For 43 years, Marty Stuart has been one of country music’s most dedicated archeologists. Beyond his role as singer, songwriter and mandolin picker, the Mississippi native and longtime Grand Ole Opry star has been collecting and exploring nearly every aspect of the genre and its many subgenres. He has also taken on the active role of educating the public on country’s history, documenting through his archival efforts — as well as through his own extraordinary photography — the musicians, their instruments, stage costumes, songs and stories that would perhaps otherwise be lost to a whole new generation were it not for his passion.
Sharing the stage with bluegrass legend Lester Flatt before he had even reached his teens, Stuart would also experience his musical (and indeed his life) education at the feet of other musical masters. As a traveling country hitmaker in the Eighties, Nineties and beyond, he would earn hit records (“The Whiskey Ain’t Workin'” with Travis Tritt, “Hillbilly Rock,” “Tempted”). He’d also play to bigger audiences and, perhaps not surprisingly, would also fall prey to the pitfalls of life on the road. But for the now 55-year-old musician (celebrating his birthday this week), who has been 10 years clean and sober and married to fellow Grand Ole Opry legend Connie Smith since 1997, life’s inescapable contradictions are at the heart of his latest musical effort, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. A double album that’s as dazzling as one of Porter Wagoner’s old Nudie suits now housed in Stuart’s vast personal archive, the LP of classic and original material explores the influence that both traditional country and gospel music have had on Stuart and his musical cohorts, three of Nashville’s most valuable players — drummer Harry Stinson, bass player Paul Martin and guitarist Kenny Vaughan.
Stuart, like his old boss (and former father-in-law), Johnny Cash, also hosts a music-driven TV series, The Marty Stuart Show. A throwback to the country-music variety series of the Fifties and Sixties, the show airs on RFD-TV and wrapped up its sixth season earlier this year. Also, like Cash did in his lifetime, Stuart tends to dress all in black and he styles his graying hair so that much of it is pointed heavenward. Stuart visited the Rolling Stone Country offices to talk about the album (out this week on the artist’s Superlatone Records), the musicians who have inspired his mission and one who once put him in his place.
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When did you decide on the whole concept of Saturday Night & Sunday Morning?
It was not planned in the beginning. This record has been in the making for eight or nine years. When we first put the band together, we did the trilogy of records: Soul’s Chapel, which was a delta gospel record, Live at the Ryman, which was a bluegrass record, and Badlands, the Native American ballads. So, in the spirit of all that, the first person I called was Mavis Staples. She came back to Nashville for some reason and we recorded “Uncloudy Day.” That was the only song we had on this project for years. We cut it, and I set it aside. The next song was [George Jones’] “Old, Old House,” which started the country record. Years ago, we recorded it and I set it aside. But those were the two starters. I cannot tell you how many songs have come and gone from these two records until finally one day I went, “That’s it!” The songs lined up. In the beginning it wasn’t so intentional, but as time went on, the television show helped drive some of it, because every singer had a gospel song. We just kept getting better with gospel songs and we kept getting better with playing traditional country music with an edge to it, so I stood on that and one day I [realized] this is truly not a posed record. This is just what this band is. It’s an honest reflection of a day at the office.
It’s not every day you hear a gospel tune called “Boogie Woogie.” How did that one come about?
I went out on the road when I was 12 years old, playing with the Sullivan Family Gospel Singers. That was the summer of 1972. We played Pentecostal churches, camp meetings, George Wallace campaign rallies and bluegrass festivals. As a kid, I had grown up watching quartets that were very entertaining. There was a song called “A Wonderful Time up There”…. [sings] “Everybody’s gonna have religion in glory, everybody’s going to be a-singin’ that story. Everybody’s gonna have a wonderful time.” It was an excuse to play the boogie. But when I was out on tour with the Sullivans, I realized that sometimes Brother Enoch Sullivan would play the “Orange Blossom Special,” but in church-house context it was called “The Gospel Train.” [Laughs] There was another pickin’ song that Uncle Jerry Sullivan used to do, it was actually an old bluegrass fiddle piece but in the church house it was “And David Danced.” So it was all in how you shadowed and presented it.
Boogie has been a part of [gospel music], especially if you go back to black music and listen to Sister Rosetta Thorpe. She is the queen of boogie-woogie. It was sanctified boogie, I guess. If you listen to Jerry Lee Lewis, he was kicked out of Waxahachie Bible College for playing “My God Is Real” as a boogie. But in the hands of Jerry Lee, it’s all right. The black church in the South is the home of rock & roll. Kenny Vaughan and I tried to put hipster slang to the walls of Jericho story and come up with something.
Your own personal experiences with the country-star lifestyle and all that that entails must have really informed the record. Was that a sudden thing for you or did the perils of road life kind of sneak up on you?
Waylon Jennings wrote a song one time that I loved and not a lot of people paid any attention to. It was Waylon’s hard-earned experience and wisdom coming back to us. The lyrics were, “The Hank Williams syndrome is dead.” He was saying, “Boys, I’ve been down this road; I’ve researched it. And forget what I said. Hank Williams tried to tell us by way of ‘Lost Highway.'” That song says it all.
Addiction is a crazy disease. It’s a progressive disease when it’s not dealt with; it don’t care who it takes, and it takes it all. You wind up losing your house, your home, your reputation. All of that was threatened. What starts out as fun and just a rock & roll/bluegrass festival lifestyle I started messing with and dabbling with when I was 15 years old, it kept coming and then kept getting bigger. There came a point when I was just sick and tired of it. I’d been in the paper one too many times. But the beauty of it was it got turned around 10 years back.
What were some of the things that finally turned it around for you?
I came to a point that was: “OK, I’m just going to be another body bag on the edge of Nashville that was a fleeting headline. The town’s full of those stories. Just another dead hillbilly singer, so what? The world keeps on turning.” I wouldn’t take anything for the experience because it was deep research I’m happy to share with anybody else. [Laughs] But my advice goes right along side of Hank Williams’ and Waylon’s: Go the other way! But it doesn’t work like that. You have to see for yourself.
When you were first starting out, what preconceived notions did you have about musicians like Johnny Cash and Lester Flatt that surprised you later on?
The thing I noticed about the family of country music when I first came to town as a teenager was being endorsed by Lester Flatt as “that kid in Lester’s band [who] can actually play.” His seal of approval, walking into the Opry with him was like walking into the Vatican with the Pope. It gave me instant credibility. The thing I noticed about all those titanic heroes of country music, they were worthy of their praise but they were just human beings… ones that struggle with alcohol, or gambling, or carousing on the road, the old road-dog lifestyle. But at the end of the day they were just wonderful, authentic people. I don’t know that I was ever surprised by anybody’s character or personality. I kept my eyes on the music and that’s what mattered to me. They cast long shadows but they all were kind to me, every single one of them. They raised me as a kid coming into the tribe that they saw something in, so they invested in me and I took that very seriously.
Did any of them see something that could be trouble for you in you and maybe try to guide you to go a different way?
The bluegrass group, the Osborne Brothers, Sonny Osborne started with Bill Monroe when he was 14 years old. Early on, a month or two into my gig with Lester Flatt, I remember we played a bluegrass festival in town of Heber Springs, Arkansas. Sonny had been casing me out, watching me. I was getting cocky a month in, being the kid on top of the horse riding in, twirling two pistols. I was enjoying the attention. Sonny called me to the side of the stage and said, “Let’s have a talk.” I thought this was big because he hadn’t spoken to me or paid any attention to me. He put me in the front seat of a car and we started talking and he cleaned my clock! He gave me advice and he tore me apart. He told me what I was doing wrong, what I was going to do wrong and it turned out to be some of the most monumental advice than anybody gave to me. Sonny was really the first one to walk past all the hype and the hoopla and stick out his hand and say, “We need to talk.”
Johnny Cash was another one down through the years. That’s the thing I miss the most about him, not being able to talk to him. We were next-door neighbors. If I needed advice, I could call him. Pops Staples was another one. None of those people had a problem telling me when they thought I was on the wrong track. There was accountability.
Speaking of Pops Staples, you open up the gospel record with “Uncloudy Day,” singing with Mavis Staples and playing Pops’ Telecaster guitar. What was that like?
It’s like having Excalibur in your hand. It’s an instrument of truth. There’s a responsibility that goes with that guitar.
And you continue to feel that responsibility collecting so many other artifacts, instruments and costumes and encouraging others to do the same. Why is that?
It’s been a mission of mine for 40 years now. For the past 12 or 13 years since the Superlatives have been together, the mission statement for me has been that country music as a genre, as an art form, is just as valid out there in the pantheon of the arts as classical, jazz, ballet or whatever. Our artifacts and our treasures are just as important as Dorothy’s red shoes [from The Wizard of Oz], or any other artifact at the Smithsonian. Our artifacts, our recording studios, guitars, manuscripts, costumes, it’s an ongoing story. Those things are more precious than ever before now. I know we’re a Monday morning town; we create the chart every Monday and new stars every week, and that’s great. But that being said, there is no reason to discard former greatness because former greatness is usually better as time goes on, with wisdom. People shouldn’t be punished for their wisdom. It’s unthinkable to me that Merle Haggard would ever be disregarded. But it happens. My point is: move the whole story forward, not just segments of the story or the latest and greatest flavor of the month that comes and goes. Save the treasures of the whole story, revere the people of the whole story. It’s the family of country music.