During a trip to Los Angeles in 1995, Marty Stuart walked into Sound City Studios, looking for Johnny Cash's backup band. He'd bumped into Cash several days earlier, when the two took the same flight from Tennessee to California. The Man in Black had asked him to play guitar on his next album and Stuart accepted immediately, without asking for details. He knew Rick Rubin would be producing, but he didn't know who else would be playing. Whoever it was, he'd be happy to join them. After all, when Johnny Cash asks. . .
Inside, he found the rest of Cash's recruits: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Together, they formed a one-off supergroup for the album that became Unchained, the follow-up to Cash's Grammy-winning American Recordings. Stuart and Mike Campbell became complementary lead guitarists, sharing solos throughout the record. Their give-and-take worked well.
"Before I ever shook hands with him," Stuart remembers, "I knew Mike was a band guy. I guess it takes one to know one. He was obviously a lifer in the Heartbreakers. Tom gives that band songs that are so good – off-the-chart good – and Campbell is one of those who absolutely knows what to do with those songs. When I met him, he was a quiet guy, but every time he spoke, it mattered. And every time he picked up his guitar, it mattered, too."
Stuart and Campbell share guitar duties once again on Stuart's newest album, Way Out West. Recorded in the same city that spawned Unchained, it's a tribute to California's broad influence on country music, honoring not just the Bakersfield tradition – "That particular case has already been well-stated," Stuart points out – but surf music, spaghetti Western soundtracks and Beach Boys-influenced pop, too. Campbell doubles as the record's producer, while Stuart's longtime band – the Fabulous Superlatives, now featuring everyone from former Lucinda Williams sideman Kenny Vaughan, who writes several of West's tracks, to newcomer Chris Scruggs – channels Marty Robbins one minute and Dick Dale the next. There are a cappella gospel songs fit for Sunday morning church service, truck-driving country tunes built for the desert highway and woozy, trippy textures better suited to a psychedelic experience in Joshua Tree.
"We thought, 'Man, the sky is the limit,'" he says. "I scored a film that Billy Bob Thornton directed a few year ago called All the Pretty Horses, and it had a Western deal to it, like Leonard Bernstein on mushrooms or something. Billy Bob was a big fan of surf music, too, and I thought there wasn't much difference between those twangy surf songs and some old country instrumentals. And when you go back to the foundational recordings of this band, you see that we were founded on a lot of gospel songs. We're fans of the Swan Silvertones, the Staple Singers and Rosetta Tharpe. You can hear all of that on the album."
Way Out West was recorded last winter, beginning with a session in Campbell's SoCal studio – "It's a fun-filled, guitar-infested workshop, the absolute epitome of a cool home studio," Stuart enthuses – and finishing up at Capitol Studios.
"In my opinion," the frontman says, "there's Capitol, then there's every other studio in the world. When I started writing 'Please Don't Say Goodbye,' from the very first measure, I said, 'I need to record this at Capitol.' It needs to be recorded in the same place as 'Ode to Billy Joe' and 'Wichita Lineman.' It was the unique sense of space that I was after. The song needed air. It needed that cathedral top."
A source of seemingly endless inspiration, California has received its share of musical tributes, from Vince Gill and Paul Franklin's Bakersfield – a top-shelf collection of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens songs – to the unfortunate Nashville Outlaws: A Tribute to Motley Crüe, which found Florida Georgia Line and others taking a stab at Hollywood's Sunset Strip sound. Way Out West is something different: an album that avoids pitfalls as well as predictabilities, serving up something fresh even as it honors the old.