Marty Stuart

Marty StuartMarty 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.”

 

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The Mavericks

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Most of us who have been listening to a lot of music for a long time will tell you that it was much better in “our day.” It’s inevitable, I think. The music of our youth – when we were more carefree and hanging with their friends on hot summer nights with cassettes spinning on a boom box or in a car stereo (or 45s on a turntable, for you folks who are even older than I am) – will always stand the test of time for most of us. But the more we talk about the good old days and revile the music the kids are playing, the more we sound like old fogies.

I suppose I’ve been pitching my tent more and more in Camp Fogey for a while. Quite a bit of the “new music” –  I just don’t understand; or don’t like; or both. But I didn’t really comprehend much of the popular music back in my day, either, so I don’t worry about it too much. Still, if all a guy ever listens to is his old record collection, things can get a little stale.

That’s why I’m glad The Mavericks are out there.  The Mavericks have been around for 25 years and I’ve been listening to them for most of that time, so they are hardly a new band. But since their reunion in 2012, they have recorded two excellent albums and have toured and traveled farther than Vasco da Gama – and they sound as fresh as ever.

The first incarnations of the band in the ‘90s made headway into country radio with some hits and even garnered CMA and Grammy awards, but were still a little, well, maverick, compared to other country acts at the time. This latest band lineup has taken their genre bending to new levels. With their crunching guitars, raucous horns, spicy accordion, swaying beats, and the incomparable Raul Malo on vocals, they are a rocking Tex-Mex explosion that swings harder than Mickey Mantle on a windy day. Country radio won’t have then anymore, but the Americana scene is eating them up.

And their live show is the stuff of legend. Jennifer and I have seen them six times now – the latest being last Saturday night at Knuckleheads in Kansas City. Every time we see them they look (and sound) like they are having the best time they have ever had. You can’t fake that. Life on the road for a travelling band is hard, so you can’t blame anybody for a sub-par performance – but The Mavericks just never have one.

Back in the day I went to as many live shows as I could and usually didn’t let mileage or having to get up early the next morning discourage me. Stylistically, The Mavericks are much different than most of the bands on my list of favorite live acts (Black Flag, The Minutemen, Soul Asylum, The Meat Puppets; just to name a few), but they share the same “I’ll bleed for you if I have to” premise for entertaining a crowd. I feel the same way about seeing the Mavericks as I did about all those others– I’m going to the show and that’s all there is to it, and I’m going to stand as close to the stage as they will let me. It’s nice to still have that feeling once in a while.

Dwight Yoakam

Dwight Yoakam
Still badass after all these years…

Like a lot of people my age born north of the Mason-Dixon line, I didn’t listen to much country music when I was growing up. And when I did, it was usually against my will. Most of my country music education when I was kid came from Hee Haw, which my dad watched on most Saturday evenings. I suppose I could have left the room, but the kitschy humor was okay and the girls were pretty hot, so I sat there and took it in. I couldn’t relate to the music, though. At all.

My youthful musical biases started to give way in my young adulthood and my tastes expanded. I’m not sure who the first country artist was that I eventually embraced, but, strangely enough, I think it was Buck Owens—the Hee Haw guy I used to make fun of because of his funny haircut and goofy laugh. When I started listening to his music, especially the stuff he recorded in his heyday with the Bucakroos in the ’60s, I found out how great he was.

That led me to Dwight Yoakam, which made perfect sense since Yoakam was a Buck disciple and champion of the Bakersfield sound that Buck created. In the late ’80s I was going to see bands like Black Flag, Die Kreuzen, and Soul Asylum, so Yoakam’s twangy guitar, nasaly voice, turned down cowboy hat, frilly jackets, and boots were a big shift in many ways. But he was a rebel, which appealed to the punk rocker in me. Yoakam’s honky tonk flew in the face of the Nashville establishment, which was in urban cowboy mode when he was starting out. Throughout his career, Yoakam has made the music he’s wanted to make without bowing to the whims of the industry or mainstream audiences, which is a trait I have always admired in any musician.

What Yoakam and Buck taught me was there was more to country music than meets the eye—or ears. Just like rock-n-roll or other genres, the music goes deeper than what is currently on the radio at the time. As I started to dig in, I discovered all kinds of “fringe” country like Steve Earle and “alt country” progenitors like Jason and the Scorchers. Deeper still were huge, older country stars I had never before considered: Webb Pierce, Faron Young,  Bob Wills, etc., etc. It’s a country road I still happily travel today, and Dwight is a big reason why.

We had fourth row seats in the center for Yoakam’s show at Hoyt Sherman Place last Thursday. Hoyt Sherman is one of my favorite venues in Des Moines. The intimate seating and Victorian architecture help make it a unique live music experience. But Yoakam’s music is more suited for a big bar or a place with lots of room to dance, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Plus, with the intimacy comes limited leg room, and that was never more apparent than on Thursday.

There was a really large man sitting right in front of Jennifer and once the music stated, he started rocking back and forth and sideways in his seat. Hard. This was no problem; who could blame him? DY started the set with Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music), so I wasn’t sitting still, either. But Big Man probably weighed twice as much as me, and as he rocked on, and I got concerned that his chair was going to explode and he would end up in Jennifer’s lap. This place opened in the 1920s and the thin, little chairs look like they’ve been there the whole time, so I wasn’t confident that his would hold up under the immense strain. We hoped for the best.

Yoakam and his youthful but excellent band barely paused as they kept the hits coming. Big Man was enjoying the show. As he continued rocking, he added big hand movements and gestures in rhythm to the music toward the stage—kind of a country and western vogue thing. He took it to the next level when he finally got out of his chair, went down to the stage and started dancing. Well, it was more of an odd grooving in place than dancing, really, but he kept calling it dancing every time an usher asked him to sit down. He’d come back to his seat, dejected, and yell into his date’s ear, “They won’t let me dance!” along with “What’s wrong with this country!”

But he kept going back out there. Normally I believe in the idiom dance like no one is watching, but this guy made me change my opinion. Now I believe in – dance like no one is watching, unless everyone is watching and absolutely no one is into it. The band members were starting to take notice and were enjoying Big Man’s moves. At one point, Yoakam looked at him, smiled, and said into the mic, “I told you to wait in the car!” Another larger, more convincing usher escorted him back to his seat—again.

While Big Man was an interesting sideshow, it didn’t distract from the band. Many of Yoakam’s songs have unique arrangements with some sounds and riffs that are not from the country mold, but these guys pulled them all off. They played most everything from his extensive catalog that you would expect to hear. I would have liked to have heard Long, White Cadillac; but oh, well. It was a two-hour honky tonk freight train—sans honky tonk—delivered by one of the masters.

And Big Man turned out to be a trailblazer. Many in the crowd eventually flooded down in front of the stage during the first encore. I felt bad. Had a few of us gone with him during his first foray to the stage, the ushers may have let it happen, he would have blended in somewhat, and not gotten repeatedly sent back to his seat. Next time, Big Man, I got your back.

Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard

Originally published around 12 years ago.  When I first started writing these band stories, I hadn’t done a lot if interviewing, so I was a little nervous during my first couple of interviews. I got over that pretty quickly, but there were a couple of times after that when I felt a little pressure. One of those was my interview with Merle. I mean – it was Merle Haggard, for crying out loud. But he was so gracious, engaging, and down to earth, any anxiety I had quickly dissipated and we had a terrific conversation. I don’t remember where he played that time around (the casino in Osceola, maybe?), but I didn’t go. Shoulda gone!

Maybe you’re a young whippersnapper into the alternative or punk scenes and you aren’t a fan of Merle Haggard. Your favorite band probably is. Or maybe you’re a little older and into a mellower, easy listening thing and you’ve never listened to Haggard’s music. Your favorite singer probably has. Or maybe you’ve just never heard of him at all. Uh, what’s the address of that rock you live under?

 Living legend may be a trite phrase, but Haggard has certainly earned the title. Few artists have had the far-reaching influence across musical genres and garnered as much universal praise from his peers as Haggard has. A prolific and gifted songwriter, Haggard has compiled a catalog of music that puts him at the forefront of any discussion of the greats in American music.

“I think my music is better described as American music rather than country music,” Haggard says. “I have a way of presenting it that’s different, I hope, than other people. It’s intentional, but it’s unintentional, because it’s honest.”

The quality and sheer quantity of Haggard’s work is staggering, and it has made him one of the most well-respected and well-loved artists in music. His sincere, Steinbeck-like portrayals of the American working class and common man, all delivered with his inviting, resonant baritone, have made a mark on everyone from convicts to presidents. In 1994, he was the subject of two different tribute albums, featuring artists like Dwight Yoakam, Vince Gill, Alabama, and John Doe.

“A lot of the young people mention that I’m the reason they started singing and things of that nature,” Haggard says. “George Jones says I’m his favorite singer. Frank Sinatra liked my singing.  That’s the greatest compliment of all when people that high on the list call you and tell you things like that. You have to be humbled.”

Haggard had the kind of childhood you might expect from a guy who ended up writing songs like “Mama Tried” and “Honky Tonk Nighttime Man.” His family was living in a converted boxcar when he was born in a dusty, insular part of California in 1937. His father died when he was nine, and by the time he was 14, he was hopping freight trains around the southwest and getting into plenty of trouble. When he was 20, he was arrested and convicted of breaking into a bar, and ended up spending three years in San Quentin prison. But despite the youthful transgressions, Haggard remembers that music was one of the fondest memories of his early days.

“I listened to a lot of Bob Wills music on the radio every day. Those days they would play an hour of Wills at a time and nobody else,” he says. “And I grew up listening to a lot of pop music. In the 40s it was Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, The Andrews Sisters. The music was like any other family would have heard during the time.”

 Haggard has never been shy about his politics during his career. He performed in the White House for both Nixon and Reagan, and during the Vietnam era, at a time when flag waving and chest beating was definitely not as popular as it is today, caused a stir with his chunks of vinyl patriotism like “Okie from Muskogee.” There’s certainly no doubt where he stands on the current conflict in Iraq, but he’s still disturbed about the backlash that others who do not share his opinion have received.

“Let me clarify myself, this is Merle Haggard. I’m the guy who wrote ‘Fightin’ Side of Me,’ and my brother was a marine,” he says. “But I’m still wondering what’s happening to America when the Dixie Chicks can’t say they’re against the war without getting their records thrown off the radio. Voicing an opinion is part of our great country.”

At 66, Haggard still has plenty music left in him and plenty of fans that will listen to it. But as an old man in a young person’s business, Haggard has ample reasons to be grumpy; indifference from the music industry and younger country fans that can’t relate to anyone but the current crop of crossover artists.

 Although Haggard hasn’t let any of that make him bitter, he still isn’t crazy about most of today’s music and the people that produce it, and has his own theory about why it stinks.

“It’s really very simple. It has to do with money,” he says. “It’s easier to sell somebody that looks good and has pretty belly button than it is to fool with an old guy like me or Johnny Cash.”

Over the past few years Haggard has had to endure several difficult surgeries to his feet and mouth, but he hasn’t let that keep him from his work. He keeps a fairly full slate of live dates and promises a new record in July that could have a “new wrinkle or two.”

“Well, I do have monthly bills, so I try to work anywhere from eight to 20 days a month, depending upon the tour and how close the dates are. I usually average two weeks on and two weeks off. And ‘off’ means taking care of the laundry or working in the studio. We’re working on a new record and we have some things that were really proud of that I don’t want to give away. But I’ll tell you the title is ‘Haggard Like I’ve Never Been Before.

Just don’t bet on seeing his belly button any time soon.