Multitalented Mississippi-born Marty Stuart is one of the last true hillbillies in Nashville. Picked by Clarence White to be in Lester Flatt's band when he was only 12 years old, Stuart also toured with Johnny Cash for years.
He eventually went solo and was seen by some as Nashville's answer to West Coast boy Dwight Yoakam. While Stuart had periodic mainstream success with hits like "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'" and "Hillbilly Rock," he eventually gave up on being a radio hitmaker and returned to his hard-country roots. Today he owns one of the largest private collections of country-music memorabilia in the world.
Later this month, Stuart is set to release his eighteenth album, Nashville Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down (Sugar Hill); it's filled with the monster hooks and hot licks that have been the hallmarks of his finest work. Saturday he performs in Conroe with his band the Fabulous Superlatives as well as backing his wife, headliner and recent Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Connie Smith.
Chatter: You were in Johnny Cash's road band for years. What's one memory that said to you, "Yeah, he's the man."
Marty Stuart: We were on tour in Europe right about the end of the Cold War. We pulled up to the Czechoslovakian border and when the border guards found out it was Johnny Cash, they wouldn't let us go on unless Johnny played them a song.
So, of course, he got out his guitar and played them a song. That whole international border was shut down while all the guys working there stood around and watched John, and I just thought, "Man, he's worldwide."
C: You've stood your ground trying to turn back the tsunami of pop-country. What was the final straw that broke the camel's back for you and made you take total control of your career and business?
MS: Several things. [1999 album] The Pilgrim was really my line-in-the-sand record. I wasn't happy with how my art and my legacy were shaping up at that point, and that record was an attempt to get back to the real thing. It also had to do with some conversations Johnny and I had before he died, where he said if you're going to be a country singer and country songwriter, you can't be all things to all people.
You can't be real and true if you're trying to adapt yourself and your music for an audience, you've got to play the music as real as you can based on your feelings, not on what some label guy wants you to do based on some statistics.
Another factor is all of the artifacts and treasures I've collected. When I look at that stuff, I see what it stands for. I get that I'm part of a long and valuable tradition, and I don't want to get away from that in my music.
C: You're one of the more flamboyant dressers in Nashville. Where does your fashion sense come from?
MS [Laughs]: A $20 dollar bill. Just pull one out and look at Andrew Jackson. I love walking through state capitols and looking at all the old statesmen. That has for some reason always had a big effect on me.
C: What was your first thought when you found out Connie had been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame?
MS [Laughs]: That it's about time. I'm just elated that it's happened. But Connie always said she wanted Jean Shepard to go in first, and they finally took care of that, so it all worked out just right.
C: Your TV show, The Marty Stuart Show, is always described as a throwback, something like The Porter Wagoner Show. What's the artistic idea behind that operation?
MS: For me, it's just about being real, doing the music I really believe in and featuring some other performers who do it right. To have it compared to Porter's show is icing on the cake.
C: More than any other current Nashville band, your band just tears it up. And you seem to be able to switch gears effortlessly, to do bluegrass like "Tear the Woodpile Down" one minute and drop into your patented hillbilly boogie the next.
MS: Those guys [guitarist Kenny Vaughan, drummer Harry Stinson, bassist Paul Martin] are so good. I always tell people you can aim that band in any direction and hit the target.
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C: Who is one of your favorite up-and-comers we may not be aware of?
MS: I love the Quebe Sisters. That's pure, unadulterated talent, there's nothing calculated about them. They just love playing Western swing. I like that kind of integrity, people who play their music and let the chips fall where they may instead of always calculating how to be liked. You can't teach being real.
C: You definitely made a conscious decision not to be part of the Nashville mainstream. What has that done for you?
MS: It's freed me to do what I was put here to do, which is to play honest, genuine country music. Me and the guys in the band are always cuttin' up and telling each other, "Really, it's okay to play country music in Nashville."