Thursday, October 30, 2008

A chat with country star Marty Stuart

This interview appeared in the North County Times on Oct. 30.

By George A. Paul

Marty Stuart has his fingers in so many pies that keeping track of all the endeavors can be a daunting task.

Over the past two years, the veteran Grammy-winning country star has curated a music exhibit (“Sparkle & Twang”), put together a photography book (“Country Music – The Masters”), produced several artists, released a concert CD and collection of duets (“Compadres”), toured with his Fabulous Superlatives band, hosted a weekly XM Radio program (“American Odyssey”) and is set to host a new cable TV music series (“The Marty Stuart Show”).

The Mississippi native is a self-taught mandolinist/guitarist and vocalist who started in the business as a teenager. He was a member of Bluegrass master Lester Flatt’s band through much of the ‘70s before hooking up with Johnny Cash in 1980. Stuart put out his first solo albums independently, married Cindy Cash (they divorced in 1988) and produced a gospel effort for The Man in Black.

By the late ‘80s, Stuart’s solo career had kicked into high gear. His spirited music (a mix of rockabilly, honky tonk and traditional styles) and colorful suits drew widespread attention. The result was 17 top 40 hits on the country charts through 1996 – including “Tempted,” “Hillbilly Rock,” “Little Things” and “Burn Me Down” - not to mention a few gold and platinum records.

Two song collaborations with Travis Tritt (“The Whiskey Ain’t Workin,’” “This One’s Gonna Hurt You”) went top 10 and the pair toured several times in the ‘90s. Now the two musicians have reunited for a special acoustic jaunt that starts in Temecula. I I nailed down Stuart, 50, via phone from Nashville to get the lowdown.

Q: Let’s start by talking about the upcoming tour. Will these dates with Travis Tritt be your first since your “No Hats” jaunt of 1991-1992?
A: No, we actually did a couple tours back in those days beyond the “No Hats” tours. We kept it rollin’ and renamed the tour a couple times. But this is the first extensive tour we’ve done together since those days.

Q: What can fans look forward to – is it an acoustic thing or are you with the band?
A: No, the thing that’s really unique about this is it’s just the two of us on stools. No net [laughs]. No Superlatives, no Travis band. The way this came about in the very first place is, I produced a record for Porter Wagoner a couple years ago. The one thing that was startin’ to kinda click for that whole project – in New York City, I presented Porter and it was just the two of us on stools. That was the way it was kinda workin’. It was fun for Porter because he didn’t tour very much and it was a unique evening. Ten or 12 shows were booked in that configuration when he passed away and they were gonna cancel all the shows. I said, ‘hold it. Let me think about this for a second.’ One of them was at the Savannah Music Festival. I called Travis and said, ‘this is in your backyard, let’s see how this feels.’ We hadn’t done anything in a long time and the minute we got down there just the two of us, something magic happened. That’s how all this came about.

Q: Will it be a fly by the seat of your pants sort of deal where you don’t have a set list?
A: It’s a loose based set list with an informal structure to it. Then it kinda of finds its own mark.

Q: I caught you live at the 2007 Stagecoach Festival out in Indio. What were your impressions of that event?
A: Oh, I thought it was crazy. Anytime there’s a reason to come to Southern California and play country music, it always clicks for me and my band. Because you know there’s a lot of California influence in my band. It’s always a good thing for California. The groundwork for a country music audience, regardless of generation, goes so far back to the days of Maddox Brothers and Rose, Buck and those fellas, Merle and Gwen Stewart, all those people – the groundwork that they laid for country music out there is so strong. When they opportunity occurs for something of that magnitude, it’s always wonderful.

Q: Whenever I see you perform with the Fabulous Superlatives, you seem to have a great chemistry together. Would you say they’re some of the best musicians you’ve played with?
A: Oh they are the best. It’s the band of a lifetime. I have been in bands since I was nine years old and I have no doubt in my mind that the Superlatives will be the band that I’m remembered for.

Q: How did you initially find them?
A: Harry played on some of my original hits and was a well-loved and respected guy and session player around Nashville. He was always known for integrity. He didn’t show up for project he didn’t believe in. That’s where we found our first common mark. He played on “Tempted.” Kenny, I saw on TV playing with Lucinda Williams. I met him at an event and we swapped phone numbers. I was trying to take a year off and when it was over, I called him and said, ‘you find us a bass player and I’ll try to find us a drummer.’ That’s how we kinda got together.

Q: Next week, your “Sparkle and Twang” exhibit opens at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. You first started collecting country memorabilia back in the 1980s, right?
A: Formally. I was always a fan and collector from the time I was a kid, collecting country music song roundup books to 8x10s to records. But I got really serious about it in the early ‘80s.

Q: For you, was it a matter of not wanting to see these items fall through the cracks and you decided to step up and preserve them yourself?
A: That was a big part of it, yeah.

Q: Are you familiar with the permanent Johnny Cash exhibit out here at the Fender Museum in Corona?
A: I’ve heard about it. Bill Miller has pretty much dedicated his life to Johnny Cash. He’s done it for a lot of years. I hope he finds the reward he’s looking for there because we’re all the richer for it.

Q: Next month, episodes of the new TV show start airing on RFD. How have those been going?
A: It is so fun. It is a breath of fresh air to do traditional country music on a stage in Nashville again. I mean, unapologetically. Hay bails and all. The idea came about the first time I saw the RFD channel. I been watching this thing for like the past five or six years. Dearly love it. They run great shows, just Americana, trains across America. That kind of stuff is an eye into the real America, not just the face value of America and American people. That’s what I bought into. The fact that they run Porter’s and the Wilbur Brothers show – that’s the kind of shows I grew up on, “Hee Haw.” The problem with it is it’s reruns. As much as I love reruns, we need a current take on things. I thought, ‘how about a 30-minute weekly TV show that tips off from those shows, that carries the tradition of that forward?’ I took the knowledge and experience that I had watching Flatt & Scruggs, Porter Wagoner and the Johnny Cash shows and went, ‘let’s make a new one.’ Connie Smith and the Superlatives are regulars each week. Leroy Troy, a traditional banjo player, an old-timer, he’s a regular. Then we invite a guest on top of that each week.

Q: Your coffee table book, “Country Music – The Masters” finally gets a widespread publishing run next month. Is it a bunch of photos you’ve amassed over the years?
A: Well, I started taking pictures when I went on the road at 13. The first picture I ever took was of Connie Smith when she came to my hometown. That’s where the book starts. It does the best job it can do with the amount of time, money and circumstances in 40 years, I could pull together the old world of country music. It’s a pretty extensive study. A labor of love. Almost 500 pictures. There’s a spoken word CD that goes along with it and tells a few stories. There’s a song called “Dark Bird” that I wrote for Johnny Cash before he passed away. It goes along with the image on the cover of the book, which is a shot I took of him four days before he passed away.

Q: I really enjoyed the “Compadres” duets collection that came out last year. Any chance of a Vol. 2?
A: Well, it might take 20 years to get it done. One by one, it moves along.

Q: Did you find that fans were glad to have all of those duets together in one place?
A: I think so. You know, once I got beyond it and stepped back from it a year later, I enjoy listening to it.

Q: One of my favorites was The Who tune, “I Can See For Miles.”
A: [laughs] That’s great.

Q: Is it hard to put a country spin on a rock classic like that?
A: Nah, you just twangify it.

Q: Over the past decade, a lot of younger musicians have helped bluegrass music gain a new following. What do you think about the state of the genre today? Is it still thriving?
A: Absolutely. It’s one of the brightest spots of the whole country music pantheon. You can always find, as far as authenticity goes, there’s the whole “American Idol” and “Nashville Star” spin – that usually produces the next 15 minute star. But the lasting players usually come out of the rootsy, bluegrass end of things. If you go to a bluegrass festival – pick one – you’ll always find younguns playing banjos, fiddles and the mandolin, guitars and singin. That’s where the kids usually come from, the more power base, integrity base. If you look around at the new old-timers like me and Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs and Travis Tritt, we all started with bluegrass. Keith Whitley, if he’d have lived, he’d be amongst that.

Q: Are you still taping new episodes for your XM radio show, “American Odyssey”?
A: We’re on hiatus right now. [Did one season so far]

Q: How did that start?
A: I’m a big fan of XM radio. I think the genius of XM radio is, I saw this bumper sticker in LA one time that said, Welcome to LA. Pick a decade and fit in. As a listener, you can find a channel that suits your lifestyle, your preference or political taste and you don’t ever have to compromise that. You can drive coast to coast and get in on it. First time I went to the XM studios when I first started, I saw Tony Bennett come out of one studio, Black Crowes, some metal band and then us. I thought, ‘this is my kind of place.’ That was part of it. The other part of it was, ‘let’s do a radio show. It sounds fun.’ They offered me 24-hours a day on Channel 2 to do whatever I wanted. I thought, ‘what if take the cast – the band, the announcer and Pastor Evelyn – and go across the United States of America?’ Stop in town after town and profile what came from that town. It’s staggering, the things that I didn’t know about America. As a traveling musician, I go from place to place and once again, the term ‘fave value’ comes up. I get the face value of a town. But if you stop in Shreveport, La. and really mine out the people, the music, the culture that has come from there, it’s easy to fill up an hour. You can basically go anywhere in the United States. People come up to me all over the place and say, ‘I didn’t the first traffic light was in Cleveland, Ohio. Didn’t know Ike & Tina Turner started in Shreveport, La. That kind of stuff. Trust me, I learned more than anybody else while we were doing the show. [Second season is coming soon]

Q: What else is on the horizon for you?
A: I’ve been writing songs in my spare time in the past couple years. I’ve got a new stack of songs we’ve started introducing to the live audiences at our shows. Connie Smith has three new records backed up. That’s what’s staring at me right now after we get over the hump of the TV shows in the first quarter of next year to get back in the studio. We have a stone cold, firecracker poppin’, traditional country record I’m dying to do. There are three songs waiting for a gospel record.

Marty Stuart & Travis Tritt play an acoustic show at Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, Calif. on Nov. 1.

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