Marty Stuart’s led a willfully charmed life. As an 11-year-old, he met hit singer Connie Smith at a concert he attended, and told his mom he’d marry Smith some day (he did). He hit his career stride at 13 playing virtuoso mandolin and guitar with bluegrass architect Lester Flatt; he joined Johnny Cash’s band (and married his daughter Cindy) in the Eighties, became a solo hitmaker in the Nineties, and an expansive Americana standard-bearer in the 2000s. Stuart’s also one of the world’s foremost country experts and archivists; he owns Jimmie Rodgers’ guitar, Cash’s first black performance suit, a handwritten copy of Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light,” and the boots Patsy Cline was wearing when she died. He’s now in the process of building the Congress of Country Music in his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi, a $30 million cultural center that he calls his “hillbilly presidential library.”
Stuart was deeply involved in the making of Ken Burns’ epic new documentary series Country Music. He’d reached out to Burns when he first heard about the project nearly 10 years ago, and was involved on both sides of the camera throughout the process. He spoke about it earlier this year with Rolling Stone from a tour stop in California.
Were you a Ken Burns fan before this project?
A major fan. He first crossed my path on The Civil War. I think it was a combination of subject, Shelby Foote’s narration — the sound of his voice — and that fiddle tune…
Yeah — those three things just kind of drew me into the flame. He gets it. And then came Baseball and Jazz and Prohibition and on and on.
You visited Burns up in New Hampshire during the making of the film. What was that like?
Well, the first thing, driving up there, I just started laughing, because I thought the landscape around Walpole is probably what America looked like when the pilgrims were out hanging out — when they were tramping around the woods and decided, like, “OK, let’s call this a place!” [Laughs] Like, nothing’s changed. And I thought, “Well, that’s the perfect setting for Ken and Florentine Films.” They’re about getting back to the bedrock, original vision of America, and holding our feet to the fire with that.
One of the things I learned is when they approach a subject, they immediately surround themselves with the best minds, the best scholars, whatever the subject is. They’d had several gatherings I was invited to, but couldn’t attend because we were touring so heavy. But in July , I finished a leg of dates with Chris Stapleton, went up there and spent three days in a room with [co-writer] Dayton [Duncan] and Ken and the editors, going through every frame of the film — looking for mistakes, things that could be said differently, or whatever. But there were very few. It was probably 90% complete.
They wanted your feedback.
I’d been giving them feedback all along. It’s funny how I fell into this. At this point in my life, I don’t make a big effort to meet people. But Connie’s son was home from Taiwan for Christmas maybe eight or nine years ago, and said, “I saw Ken Burns on TV last night — he was talking about maybe doing something on country music.” So the next day I wrote Ken a fan letter basically saying, “If you do this, consider me and my office ground zero for you and your crew. Whatever you need, the answer is yes.”
About a month later I got a letter back from Dayton, and a few weeks after that he was sitting in my office. I said, “Alright, here’s my phone book. Anybody you need is in there. Anything I have access to in my collection, my archive, is yours. I can’t fly a spaceship, but I’m in the deep end of the pool when it comes to country music. So use me.”
When you were screening the series with Burns, do you recall any parts you thought needed to be changed, or tweaked?
I went in there with a raised eyebrow; this story’s been told many times before. I was looking for what had not been seen, or said — what subject matter kind of gets swept under the carpet and maybe not been dealt with. They had done their homework so good. I knew right away that they were gonna get hollered at — because so-and-so wasn’t in the film, and he sold 30 million records. [But] Ken is in the cultural history business; it’s not about the chart, always. There’s always gonna be somebody that got left out, in some other person’s opinion; he says it happens in every film.
I’ll tell you what I did see. I’ve been promoting the idea of a Jimmie Rodgers documentary for years. There’s one on the Carter Family, and Hank Williams. There’s one on Merle [Haggard], one on John [Cash]. What blew me out of the water was that we now have a great Jimmy Rogers documentary inside of Episode One. That was a major, personal victory for me. I saw footage of Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley just hanging out together in Memphis when they were young guys getting started at Sun, listening to records together. That was beautiful to me. And the things that had not been addressed, like the black influence on the roots of country music. Tee Tot [Rufus Payne], the street singer that inspired Hank Williams. Arnold Schultz, the guy who inspired Bill Monroe. Leslie Riddle. They finally got talked about, and that was wonderful. And women’s role in country. I married Connie Smith — I understand that the women have had to fight, and at this minute are having to fight for equal share in the world of country music. Those are things [in the series] that really had not been seen before.
Hearing this feedback must have been validating — they didn’t necessarily consider themselves country music experts going in.
If you look at the past 40, 50 years of country music, it’s always amazing to me as an insider how we sometimes just absolutely get lost and start chasing our own tails. And it usually takes people from outside the culture, outside the family of country music, to set us straight again. Going back to the Byrds and Sweetheart of the Rodeo, when country was kind of getting away from the fiddle and steel aspect, it took some rock & rollers to introduce a new generation to it, and it kinda put some things straight. That Nitty Gritty Dirt Band record, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Volume One. Again, a rock band. They gathered what was left of the original cast of country music, and inspired the roots thing again. The movie Deliverance did the same thing, O Brother, Where Art Thou? did the same thing. In my opinion, this is the first thing that’s come along in a long time that is way beyond the normal fare of country music, and it again points country music back to the empowering force, which is the roots of country music — the timeless part of it, the bedrock, what sustains whatever’s happening at face value on the charts now. Those guys coming over the hill is like having the cavalry come and shore up what I try to do out here every day.
At one point in the film you talk about the tradition of country music and amphetamines, which were fairly legal in the Fifties and early Sixties.
Well, yeah — it’s the truth. Merle Haggard would talk about how this was a nation built on speed from the Fifties forward. And I understand what he’s saying. One of the most quotable guys ever in country music was Grandpa Jones. Some Opry star came by him one night, just speeding his brains out. Grandpa Jones said, “He could thread a sewing machine while it was runnin’!”
We see a good portion of your own life story in the series. What was that like?
Probably reminded me there’s a whole lot less road in front of me than there is behind me [laughs]. It also reminded me what a fairytale life I’ve had. The first two records I ever owned were by Johnny Cash and Flatt & Scruggs. The only two jobs I’ve ever had in my life were with Lester Flatt, then Johnny Cash. And when Connie Smith came to my home town, and I was 11, I fell in love with her and told my mom that night I was gonna marry her. And I did. So there you have it. And now, we’re going back to Mississippi to build a cultural center around all this stuff. So I just kind of scratch my head and go, “Well, I’ll just get back to work.” But man…
Did Burns ask you for feedback on your particular section?
The one thing I made a comment about was that picture my mom took of me and my sister Jennifer the night I met Connie. I always told everybody, for years and years, that I was 12 years old when I met Connie. And they said I was 11. And I said, “Guys, I think you made a mistake there.” But they did the math, and pulled the calendar up, checked everything, and it turned out I’d been wrong all these years. So they straightened me out on my whole life!
Do you expect this series is going to have any kind of effect on A) the way country artists make music, or B) how commercial radio programmers program it?
I don’t expect this to affect contemporary country music radio. But in a larger sense, I think this is going to elevate country music in the pantheon of the arts, which is something I’ve been fighting for all these years. I think it will bring awareness to people who don’t know much about country music, and give them reason to respect it. It will bring an understanding about where the music comes from, and how deep it goes. I think it will give the traditional country fan — who never thought that they would ever hear or see this kind of story again in their lifetime — a sense of assurance that the root system is alive and well.
And I think for any culturally-minded contemporary country singer or songwriter — star or would-be star — I think it will serve as an educational tool to help them understand what they’re really a part of, and learn, once their three hit records die away, how to sustain a career outside of them.