Marty Stuart: Keeping the legacy alive

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Marty Stuart

Marty Stuart joins me on zoom dressed all in black, a scarf round his neck and a cowboy hat on his head. In the background, hangs a large copy of the cover of his 2005 album, ‘Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota’. I first met Stuart in 2017 at Country 2 Country Festival in London. It was my first year in the press conferences that had been mostly quiet all weekend until it was time for Stuart’s. The room was packed with media, all vying to ask him something. My hand, shaking like a leaf, was raised as they called for one last question. Quiet as a mouse I asked how his mindset changed from being the front man to playing in someone else’s band. He simply replied, with a smile, something along the lines of, “Good question, it doesn’t really, it’s all about the song. We don’t matter, we’re just the vehicles that deliver it.”  

As he went to exit the room, the media rushed to take pictures with him and sign autographs. He made his way through the crowd, shook my hand and said, “Well done, kid.” That was around the time I decided that Marty Stuart was the nicest man in music. Since, I have learnt of how other artists respect him, how they look up to him and in some cases owe him for their starts in the industry. His late night jam in 2019, just before CMA Fest showed just what a precious gem he is within country music as he honours the traditions of the genre whilst promoting those just breaking into the scene. 

 

Now, Stuart sits alongside the legends whose legacy he tries to keep alive, in the Country Music Hall of Fame and as he celebrates this achievement he reflects on where it all began; “I started my first band when I was nine. But to be honest with you, I was practicing my autograph in the third grade. So that might be the path I was looking for. You could read it back then, you can’t read it anymore – terrible penmanship.” He laughs. 

Stuart began his career playing guitar for Lester Flatt back in the early 70’s when Stuart was just a teenager. He went on to play for the likes of Johnny Cash, who was a huge part of his life and career and first went solo in the 1980’s. A true icon of the genre that has dabbled in TV, hosting his own show in 2008, and frequently collaborated with his peers, was deserving of a spot in the hall for his own music but furthermore for his contributions to the music of his peers. Stuart struggled to put into words what the honour meant to him, “I just think the very fact that the work that me and the band and the crew do has been recognised at that level and it stands there alongside names like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline and Connie Smith, there’s a validation to it that that just gives me a heartfelt kind of satisfaction. It’s the eternal zone of country music. It has nothing to do with trend. It has nothing to do with charts, or demographics or anything like that. It has to do with a life and a body of work. That’s pretty profound.” 

The ceremony, which took place on November 21st 2021 saw Stuart welcomed alongside Hank Williams Jr and Dean Dillon but it was Stuart’s wife, the great Connie Smith who did the honours of inducting him. “I can tell you what meant the most to me is the fact that Connie got to be the one to induct me, from a heartfelt perspective – that’s as good as it gets.” Back in August, Smith released her first record in 13 years, ‘The Cry of the Heart’ and speaking with her back then, I knew Stuart was instrumental in the making of that. 

“Well, I get to be Mr. Connie Smith and that’s pretty cool.” He begins with a smile. He played guitar on the record, helped produce it and wrote several songs on it as well. “She’s my favourite country singer – they don’t make voices like Connie’s anymore. I think she and Dolly are arguably the last two girls standing, from that era, that still bring it and put on a profound performance. Connie’s voice is special, it’s not to be taken lightly.” Stuart is as passionate about Smith’s new record as he is about his own releases, if not more so! “I love the dance, that’s what I call it, of going to help her figure out songs, then arrangements, then booking studio time, and then putting the band together. Then getting inside the studio and mixing it up and recording. Then there’s the photos, finding a partner at the record label to promote it. I love the whole dance with her because it’s not just another record that’s coming out of Nashville, it’s a recording from a very treasured artist, and from an artist who represents another point in time who is just as current as anybody else. Her authenticity cuts across all those boundaries. To be a part of that, in any capacity, is indeed an honour.” His words, heartfelt and sincere, bring a tear to the eye. Their love story is perhaps one of the most beautiful within country music.  

During the pandemic, Marty Stuart began his own project too, ‘Songs I Sing In The Dark’. “When we came home from the road as a band as the pandemic begun, we found ourselves with a year and a half off.” Stuart explains, as he dives into the projects he worked on during lockdown. “The first thing we did is we finished up two records, so we have two records ready to go besides ‘Songs I Sing, they are band records. I asked our engineer Mick Conley to join me at our old home. I always wanted to do a record like this, that was just very quiet, ballad orientated songs that I truly sing to myself at the end of the day. It’s a bit of a rescue mission for some songs, that may have got lost along the way, shining the light on some great writers. It seemed like a good opportunity to do it.” Stuart has been releasing the songs slowly, individually in a unique way, “I think we’re up to number nine or 10 of 20 songs recorded, but I think it’s been a good outing, and I’ve enjoyed it.” 

Some of the songs included on the project go back years, it’s another way that Stuart is honouring his roots and giving a nod to those who inspired him in his younger days. “It’s the most important thing. I see myself sometimes as almost a bridge figure. Because the old timers, there’s not very many of them left that raised me and gave me my start, but it was important to me to make sure that they were honoured, first and foremost.” He says, a serious expression on his face. As I said at the very beginning though, he is the first to turn around and offer a helping hand to the younger generation of artists, writers, producers and musicians and he shares this responsibility with his wife. “The most important thing, if traditional country music is to go forward, is to get it into the hands, the hearts and the souls of the next generation of people. Connie and I both keep an eye out for young songwriters, guitar players, singers, managers, whatever it is, that we can give a word of encouragement to, because it’s important to pass this along, or it gets left behind.” 

One such band that Marty Stuart has supported over the years is the UK’s very own The Wandering Hearts, the first UK band to debut at both the Ryman Auditorium and the Grand Ole Opry in the same week! The group performed in 2018 at Marty Stuart’s Late Night Jam at the Ryman and have worked with him extensively over the last few years. Their latest record went to number one on the official UK Americana charts and is nominated for Album of the Year at the Americana awards, held later this month. Stuart played and wrote for that record alongside Connie Smith. “I got to play on a song on their new record and there is a song that Connie and I wrote called ‘Dreams’. I love those people.” He says enthusiastically.   

Marty Stuart also has the biggest country music memorabilia collection outside of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and plans on opening a cultural centre in his home state of Mississippi called the Congress of Country Music. “There’s 20,000 items: There’s Hank Williams lyrics, Johnny Cash’s first black suit, the boots Patsy Cline was wearing when she lost her life, Merle Haggard’s best guitar. They’re all important, they’re all my favourites.” Stuart says, talking us through some of the priceless artefacts that shall be on display when the centre opens. 

“It’s a cultural centre that I’m developing in my hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi, that goes alongside several other cultural centres throughout the state, that champion the blues and rock and roll, but this is a country music spot.” He says, enthusiastically. “It’s an educational centre and a performance space. Phase one is under construction right now, which is the renovation of the old theatre in town. So there’s a good bit more money to raise, and we build as we raise the money because we don’t want to start up in debt. Once it’s up and running, you are invited to come along.” Stuart continues as he ponders about the significance of it being in his home state, “You’re a good example, it’s going out to the world to touch people’s hearts and lives all over. So to be able to come to Mississippi and feel it in a hometown atmosphere, is really beautiful. I think you’ll enjoy it.” 

There will also, no doubt, be many photographs of various stars in the Congress of Country Music due to Stuart’s passion for photography! “My mother is my favourite photographer. My mum had a great eye. There was always a camera around our house growing up, there was always great photographs, family snapshots, that were informal, but yet they had a beautiful, elegant kind of quality about them.” Stuart reflected fondly on the family shots around the house. “The first time I went to New York City, when I was in Lester Flatt’s band, I think I was 14, I went into a bookstore, and I found a book of beautiful photographs of jazz musicians. I found out it was taken by a bass player named Milt Hinton. And Mr. Hinton carried his bass in one hand and his camera in the other. What made his photographs so unique is that he had unparalleled access to all the great people in jazz. They reminded me a little bit of my mum’s photographs in the sense that they were very formal, but informal, there was an insider’s perspective, a family perspective. I thought I can do this with country music now. I went outside of that bookstore and called my mum down in Mississippi, and asked her to send me a camera. Then I proceeded to take pictures. I’ve always said, if the house was smoking, I would probably grab the photographs first.” 

At the end of the day it all comes down to one thing – creativity. “Honestly, whatever’s in front of me, I love the act of creating. If it’s writing a song, hosting a show, fronting a band, or playing inside the band, producing records, producing television shows, making books or museum exhibits, it all amounts to the same umbrella to me – creativity. I love to create every day of my life.”   

In summer, Marty Stuart will once again make the trip over to England, as he plays The Long Road festival. “I love England. I love the people. I always say the European audience understands America’s creative legacy a whole lot more than American people do. You guys inspire me. I love bringing country music to people who don’t get to see it every day. I think that’s what I feel in the audience, there’s an appreciation, it makes for a better show and I love seeing that. It is continuing to grow, so it’s nice to come back with some new projects. It’s nice to come back with a victory or two, here or there, to share with everybody. There’s a wind in our sail that we may not have had the last time.” 

Stuart has an exciting 2022 planned as he prepares to release the various projects he’s been working on. “There’s a number of new albums coming, there is an album called ‘Altitudes’, there’s a 20 Song Instrumental, original record and ‘Songs I Sing In The Dark’. So figuring out how to release those over the next few months is going to be interesting. Connie Smith has four more songs to record. She’ll have another record ready to go.”  

Despite reaching the highest honour within country music – induction into the Hall of Fame – Marty Stuart continues to keep his foot on the accelerator as he continues to bridge that gap between the past and future. Keeping the legacy alive whilst encouraging it’s growth. 

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