Singer, songwriter, guitarist, mandoiinist
Marty Stuart is a man with a mission. The satin-and-rhinestone-clad country rocker aims to build on country’s roots and bring an authentic hillbilly look and sound back to Nashville. An accomplished instrumentalist, Stuart has forged a path through the country ranks with a series of infectious hits such as “Hillbilly Rock” and “Little Things.” He explained in the Richmond Times-Dispatch that his work is based on a fusion of bluegrass, vintage rock, and Western swing. “What I have a passion to do is to take what I’ve learned in the past with the masters and bridge it into the future,” he said. “I’m crusading for hillbilly music.”
Indeed he is; name a country or bluegrass master and chances are Stuart has played in that artist’s band. At the age of 13, he was regularly performing with blue-grass pioneer Lester Flatt and he spent much of the late 1970s touring with Johnny Cash. Stuart has also done extensive studio work, backing up rockers Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Billy Joel, in addition to a multitude of country artists. The multitalented Stuart even coproduced an album for the Sullivans, a gospel work that earned critical acclaim.
As a solo artist, Stuart has earned a measure of uniqueness with his passion for the flashiest stage attire he can borrow, buy, or collect from past country greats. The performer confessed in Country America that his fancy stage clothes are “uniforms.” He contended, “[Clothes] transform you. In my case, they turn me into a hillbilly singer. When I get on my bus and put on these clothes, I can almost feel something coming together.” Entertainment Weekly writer Kate Meyers raved, “Marty Stuart reeks of style. Country style.” Stuart outlined his key to success: “The four things a hillbilly singer needs are a Cadillac, a Nudie [cowboy] suit, the right hairdo, and a pair of pointy-toed boots.” And don’t forget about the hair; curious about his massive pompadour, Meyers wondered, “What does it take to achieve such a resplendent coiffure?” The answer, according to Stuart: “About four minutes, a 60-mile-an-hour wind, a $1 hairbrush, and an 87-cent can of Aqua Net.”
Marty Stuart grew up in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the grandson of a fiddler. A good deal of his youth was spent in front of the television, absorbing every country music show he saw. Porter Wagoner, Ernest Tubb, and the Wilburn Brothers ranked among Stuart’s favorites, but one duo stood out in his mind. “My next-door neighbor got me a guitar when I was 4 or 5,” he recounted in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “and I used to stand in front of the TV pretending I was playing along with Flatt and Scruggs.”
For the Record…
Bom John Marty Stuart, September 30, 1958, in Philadelphia, MS; married Cindy Cash (divorced).
Singer, songwriter, guitarist, and mandolinist. Joined gospel bluegrass group the Sullivan Family, c. 1970; toured with bluegrass band Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass, 1972-79; toured with Johnny Cash, 1980-86; studio musician for artists including Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, Billy Joel, Waylon Jennings, and Bob Dylan; solo artist, 1982—; released debut album, Ridge Runner, 1982; performed with Travis Tritt on No Hats Tour, 1992. Appeared in documentary Let There Be Country, 1987. Coproduced Jerry and Tammy Sullivan’s gospel album A Joyful Noise, 1991.
Awards: With Travis Tritt, Country Music Association award for vocal event of the year, 1992 for No Hats Tour, and Grammy Award for best country music collaboration, 1993, for “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’.”
Addresses: Publicist —Summer Harman, Gurley & Co, 1101 17th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212. Fan club— Marty Stuart Fan Club, P.O. Box 67, St. Croix, WI 54024-0067.
Landed Major Gig
Many children have indulged in such fantasies, but for Stuart, they became a reality. By the time he reached 12 years of age, Stuart had so progressed on both the guitar and the mandolin that he was hired to tour with the Sullivan Family, a gospel group. The stage experience and consequent exposure to other musicians helped young Stuart hone his skills. That summer, Stuart and his father journeyed to the famous Bean Blossom bluegrass festival in Indiana. There Stuart met his hero, Lester Flatt, and befriended a member of Flatt’s band, the Nashville Grass. “It was hard going back to school after all that,” he admitted in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “I’d learned that summer that I could get paid for playing music, the girls liked it, I could let my hair grow, and sleep late in the morning.”
Stuart took a quick trip to Nashville, where he jammed with Flatt’s sidemen; Flatt overheard the youngster and invited him to join the band. Looking back Stuart remarked, “It was sort of a novelty—this old guy with this young kid—but the novelty was that I was so young and could really play.” The 13-year-old dropped out of school and became a full-fledged professional musician, playing to crowds at the Grand Ole Opry and other venues. “My parents were very skeptical about letting me go,” he held in the Richmond Times-Dis-patch, “but they met with Lester and he assured them that he would assume all responsibility for me doing my schoolwork and sending most of my money home to go in the bank. Lester being who he was, they agreed. I don’t think it would’ve happened if it had been the Rolling Stones.”
Flatt proved to be an excellent role model, teaching Stuart a sure philosophy that has since served him well. “Lester used to preach to me about building a slow foundation so you have something to fall back on in a cold season,” Stuart summed up in the Chicago Tribune. “I thought it best that I become a band member and do this right, and grow up and get the knowledge from the people that invented this music around here. So perhaps when I’m 28, 30 years old, I can give my solo career a chance. It won’t be burned out. And that’s kind of the way it worked.”
Played With Greats
After playing with Flatt for several years, Stuart branched out. He did some bluegrass fusion work with fiddle great Vassar Clements; then he toured extensively with Johnny Cash, who was his father-in-law at the time. In 1982 Stuart released an album with bluegrass label Sugar Hill. Busy Bee Cafe featured Cash, Earl Scruggs, and Doc Watson in a bluegrass extravaganza. The work was a critical success, but sales were modest. Stuart kept busy in the studio, working for Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings.
Stuart switched to CBS Records and released a self-titled album that indicated the direction he planned to take his solo work. He told the Wichita Eagle: “When I got a record deal in ’85 with CBS, I saw that country music was becoming more video-oriented. There used to be a lot more color around here, with the fancy suits, but Willie [Nelson] and Waylon [Jennings] changed that. That’s OK; it was a new time. But I like it. I went out and bought every Nudie suit I could get my hands on. I got the musicians’ union directory and called and asked people to sell me their old suits. I bought some, and they gave me some. They’re art pieces to me.” Flamboyancy wasn’t enough to help Marty Stuart crack the market, however.
Depression settled in as Stuart not only endured problems with his record company, but witnessed the breakup of his five-year marriage to Cindy Cash. Rather than let his troubles weigh him down for good, Stuart initiated his own cure; “I went to see my mother,” he confessed in Country Music. “My motto is ’When in doubt, go see Momma, “cause I’m a card-carrying Momma’s boy.” His mother suggested he rediscover his roots. Such poignant advice led Stuart back to Mississippi, where he found the strength to continue.
Jumping labels again, Stuart joined MCA in 1989 and produced Hillbilly Rock, a rootsy, good-natured romp. That album languished too, until the title track caught on in the summer of 1990—thanks in no small part to a music video featuring Stuart in his vintage stage garb and oversized pompadour haircut. The title track, written by Stuart, pays tribute to the rural roots of rock in classic dance-hall style. “Hillbilly Rock” was the first song by Stuart to make the country Top 10. Even so, Country Music’s Bob Allen acknowledged being puzzled: “It’s still a mystery to me why Hillbilly Rock... didn’t make more waves.” As a bit of consolation, Allen noted, “For whatever it’s worth, George Bush requested a copy of Hillbilly Rockio play on Air Force One [the presidential jet].
Scored With Tempted
Not to be discouraged, Stuart released Tempted in 1991. The album featured a duet between Stuart and fellow “country boy” Travis Tritt. Stuart didn’t have anyone in mind when he wrote “The Whisky Ain’t Workin’” and he had never met Tritt before they got together for the song. The collaboration was kind of an accident, Stuart having chosen Tritt because, according to a Tune In interview, “I really like his voice.” The twosome struck paydirt, however, when they chose to tour together under the auspices of the No Hats Tour. Stuart elaborated, saying in the same interview, “It’s not that we have anything against singers with hats. We wish we could, but we can’t find hats big enough for our hair!” In a more serious vein, Stuart commented, “I think that we have a little maverick in us, and there’s a lot of renegade in both of us—those kinds of rules will make you work together. And hey, we are headed in the same direction.”
They truly were; “The Whisky Ain’t Workin’,” co-written with Ronnie Scaife, went to Number One on the country singles chart and Stuart’s album went Top 10. Country Music noted, “[Tempted] is the first contemporary country album to do a superb job of playing to the marketplace—it delivers five or six killer mainstream radio hits—while also seizing the neglected reins of country’s historically strongest stalking horses and making that buggy run.” Critics and fans alike were thrilled by Stuart’s brand of country.
The follow-up, This One’s Gonna Hurt, was described by Entertainment Weekly’s Alanna Nash as “the record he was born to make.” Nash went on to report, “Stuart achieves a nearly flawless integration of Southern rock, pop, bluegrass, blues, honky-tonk, rockabilly, and boogie.” She also applauded his “energy, wit, and soulful mandolin....” Jack Hurst of the Chicago Tribune deemed the work “one of those albums knowledgeable critics look back at in 25 years or so and designate [as] one of the field’s most important.” For his part, press materials quoted Stuart as saying, “I’ve been aching to make a deep, deep mark that will sound off around the world for country music. I love every note of this album. I feel like I’ve done my job.”
Since then Stuart has become a favorite on the country circuit, an honor for someone who is viewed as “the most ardent fan country music could hope for,” according to Country Music’s Patrick Carr. In fact Stuart has set about writing a script for an upcoming documentary. The film will capture life on the road and will feature artists he has worked with in the past.
For the present, the singer-songwriter continues defending hillbilly music as a viable modern form. He asserted in the Chicago Tribune: “The only thing I’ve ever wanted to do my whole life is play country music, and that’s all I’ve ever done. Sometimes the energy that is in my music gets confused with rock ’n’ roll. To me, I hear more bluegrass than anything. Bluegrass is just a revved-up form of picking.” Hillbilly, he told Country America, doesn’t necessarily mean hick. “I was watching reruns of old country music shows from the Sixties the other day,” he said. “The set in the TV studio had a front porch, fake flowers, hay bales, wagon wheels and a singer. That’s what a lot of people still think Nashville is.” Stuart concluded, “I got news for you. We’re as hip down here as you can get.”
Marty, With a Little Help From My Friends, Ridge Runner, 1977.
Busy Bee Cafe, Sugar Hill, 1982.
Marty Stuart, CBS, 1986, reissued, 1992.
Hillbilly Rock (includes “Hillbilly Rock”), MCA, 1989.
Tempted (includes “Little Things” and “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’”), MCA, 1991.
This One’s Gonna Hurt You, MCA, 1992.
Let There Be Country (recorded in 1987), Columbia, 1992.
Vaughan, Andrew, Who’s Who in New Country Music, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Atlanta Journal, July 20, 1991.
Chicago Tribune, August 10, 1990; October 27, 1991.
Country America, October 1990.
Country Music, July/August 1985; September/October 1985; September/October 1986; January/February 1990; March/April 1991; May/June 1991; July/August 1992; November/December 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, July 24, 1992; September 18, 1992.
Guitar Player, September 1986; December 1986.
Los Angeles Times, January 15, 1992.
Nashville Banner, May 1, 1992.
New York Times, July 12, 1992.
People, November 16, 1992.
Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 10, 1991, April 12, 1991.
Stereo Review, April 1990; October 1992.
Tune In, February 1992.
Washington Post, March 13, 1991.
Wichita Eagle, November 30, 1990.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from MCA Records press materials, Gurley and Co. publicity materials, and the Marty Stuart Fan Club, 1992.
—Anne Janette Johnson and Lorna Mabunda
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