Marty Stuart still savoring ‘blessed journey’

Country-bluegrass legend riding new album into Albany tonight

“The day Lester Flatt offered me a job, he said, ‘It’s not about coming to Nashville, taking all the money and fame, and running away. It’s about treating people right along the way.’ I was 13 when he told me that, and he was right.”

Marty Stuart defies categorization with his guitar playing, singing and songwriting, offering fans satisfaction akin to their favorite music genre, be it traditional or contemporary country, blues or Americana. He’s among rare artists such as Johnny Cash and Ray Charles, who effortlessly crossed over.

“I’m from the state of Mississippi, so everything down there comes from the blues,” says Stuart about crossing over. “I think it actually comes from the church, but everything down there has a tinge of the blues. As you and I both know, if it’s worth a shit, if its reasonable, it has the blues. And I think first and foremost there’s such a razor-thin line between the most profound country artists and the most profound blues artists. 

Photo by Jim Gilbert

“If you listen to George Jones, he’s nothing but a white blues singer. You listen to the recordings of Bill Monroe, the Bluegrass Boys, the greatest of bluegrass is kind of the blues. Everything I do has a blues tinge.”  

Stuart recalls putting together his first band.

“I knew I had a band that was cultural visionaries depending on the situation. I was reminded of a photograph I saw when I was a kid of Louis Armstrong playing his trumpet in Egypt. He had his tuxedo on. That man could play his horn and represent jazz anywhere he went on planet Earth, and he was known for that.” 

It’s not that such artists as Armstrong or Stuart set out to defy categories, but rather that they ignore the “rules of the road” that say you have to color within the lines of a certain style to climb the charts. Bluesman Bobby Rush calls it crisscrossing over. In Rush’s case, he crisscrosses between an African-American fan base and the more pervasive white market. Stuart, on the other hand, has the rare ability to take the fundamentals of his first inspiration – to become a traditional country musician – as a springboard to a career that goes beyond performing.  

“I always wanted to meet John Lee Hooker and we were [near] where John Lee was working. I got my camera and got myself backstage at John Lee’s show, and when John Lee came in the room he was in a wheelchair and he had a couple of Amazon white girls pushing his wheelchair. He looked at me and said, ‘We gotta keep the blues alive.’ 

Photo by Jim Gilbert

“That’s the kicker. In the early ’60s/mid-’60s, they [Bobby Rush and Buddy Guy] played to 40 people some nights and they had to borrow money to get out of town. The father of bluegrass Bill Monroe left this world knowing there were bluegrass festivals all over the world, that there were generations of kids coming on that would continue to play his songs.  

“So, when you get guys like John Lee and Bill Monroe, Buddy Guy, those kind of characters, they’re all the same guy, the same kind of person. The stories are the same in lot of ways, but the big news is the kids out there were going to keep playing it, and that’s what it’s all about.” 

Stuart is a collector of country memorabilia. He owns the largest acknowledged private collection of its kind in the United States, with 20,000 different items. But does that make him a hoarder or a collector? 

“I think the word is preservationist. There are 20,000 items and they’re all Smithsonian-quality, truly. [I have] the handwritten Hank Williams “Cold Cold Heart.”

He also has Johnny Cash’s first black performance case.

“I bought culture. I bought history,” Stuart said. “You find old movie costumes and old guitars or whatever. And that’s where my heart was. I didn’t look at it as an investment. I just thought of it as protecting our culture, just things nobody else cared about at that time.” 

“Altitude” is Stuart’s new album, recorded with his band the Fabulous Superlatives, which will back him at The Egg for tonight’s show. On it, he sings: “That’s a place/That’s real to me/ I’ve wanted a lifetime/To get to go and see/This world unto itself/Where all that’s old is new/A land beyond the sun/Known as altitude.” 

Photo by Jim Gilbert

“We have such a disposable mentality and I think America has always been a guilty of that,” Stuart said. “We’re a lot guiltier these days, but I can’t live like that. When I was in Johnny Cash’s band, I knew Johnny Cash would blow up again, and he did. I can’t live by the standard of throw things away like that. I lay down my heart, and if nobody comes and nobody buys it, I don’t give a shit because I know I’m true to my heart. 

“I went through a lot. As long as I was working for somebody else it was great. When I started my own band, I had to go from the top of the world to the bottom and work my way up with a whole bunch of time in the middle. So it’s an earned existence, but I was blessed. It’s been a blessed journey. I wish every kid could have the upbringing that I’ve had. I have access to the masters. And they all enriched my life, and they gave me life that I carry to this moment.”

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