Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives brought their incomparable brand of rocking country badassery to the Iowa State Fair last night. I think I was already over my self-imposed limit on trips to the Fair this year, but I wasn’t going to miss this one. Stuart’s solo mandolin rendition of Orange Blossom Special alone would have been worth the effort. The other hour-and-a-half filled with rock-steady beats, sweet Telecaster riffing, perfect harmonies, and amazing sequined jackets was all bonus.
This was the third time that Jennifer and I have seen Stuart. The first time was in Des Moines (Toad Holler!) around 2003. I interviewed him before that show and wrote a story that was published in Cityview – or Pointblank; I don’t remember. Anyway, I dug it out and read it today – still good. Have a look:
Marty Stuart is pretty young to have been around forever. At just 44, Stuart is in his fourth decade of performing, and most of his fans can’t remember when he wasn’t making music.
But when a guy gets his first professional gig at the age of 13, that tends to stretch out a career. At the age when most of us were still playing tetherball at recess and planning next year’s Halloween costume, Stuart had the plum job of playing mandolin for legendary bluegrass picker Lester Flatt. That’s like a teenage minor leaguer getting called up to play third base for the Yankees, and things like that just don’t happen.
“It was just a case of getting kicked out of school and my parents letting me go on the weekend trip I always wanted to take,” Stuart jokes.
That weekend trip has also included a six-year stint as guitarist in Johnny Cash’s band. And Stuart has performed with and written songs for the likes of Willie Nelson, George Jones, George Strait, and Buck Owens. Although he isn’t the type to drop names, Stuart admits that that’s pretty good company.
“I grew up genuinely honoring people like that,” he says. “To have crossed paths with such great artists and to have had the chance to make music with them, I’ve been very lucky.”
But as the saying goes, you make your own luck. Stuart’s sheer musicianship, charisma, showmanship, and originality are what have built his fan base and earned him the respect of his peers over the years – not some random alignment of the planets.
Following his tenure with Johnny Cash, Stuart released his first solo album in 1982. A series of albums followed in the ‘80s, though he didn’t break into the top 10 until 1990 with the album “Hillbilly Rock.” Since then, a long string of hits, sequined jackets that would make Porter Waggoner blush, and hair piled higher than Jeannie C. Riley’s have made him one of the most recognizable fixtures on the Nashville scene.
Like many country artists, Stuart benefited from the country music explosion of the ‘90s. Though the increased popularity of country music did produce a lot of watered down, middle-of-the-road wannabes, it did at least lead to more ears tuned to quality artists who might not otherwise have been as widely heard.
Any temptation Stuart had to join the Nashville money grab was short-lived. Instead, he has carved out a unique path that has included trips through rockabilly, blues, bluegrass, and old-time country turf. Although Stuart certainly can’t complain about a lack of record sales, his creative choices have probably kept him from seriously hitting the jackpot.
“I think there’s a certain price to pay for following your heart instead of the parade,” says Stuart. “Any time I’ve followed the parade I’ve gotten myself into trouble. I always admired people like Woody Guthrie, Miles Davis and Bill Monroe. They just did what they wanted to do.”
Like many southern boys of his era, Stuart was exposed to a virtual melting pot of musical styles in his youth that those of us who grew up north of the Mason-Dixon line never even knew about. Stuart credits these diverse influences for helping shape his own varied sound.
“There was a wonderful radio station that I grew up listening to,” Stuart explains. “In the mornings it would play country and gospel. In the afternoon it would play rock-n-roll and soul, and in the evenings it would play easy listening and classical. That’s not bad for one station.”
While Stuart’s music can hardly be described as stone country, he does have a reverence for the past that many of today’s artists, whatever genre, do not. But it would probably be difficult for a guy who has played with some of the industry’s giants to not have a keen sense of history. While he sees modern country drifting farther and farther away from its roots, he doesn’t necessarily think that it’s an unnatural occurrence. The commerce-before-art thinking of the industry powers-that-be is the problem, causing a general lack of creativity in modern popular country music.
“In the ‘50s when Hank Williams was hot, traditionalists thought people like Jimmie Rogers were getting lost,” he says. “It’s just evolution, and with every evolution comes some innovation. I just don’t think there’s any innovation going on right now. There’s not much room for creative license out there. When you listen long enough, you hear good players and good singers. The talent is there, but until this creative freeze ends, the music is going to suffer.”
Stuart’s love for the history of country music led to a collecting bug that started in his youth. He currently possesses one of the largest private collections of country music memorabilia in the world. Many of his pieces are currently on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.
“It just started as a hobby,” Stuart says. “Then one day I was at a Hard Rock Café and saw one of John Lennon’s jackets. I thought, ‘Okay, but where is George Jones’ and Hank Williams’ stuff.’ For me, it’s about helping to preserve the culture, not collecting.”
Stuart has just finished up a new disk that he describes simply as a “good solid country record.” The record will be released in the spring, and Stuart and his band will rev up a full-blown tour shortly thereafter in support. In the meantime, Stuart will be hitting some smaller venues around the country to “see if we can still play.” Stuart also mentions that Des Moines will always be a special place for him, since it was the first place he ever played as a member of Cash’s band.
“We’ll be working in some new songs to warm up the shows,” he says. “Honky tonks are my favorite place to work out. There’s nothing like jumping in cold water and seeing what happens. I love being close to people and getting that reaction.”