Marty Stuart – The party may come to an end, but the road goes on forever
When his most ambitious record — a lengthy country music song-cycle into which he poured all of his heart and his soul — found critical acclaim but only a handful of buyers, Marty Stuart took the turn of the millennium off. Rested and reinvigorated, he’s now back, producing an impressive variety of good work at a phenomenal rate.
Indeed, as he nears his 47th birthday, the one-time child prodigy from Philadelphia, Mississippi, is in almost constant motion — a singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer, photographer, bandleader, film score composer, historian, mandolin player, journalist, advocate and instigator, not to mention owner of one of the finest and most extensive collections of country music memorabilia in the world (20,000 pieces and counting).
Defying conventional wisdom that warns against market saturation and mixed messages, Stuart is set to release three very different albums and five volumes of photography within the space of a year on his newly minted Superlatone imprint, a joint project with Universal South, the Nashville label co-founded by his former producer, Tony Brown.
Leading the way on August 30 is Souls’ Chapel, an inspired record filled with the gritty sounds of what Stuart calls “Delta gospel.” Kicking off with the vibrato-heavy guitar tones of Roebuck “Pops” Staples and ending with a simmering instrumental title track (which in turn follows a passionate reading of Pops’ “Move Along Train” that features a guest vocal from Mavis Staples), the disc is an evocative and spiritual homage to his Mississippi roots. Its broader mission, though, is to set Stuart on a course to bind the strands of his unique experiences and interests — without sacrificing their distinctiveness — into an intensely rewarding whole.
Marty Stuart spent his teens playing mandolin with bluegrass legend Lester Flatt and followed that with a years-long stint as a member of Johnny Cash’s band (and a briefer one married to Johnny’s daughter, Cindy Cash). He became a prince among the royalty of early ’90s country hitmakers — an accomplishment that earned him a core of devoted fans, but also the disdain of the emerging alternative-country audience — then bid farewell to the hunt for mainstream popularity with the 1999 release of The Pilgrim, a concept album that told a story of love betrayed and then redeemed with help from guests including Emmylou Harris, George Jones, Earl Scruggs and Ralph Stanley. When the disc was pronounced commercially DOA by an indifferent marketplace, he knew it was time to retrench.
“At the end of 1999, I was out of gas,” Stuart says as he launches into an explanation of how he’s reached today’s whirlwind of activity. “Every trick I had was gone, and it was just time to call intermission. Connie [Smith, his wife] and I went on vacation, just to do anything but put on a cowboy suit and go play music. I had two dates on the books that year, when we went on vacation and came back; I had the Sundance Film Festival and the Billy Graham Crusade on the calendar for 2000.
“And after that was over, somehow, without really intending to, I wound up scoring films, I wound up writing songs for other people and producing other people. I staged art exhibits, did book signings — anything but get on a bus.
“But while I was in California, doing a project with Faye Dunaway, Connie brought me a Wynn Stewart box set, and I got into listening to Ralph Mooney and Clarence White play, and I got to missing it. I knew it was time to go home and think about it again.
“And then Faye came by. I said, ‘I’ve gotta go home and go back to work, but I’m really scared because I left off with a really cool record and I don’t know where to even start.’ She said, ‘Just go home and follow your heart.’ And I thought, well, that’s pretty simple. So I went back to Mississippi, stayed down there for a couple of weeks, sat on my grandpa’s porch and just visited the land. Got back in tune with the things that made me love it in the first place. And then I came home.”
Stuart had two things on his mind on his return in 2002. The first was to put together a solid new band; as it happened, he succeeded beyond all reasonable expectations. “Modern masters,” he calls the trio he dubbed the Fabulous Superlatives, and he’s right.
Kenny Vaughan, a Denver-born guitarist who followed a stint in front of Chicago and New York punk audiences with years on the road and in the studio supporting, among others, Lucinda Williams, Kim Richey and Patty Loveless, was the first to sign up. “I always was a fan of his,” Vaughan says of Stuart, “ever since I heard ‘Arlene’ [a 1985 single that edged into the country top 20] on the radio. I thought, who’s this guy? And then I figured out he was the kid mandolin player made over to a guitar-slinging country star.
“So when we talked, it sounded like fun from the first two minutes of the conversation, and so I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do that.’ I’m always up for something new. It just so happened that this one flew.”
“I told Kenny, well, you find us a bass player and I’ll find us a drummer,” Stuart recalls, and he was the first to succeed, lining up Harry Stinson, whose career has wandered across a dizzying number of musical borders. One of those rarities who actually grew up in Nashville, Stinson has worked as a drummer and/or singer with everyone from Etta James to Peter Frampton to Steve Earle to Earl Scruggs. He’s written hits for Martina McBride, but he was also a partner in Dead Reckoning, the artist-run indie label that built up a catalogue of quality recordings by artists such as Kevin Welch, Kieran Kane and David Olney.