Chatting with Marty Stuart
Marty Stuart is a legend in country music. Ace musician, songwriter, “keeper of the flame”, memorabilia collector, he’s also a really genuinely nice person, & I had the pleasure of interviewing him for Think Country. He’s incredibly busy, but took the time to answer a range of questions whilst gearing himself up to come back to the UK in October, following his successful visit to Country2Country earlier this year.
I asked him firstly about his latest album, “Way Out West”, a homage to California & the Wild West. It was recorded in LA with Tom Petty guitarist Mike Campbell producing. What was the difference between recording there & in Nashville?
MS “Mainly just the physical atmosphere. California has palm trees, desert, & cactus whereas Nashville is very humid. With this record being called what it was, it just seemed to be the most authentic thing to do to record in California”.
SA – What made you make this album which has instrumentals & sound effects on it, as opposed to a regulation 12 track disc?”
MS “As a band, we just followed our muse. We started one day by having a listening session, listening to “Abbey Road”, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” & Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison” & “San Quintin”, “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys, & we started talking about how we as kids just loved westerns, 60’s dance shows, the Batman theme & the cool clothes & blonde haired California girls, & California, so the next thing we knew, we just started to write songs & think in that direction. The obvious thing would have been to do a tribute to Bakersfield, but that has been done. So we took it to the setting of the Mojave Desert, & turned it into a cinematic journey for the listener”
SA – Strange you use the word cinematic to describe it, as I think this could be a film soundtrack, such as songs like “Torpedo” which really evoke the West. Why have Mike Campbell produce the album, instead of yourself?
MS “I wanted somebody who would understand band life, who was a great guitar player & would knock us around a bit to get us to do it a little better. As a band, you can get a little complacent, resting about how wonderful you are, & you need somebody who can say you might think it’s good, but go in there again & try it again. Mike & I go back to when we played on the American Recordings of Johnny Cash, so I thought if we were going to go to California, I knew he would keep us honest”.
SA – The title track is laden with drug references. I’ve just read George Jones’s autobiography, & the picture he paints of the country scene in the 70’s & 80’s is quite frightening. Was it as bad as he says?
MS “Well I researched it for about thirty years & the answer is yes. I’ve been sober now for about fifteen years, & if I could do anything in my life again it would be to listen to my Mama & behave. There’s been warnings along the way. Hank Williams wrote a song called “Lost Highway” & if we’d had listened to it, we’d have all done better. There was a romanticism that went with drinkin’ & druggin’ & a crazy lifestyle, but there’s been a lot of warning shots fired by radio, but with the song “Way Out West”, if I hadn’t lived that lifestyle, I couldn’t have written that song, but fifteen years down the road, I’ve got a different perspective on it you know”.
SA – You’ve obviously got a lot of freedom from your label to do things how you want, what with the instrumentals on the album, but do you think that you’d have been able to do that on a big label?
MS “I’ve always snuck instrumentals onto my albums, I’ve always believed (especially in country music) in bands who played instrumentals. In my training days with Lester Flatt’s band, they always played instrumentals, Johnny Cash had instrumentals, so with the Superlatives body of work, we’ve created instrumentals all along the way. I just think it’s an important thing to keep doing.
SA – I agree, I think it shows a different side to an artist.
MS “The next record we’re working on is a kind of hillbilly surf band record!
SA – Where did that come from then?
MS “Me & Kenny Vaughan were sitting around talking about when we were twelve years old & had our first guitars, we listened to the Ventures records & we played our guitars to impress the girls & had posters of girls on the walls. It was those instrumentals that got us started. We wanted a record that the London Symphony could score, but was accessible enough for a fourteen year old kid could play in his bedroom”.
I asked Marty if he remembered a video & song called “Dream, Dream, Dream” he sang for the Nashville Convention Centre back in the 80’s with backing vocals from Deborah Allen & Joy Lynn White? He did, said it was a lot of fun, but when I told him, he couldn’t believe that the song was my mobile phone ring tone!
SA – You’ve been involved & played with many of the greats in country music, but do you think there were more characters then than there are now?
MS “Yes, & I think there was an authenticity to those people. As a matter of fact, I left Mississippi forty five years ago tonight, to come to Nashville, & at the end of the weekend, Lester Flatt offered me a job. The thing that impressed me though was the family table of country music then. There was Roy Acuff, George Jones, Bill Munroe & Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette. All those kinds of people were encouraged to bring their culture to the table, & that made for interesting individuals. Their individual contributions were incredible. A lot of that generation came from farms & hard work, they didn’t listen to rock & roll or jazz, but brought pure country to the microphone. Nobody can blame the current crop of hitmakers, they’re the products of their generation, most of them have never seen a farm. I think that’s the main difference”.
SA – When you toured with Travis Tritt in 1991-1992, you called it the “No Hats” tour. Was that a dig at the number of hat acts which were proliferating at that time?
MS “Well I think it was more a dig at ourselves, we called ourselves the “Hair Acts!” The term that goes around now is Bro Country, it was called a Hat Act then, now it’s Bro Country. We were spoofin’ on ourselves! Look at Dwight Yoakham, he looks real cool in his hat.
SA – Yes, he’s also got the skinny jeans too! I went to see Sam Outlaw at the weekend, he’s from California & his music does not sound like the country that’s coming out of Nashville. What do you think to the present Nashville sound?
MS “The current crop gets more interesting for me when you get away from the top 20 that radio is playing. I look around & see guys like The Old Crow Medicine Show, a string band, inspiring scores of people to play string band stuff. I go to California & see a bit of a rockabilly scene & that old country scene. The mainstream stuff gets the most ink because it has the biggest machine behind it, but there’s certainly a lot of interesting & original stuff being played out there”.
Marty then told me about a project he’s working on at the moment which is a forty four track retrospective compilation which comes out on 29th September called the “Now That’s Country – the Definitive Collection”, which made Marty dig deep into his back catalogue of work & listen to lots of old stuff.
SA – Who do you listen to now?
MS “If I’m alone, I’ll always go back to Johnny Cash & “Folsom Prison”, a lot of Glenn Campbell’s work lately, Tom Petty, but I’m always looking for new artists to listen to”.
SA – Every time I read something about you Marty, you’re described as “the keeper of the flame”. Do you agree with that, as I know you have your memorabilia collection, & talking to you, I get the sense that it’s important to you to do that?
MS “I think there’s a beauty, a power & an authenticity to traditional country music, & I know how much it means to me, & it would be a shame to let it go & die, just because nobody cared. I can tell you I care, & I love it, & it’s a great mission as it’s been part of every day of my life. Deep tradition matters, but you need to build upon it. So, if that’s been the keeper, that’s fine”.
I asked Marty who he would love to work with, & he surprised me with his answer – jazz player Wynton Marsalis, as “he is doing for the culture of jazz, as what the band are doing for the culture of country music. I admire what he has accomplished” Marty thought it would be great to sing with Marsalis on songs that Jimmie Rodgers & Louis Armstrong collaborated on years ago.
SA – Do you see yourself as a musician or a country musician?
MS “Ohh I still see myself as a country musician”.
SA – Vince Gill is now playing with the Eagles – could you see yourself playing in different genres?
MS “That’s what I was before I went centre stage. The most fun I had as a musician was when I did my TV shows, Roger McGuinn was a guest. We’d get through our five or six songs as fast as we could first, so we could get Roger on & be the Byrds”!
SA – Brilliant! What’s next for you Marty?
MS “Coming back to Europe, really pleased to be invited back so soon after being there last spring, the “Definitive Collection” is coming out, but the main thing is in my hometown of Philadelphia Mississippi, the Marty Stuart Congress of Country Music. It’s a performance & museum space & cultural centre, where my collection will be housed. It’s a three to five year project which is taking up a lot of time”.
I mentioned that I’ll be at the Manchester gig in October & asked what fans can expect. “we’ll play songs from “Way Out West”, familiar songs, we’ll take requests & older songs too”.
SA – What’s the best thing about being a musician?
MS “Well it’s kept me out of work! I haven’t had to work a day in my life! I think being a musician keeps you eternally young. It’s been a wonderful way for me to live this life”.
SA – Finally Marty, if you could recommend one record which would turn someone on to country music, what would it be?
MS “Two things -firstly, country music now is globally accepted, I see red carpet events with Hollywood stars & country singers side by side, so the boundaries have come down. The sad part about that though is that you sometimes have to water down the truth to get that to work. But the album I would give to someone would be Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison”, that’s so real & so raw & so honest”.
We had a brief chat about Storm Harvey & said goodbye. Marty Stuart is a true legend of country music, a keeper of the flame, & a link to a bygone era when as he put it, country had a bit of an edge. I can’t wait to see him & his Fabulous Superlatives in October. I reckon you should go too.