Posted February 2020
If you’re a long-time, baby boomer country music fan or are a younger music aficionado who knows great country music when you hear it, then you are, undoubtedly, more than aware of country legend, Marty Stuart.
Whether it’s through his earliest work as a child musical prodigy with Lester Flatt’s Nashville Grass (appearing with the band on Hee Haw at fourteen years old) as well as his work with Vassar Clements, Doc Watson, and Johnny Cash before launching his solo career.
That career encompasses eighteen solo albums, two live albums, a soundtrack album, a ton of compilation albums, and thirty-three singles. This earned him prominent screen time in last year’s acclaimed PBS Ken Burns documentary, Country Music. He’s been a member of the Grand Ole Opry for twenty-eight years and is a member and past president of the Country Music Foundation. The icing on the cake of his life is his lovely wife of twenty-three years, country star, Connie Smith.
Stuart recently added “author” to his list of achievements, with his book entitled, The Pilgrim: A Wall-to-Wall Odyssey. It’s a phenomenal book inspired by his 1999 album, The Pilgrim, that is chock full of photos reflecting his career and his own amazing photographic work taken while on the road.
To chat about the book, I contacted Marty while he was on his tour bus, headed for a show at Chattanooga’s Walker Theatre.
I started my questioning with a comment as to how the book seems to reflect the depths of his heart and where he currently is in his life and asked if I my perception was correct.
“Absolutely. Because, it was, at the time, it was a bold move. Part of the circumstances forced me to do it. But, you know, when you keep getting away with something that keeps working, whether it's right or wrong, you tend to go with it because it's easy. And that kind of played out. And at the end of the 90s, I was kind of forced to either keep going and become a parody of myself or turn around and go back into my heart and remind myself who and what I really believed in and who I think I was set on earth be. So, that sounds like me, me, me, me, me, but that's where I had to go at that moment. And, so, I think what Scott Somar said in the introduction, this book is absolutely true. There was kind of life before The Pilgrim in life after The Pilgrim.
Because of the depth and intensity, I read and felt from the book, it begged the question: Does Marty have a Pilgrim sequel in the works as a result of all this?
“I don't know that there is a sequel to The Pilgrim. It's one of those movies - it's a standalone thing that I can always refer to. And I'd never - even though there was not a lot of commercial success that went around it at the time, I knew the power inside the record and I knew the heart and the soul and the passion and the tears that went into making The Pilgrim and living through it. And I knew that it would come back around. But it was not one of those things where I go, 'I'm going to do The Pilgrim Part Two.' It just didn't work that way. It was too organic to work that way.
“What happened right after The Pilgrim was kind of a good indication because after The Pilgrim, everything kind of fell apart. I came up out of the ashes and put the Fabulous Superlatives together. And, so, we decided to take one more run at country radio and we made a double-minded record. It was on Columbia Records. It was called Country Music. Half the record was reaching for that parade that I was kind of trying to be a part of it. And the other side was reaching toward the heart and soul of the matter. It was a double-minded record. Some songs were really good. And I knew that I had to get on one side of the line or the other after that record.”
Continuing his reflection, Marty shared:
“I was in New York City and I walked into Bleecker Bob's bookstore on Bleecker, the Bleecker Box. There was an Ella Fitzgerald box set. Beautiful! It was linen-covered - lavender-colored with linen fabric and embossed with silver. It just said, ‘Ella Fitzgerald - The Verve Years.’ I bought it just because it was pretty. I didn't buy it for what was in it. But when I opened the box when I got back to Tennessee, there they were: all of Ella Fitzgerald's recordings from the Verve label. It was eleven things, Porgy and Bess. Ella sings with Louis Armstrong. Ella does this. Ella does that. Here's the Christmas record.
“I thought, 'Wow! Right there is how a musical life should- might ought to be lived.' And I have always remembered that box set that I still have. And whether it was The Pilgrim and after The Pilgrim, I don't think there has been any missteps there. You know, there came Soul's Chapel, then Badlands, Live at the Ryman, Way Out West, Compadres. It's all been meaningful stuff that I could listen to without coughin' at any point. But it was still The Pilgrim that lit the fuse on that and became a way of life after The Pilgrim.”
I asked Stuart to share what the book itself is all about.
“Well, The Pilgrim, as far as who I am, I don't know. If you're a mandolin player, I'm a mandolin player. I'm a guitar player. But I think what I have become without trying is just - I’ve lived long enough that I think I'm one of the touchstone figures of the culture of country music. I think I'm one of the go-to people for the world of authentic country music. I'll buy that. I can back that up. And The Pilgrim was a record that happened in 1999, 20 years ago. That was a return after a long commercial voyage - an incredible run - back to the heart and soul, to the bedrock, the timeless place, to a timeless place in country music. Authenticity. As every evolving artist reaching for his roots and his true self, the authentic self buried within, I suppose. There was a lot of heartbreak and disappointment when the record didn't work. But, you know, the lesson in it for all of us is sometimes you have to wait around for things. So, my friend Tom Allen said in this book, I think he said sometimes paintings don't sell the first go ‘round. Monet, whoever. So, this is a painting that didn't quite sell the first go ‘round, but it comes back 20 years later. It teaches us all that authenticity and the real stuff that comes from the heart usually finds its mark however long it takes one. Is that good enough?
I thought the cover had a bit of a Stevie Ray Vaughan vibe going on with it. I asked Stuart if that was intentional or just him being him.
“Aw, that's just me wearing black clothes. And, you know, it looked a whole lot more Edwardian than Stevie Ray Vaughan to me, at the time. You know, The Pilgrim was this character that I had to makeup; a black hat; I don't know why I thought of a cape. But a lonesome character making his way through the world, you know, covering up his pain and misery.”
What section or chapter of The Pilgrim would Marty point to as a calling card for the entire book?
“Well, you know, I know that there's a true book buried inside me somewhere and I keep puttin' out books with a whole lot of pictures so I don't have to sit down and write the book. For a true music fan, the photographs alone in this book are, alone - out of the archives - are worth the price of admission. But as far as the story goes, I think you could look at Billy Bob Thornton's intro or what Johnny Cash advised me to do after the record failed; or you could look at the first chapter that talks about Memphis and what it was all about. Perhaps that would do it. Or, if you're a guitar collector, just the guitars there in the back of the book that we used on the record is pretty cool.
The book includes a re-mastered copy of its CD namesake. Why?
“I think that music was the entire story was - I think I alluded to in the book - in my mind, it started out as just one - a big ol' song, but it turned into a bit of a Shakespearean opera. And my friend, Jack Clement, though, great old record producer made a comment one day. He said, 'I promise you that Shakespeare would have been a great George Jones fan.' Ha! Ha! That kinda took me to a place like this. It's kind of a tragedy, a classical tragedy, in a sense. It needed voices along the way, in my opinion, to move the story forward. So, I just got my phone book and called my friends. And they came by EmmyLou and George Jones and Connie Smith and Johnny Cash and Pam Tillis, Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs. They all came by to help me get the project taken care of.
About the current state of country music, I asked Marty if he felt that the business was broken and, if so, (and if he was made “country music czar”), what would he do to fix it.
“Is it broken? No. It's doing the same thing it did in 1930. I read a review somewhere along the way from the mid-thirties, once upon a time, in a trade magazine about a Bill Monroe record that had just come out and he had taken a Jimmie Rodgers song and sped it up to a breakneck tempo. He sang in a high voice. And I think that review went something like what is this: ‘Is country music crashing? Is hillbilly music crashing and burning?’
“Now, this man has taken a sacred Jimmie Rodgers song and singing in the voice of a woman, playing at a breakneck L-R: Jerry Lee Lewis Carl Perkins Marty Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison Photo Courtesy of Marty Stuart
tempo that no one can listen to, you know? So, the question of what's happening to country music goes back that far. Old-Time fiddle bands thought it went to hell when they brought drums to the Grand Ole Opry and Ernest Tubb brought in an electric guitar. So, you know, that's the deal. We all have our points in which we think it's authentic and that speaks to us. So, if you look at the modern chart, I think it's doing the same thing now that's been spoken all along.
“It's a little bit more unrecognizable now because it's a little more homogenized if not a whole lot more homogenized than I think it's ever been. If I were the czar, I would probably just say take it back to the original blueprint to where you go to the Bristol sessions. The Bristol sessions had gospel music; it had fiddle things and they had your bawdy tunes and they had the Carter family. They had a little bit of everything. And I think that's what country music - the world of country music - still is. The beauty of it is now, it's big enough that whatever you truly believe in, as far as the music goes, there is a space for you. I think if you if you just look at the CMA Awards and what happens at CMAFest; and if that's what country music is to you, you're just getting started because there's a vast world that goes beyond that. I wish we could level it out for the masses where everybody had a bit more voice. So, that’s what I would do is level it out.
Click Above To Donate To The Congress of Country Music!Fans know that Marty hosted The Marty Stuart Show on cable TV’s RFD-TV. The channel still runs the re-runs but I wanted to know if there are any plans for new episodes of the TV show.
“Different TV show. We did 156 episodes of that particular one and called it ‘Mission Accomplished’. I’m working on this cultural center down in Mississippi, the Congress of Country Music. It's my hillbilly presidential library. So, if you're going to be in the backwoods of any state, you must broadcast. We're working on a TV show right now. That will be based around the artifacts and the collection and tell and go from there. Cool stories. Yeah.”
A reader submitted a couple of questions. One of them asked what Marty would’ve done had he not pursued his career in country music and is there anyone Stuart’s wanted to work with that he hasn’t, yet.
His answer to the first question: “Either with my own florist or in jail. I don't know, man! I could have had a photography studio. But I'm glad country-music was there.”
As for the second question, Marty answered: “Well, I've worked with pretty much everybody I ever wanted to. But there's an artist that I've never met and I really admire the quality of her work and the quality of her voice. That's Norah Jones. And, so, I just think Nora's a real artist for real.”
As a prolific musician and accomplished guitarist, I wondered if there were any guitars that he considered to be the Holy Grail of guitars.
“Well, concerning country music, there's two. One is Mother Maybelle Carter's guitar, which is in the process jewels exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame. And the other one is Jimmie Rodgers guitar that hangs in a vault in Meridian, Mississippi at the Jimmie Rodgers Museum. Concerning country music in my mind, there's those two guitars. Then there's everything else.”
Wrapping up our chat, I asked the country music legend how he wanted to be remembered and what he hopes his legacy will be.
“Well, I think I think the truest thing I could say to you is that he finally found something that he believed in with all of his heart and, then, he followed his heart at any cost to get the job done without compromise. And I hope I could be true to that.”