 20 years worth of music in that one summer. It stands as one of the most enjoyable musical experiences of my life. It was Doc and Merle and T. Michael [Coleman] and me, and it was a wonderful, wonderful experience. I had never been a part of music at that level at that time. Coming out of Lester Flatt’s band was wonderful, but [Doc and Merle] played at a different place. It was something.
Then, after that is when you joined Johnny Cash’s band.
The last date that I had with Doc and Merle was in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and then they were going to go on hiatus for a few months. And I had no idea where I was going to go to work next. We had a matinee show in Cedar Rapids, and I went back to the hotel after the first set, and the light was blinking on my phone. It was my mom, and she said that one of the guys in Johnny Cash’s band was looking for me and that Johnny Cash wanted to talk to me. I called, and he said, “John wants to know if you want to come talk about being in his band,” and I said, “Well, this is a good time to talk!” And he said, “How about tomorrow?” and I said, “Sure.” They were in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which was about two hours away. So I got a rental car and drove to Cedar Rapids, which was about two hours away. I never saw him. I talked to him on the phone, and they stood me on my spot, and that’s how I got started with Johnny Cash.
Were you nervous?
No. He called me, and when I first got to the hotel in Cedar Rapids, his guitar player and band leader, Bob Wooten, got me acclimated and told me what time he’d be leaving to go to the show. So I sat down at the restaurant, and the maitre d’ came and said, “Mr. Cash’ is on the phone for you.” He said, “Hey, son.” I said, “Hi, J.R.” He said, “Do you know my songs?” I said, “Every one of ‘em. Do you still do them in the same key?” He said, “Probably. Do you have anything black to wear?” I said, “Probably.” He said, “Well, that’s good. I’m probably going to take a nap, and I’m probably going to see you in a few minutes. Bye.” And that’s all there was to it.
What was it like the first time you met Johnny Cash?
It was a few months previous to that in Jack Clement’s studio. I went with a friend of mine named Danny Ferrington who had built him a guitar to deliver it. And when I shook hands with him, he kept looking me, and like I’ve said, I heard thunder. And I really did. He just kept looking at me, and he said, “Where you from?” I said, “Mississippi.” He said, “Where you been?” I said, “Gettin’ ready.” He said, “Alright,” and we hung out that night. Nothing serious. And we hung out one other time, and that was it until that phone call came, and that was three or four months later. I’ve said before, sometimes I think God puts people on your heart early on if you’re supposed to meet them and know about them, and the first two records I ever owned in my life were Flatt & Scruggs and Johnny Cash. And the only two gigs that I ever had were with Johnny Cash and Lester Flatt, so I was ready. I really was prepared.
When you ended up marrying Johnny Cash’s daughter, did that change your relationship with him?
No. We kept it totally separate-business. We were friends before any of that occurred, so we left it at that.
Was that a hard decision when you left Johnny’s band?
No. It was time. I think he knew it, and I knew it. He helped me get a recording contract with Columbia. There weren’t any bad feelings or anything. I left with his blessing, and he helped me. It really didn’t change much of anything, other than the fact that I wasn’t going on the road with him anymore. To the day that he died, when he called and wanted me to go play the guitar, he was still the chief. He came and helped me on sessions. He played on records of mine, and I played on his, and we were next-door neighbors. Really, not much changed.
When you first went solo and were getting established, did you look to him for advice?
Sure. He was always there for advice. One of the things that I remember is that we got booked to play the Billy Graham crusade. Don’t ask me why. But I knew that he’d been playing them since the ‘50s, and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to ask or how to be, so that was one of the times that I called him and said, “Help!” And he never ever pushed advice, but he was there any time that it was asked.
And then there was a period of time that you went home and recharged for awhile in the late ‘80s, the time before Hillbilly Rock.
Yeah, I had no choice but to go home, because nothing else was working.
And you ended up playing with the Sullivans again?
Yeah, because the Sullivans were the first people that I ever played with, and Jerry Sullivan called and invited me out to play for a weekend, and I went back and played the same kind of little churches and events that I played with them when I was a kid. There was nothing else to do that summer except get my life back together. But it worked out great, and I enjoyed it, because I got to go down that trail of Southern culture that there is very little left of. See, they started their church meetings in what they called brush arbors, which were makeshift churches in the woods made out of brush into an arbor. And that’s where that kind of music that they play came from, and I used to call them “children of the brush arbors,” and they were like American Indians. They were a vanishing people. There are very few people left that used to play that old brush arbor circuit, and I’m glad that I got to go back to see that one more time. That’s what happened that summer. I would up producing a couple records for Jerry and Tammy of songs that we wrote along that way that summer. It was a very beneficial time.
Did it feel like you were starting over at that time?
Yeah, but I’ve never been afraid of new starts. As I get older, I hate ‘em, but I’m not scared of them. If you’re a true artist-or any human being-it’s the evolution of circles. Always going back to the beginning, yet again. A new chapter. It used to tear me down to where I thought I had to tear everything apart, disassemble everything that I’ve ever done in my life, and start over. Now it’s more like a continuation. It isn’t quite as severe [laughs]. There’s more breathing when you look at it that way.
It must have been gratifying when Hillbilly Rock became a big hit then.
Well, it was. It finally gave me a reason to get out and have a bus and a band and put on cowboy clothes and live the dream. We had a string of good hits through that time, and I was really playing that radio game and doing that whole hillbilly star thing. I loved every minute of it.
After that you became very interested in preserving country’s roots. Do you see yourself as responsible for preserving the traditions that came before you?
Well, it’s probably self-imposed, but it’s more a family thing to me. Those people raised me when I was a kid, and they gave me a place to play. They gave me a family away from home. As time went on, and country music started changing into more of a commercialized industry beyond the mom-and-pop-setup that it was founded on, I saw that more of those people that I loved were being disregarded. Their treasures and contributions were being swept under the carpet, and I saw this as an injustice. The question I posed was, “Why do we have to breech with the past? That’s our foundation and our roots. Why not take the entire story forward?” It’s great that Carrie Underwood is out there and Kenny Chesney is packing stadiums tonight, but does that diminish the contributions of Doc and Merle or the Carter Family or Willie Nelson or Connie Smith or Johnny Cash of Snuffy Jenkins? No. It’s all part of the same family, and it should move forward as such, I believe. If anything, I’m an antagonist to make sure that that happens. A radical preservationist, maybe, but an antagonist, too. A reminder.
So what was it like to work with Porter Wagoner on his last record?
It was divine. It was a divine mission. I don’t know if you’re familiar with a TV channel called RFD, but everything is rural. I came in from the front of the bus one day, and they still air The Porter Wagoner Show like it is current programming, and I really got back in touch with Porter’s show. He’d always been my buddy, but I decided it was time to go back and see Porter. It made me miss him. So I went home to Nashville, and 15 minutes into the visit I knew I wanted to produce a record, because he kept playing me these songs that were almost like well-kept secrets that he was just waiting for the right time to tell. I thought, this is not going to be easy to get somebody interested in a 79-year-old man who has been there and done that more times than we can imagine. Nashville passed on him, and I found him the deal with Anti- Records out in California. And it worked. My pitch to Porter was that “You don’t have to change one thing about yourself. You just be Porter Wagoner. We got you covered.” And my goal was to get a guitar back around his neck, get his pompadour back up, and get kids to dig it. And we did that simply by putting his sound around him again. I think after Dolly left, he started chasing a little bit, just trying to keep up with the times, and I understand that. But it was time to put him inside of the sound that made him great and famous, and it worked. And it was an honor to be there.
I talked to him a few months before he passed, and he said there were hundreds of songs that he had that he never recorded. Would those songs have just gone with him?
Probably. At least some of them.
That must be pretty satisfying to know that you got him one last shot.
When we were standing there on stage at Madison Square Garden opening for the White Stripes, he looked at me and said, “We’re doing pretty good aren’t we?” And I said, “We’re doing pretty good. Keep going.” That was a pretty good moment.
I bet. Did you know at that time that he was sick?
Well, we had to cancel the sessions, because he had an aneurysm, and it delayed the sessions from July to November. So it was pretty known that he was kind of weak, but most days were pretty good, and he was intent and had something to live for, and he was really pulling toward being his best again. As sick as he turned out to be? No, I had no idea. He was supposed to go up to the White House and light the National Christmas Tree, and I was going to help him get his music together, so I went by and saw him and said, “I’ll be back in two weeks, and we’ll get this done.” And when I went back in two weeks, I could tell that something was terribly wrong. It happened that fast. And two more weeks later, and he was gone. We went to Cracker Barrel and were having a salad and telling jokes one day, and two weeks later it was over.
Since you’re so connected with an earlier generation of country music, you have the benefit of getting to know them all, but you also have to bury them all.
That’s true. And it hurts. It leaves a void that can’t nothing but God fill up. I’ve tried filling that up with dope and liquor years ago, and none of that makes sense. It just makes more messes. It’s just life. It’s a hard assignment. But at the same time, knowing those people is worth any of the pain that you have to go through to get there.
So what’s next for you?
Well, we’re finishing up the first season of “Marty Stuart’s American Odyssey” on XM. That’s the closest thing to a job that I’ve ever had. My book is coming out in wide release this Christmas. As far as records go, I’ve got about three songs and that leaves up 12 to go, so it’s a long walk to the microphone. I’m not in any hurry to get there, since we’ve put out four records in the past three years. It’s time to put a real inspired record out there. I’m feeling a real need to play some real country music-a fresh take on country music. So we’ll see.
So, overall, this has been a pretty good life. Is this anything you ever could have imagined when you were a kid?
It’s what I dreamed about. I had a pretty good feeling that this is what it was going to be. I got there as fast as I could [laughs], and I wouldn’t have had anything else to do had this not been here. It’s my life, and I love it.