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.”



The Mavericks


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.

Seeing Black Sabbath – Part II

Black Sabbath
Wasn’t close enough to catch any picks, but did get some good shots.

Back when Jennifer and I first met, we quickly found a common interest in music, though our tastes differed. I preferred more aggressive bands in the punk and metal genres while she liked country and ‘70s pop. I was in a band at the time and she thought that was cool, but she may have had second thoughts when she found out we had original songs called Death Threat From My Mom and Working in the Missile Silo. And I shuddered a bit when she told me that her favorite place to hang out was a country bar called Toad Holler. Toad Holler.

But we eventually found a lot of common musical ground and even expanded each other’s tastes. To this day, she taps her foot and sings along with AC/DC and the Ramones, while I listen to Patsy Cline on the car radio even when she’s not there.

We still do make occasional sacrifices for each other in attending live shows, though. She found nothing interesting about the Rush concert a few months ago, and it took every ounce of courage I could muster to take her to the Australian Bee Gees show in Vegas a while back. (I even went the extra mile and broke out my best disco moves on the dance floor toward the end of the performance.)

Jennifer made perhaps her biggest musical sacrifice last night by attending the Black Sabbath show in Omaha with me. They are a little dark for her, and she was concerned for her immortal soul. (Apparently, Part I of this blog didn’t seem to make her feel better.) And she had her concerns about what the crowd might try to get away with.

Of course, she had no reason to worry about either thing. With the average age of the audience nearing the age of the band members themselves and with a security frisking so thorough that I expected a tip afterwards, there wasn’t much illegal tomfoolery going on.

And all Black Sabbath conjured up was the heaviest of metal from the bowels of rock-n-roll Mordor. All in their late 60s (hired-gun drummer Tommy Clufetos is 36), the band can still deliver the goods. Giving fans all the “hits” and a few more obscure gems, they rocked as hard as a band can for two solid hours. Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler have influenced virtually every guitarist and bassist who has ever turned their amps up to 11, and their playing was still as tasty and technically proficient as ever. Given what Ozzy Osbourne has put his mind and body through over the years, he probably shouldn’t even be able to walk on a stage. So when he was on pitch for maybe three out of every four songs and didn’t teeter into the first row, that was okay with me. Many long-time fans are upset that original drummer Bill Ward is not onboard for this farewell tour, but Clufetos guided all the awesomeness with the power and subtlety of a jackhammer.

The show had some cool pyrotechnics and video boards, but at its heart it was an old-school, no-frills concert with the music at the forefront. Near perfection from the guys that invented heavy metal. Go see them.

Jennifer set a fashion trend by being one of only a few NOT dressed in black.

And Jennifer’s review? When I asked her what her favorite song was, she grinned and answered, “I liked them all the same.” Then on the way home, Paranoid came on the radio and she asked, “Did they play this one?” That would be kind of like me asking if the Aussie Bee Gees had played Stayin’ Alive, but she’ll probably remember the song the next time it comes on—then quickly change the station.

Seeing Black Sabbath – Part I

Black Sabbath
Step and me.

I like a variety of music, but tend to mostly prefer bands that are a little edgy or outside what is popular among the masses or most of my peers. That’s not an intentional choice, it’s just the way it is and always has been. My first favorite band was Steppenwolf—when a neighbor gave me a cherished stack of the band’s 45s. There was nothing unusual about Steppenwolf—they had a lot of hits and were popular. But at the time, I was six years old. I don’t really remember what kids my age were listening to in 1969, but I never found any other fellow first-graders that knew the lyrics to Sookie Sookie.

Later in life in junior high and high school I had a handful of music friends that shared my tastes, but we seemed to always be against the musical grain. Again, it wasn’t intentional—we just preferred The Ramones, The Clash, and Gang of Four to the much more popular REO Speedwagon, Journey, and Michael Jackson.

One of the first metal bands I was into was Black Sabbath. Sure, they sold a lot of records in the ’70s, but their music was so ominous, they scared the bejeezus out of much of the music-consuming public and even their own record company. And they weren’t exactly mainstream listening among small-town, middle class kids in central Missouri. I remember putting on Master of Reality once at a party (with mostly “non-music” friends in attendance) and everybody went into open revolt three bars into the first tune. A friend of mine and fellow Sab fan was there, and even he had to laugh and say, “Uhh, no, Web. Not here.” He became a hero when he clicked the cassette out and put on some April Wine, while I got strange looks the rest of the evening.

I never saw the original version of Black Sabbath live because they kicked Ozzy Osbourne out of the band in 1979. The amazing Ronnie James Dio joined Black Sabbath and they made some great records and toured for several years, but I never saw that lineup, either. The band had a slew of other vocalists after Dio and more drama and cast changes than General Hospital, and I kind of lost interest in them.

Ozzy began his solo career shortly after getting the boot from Sab, and I did see him and his band live a couple of times. The first time was in January of 1982 in Pittsburgh when I was a freshman in college. I went with my roommate, and we had dinner at his house before the show. His mom wasn’t exactly sure who it was we were going to see, and we made the mistake of telling her that he used to be the singer in a band called Black Sabbath. She was a devout Catholic, and I could tell she didn’t like the sound of that at all. I tried to make her feel better by explaining that they weren’t near as demonic as the name suggested, and that I had even read a review of the band once that described them as “the world’s first Catholic rock band.” Her mood did improve a bit, and we were glad that she didn’t try to talk us out of going.

The show was great, and guitar god Randy Rhoads was still in the band. (He died in a plane crash a couple months later.) Another notable event that evening was my first (and last) drink of Mad Dog 20/20 (red grape, I think) in the parking lot before the show.

Ozzy and the band reunited for a while in the ’90s, and again in 2012, sans original drummer Bill Ward. They toured on those occasions, but seeing them live still eluded me. I figured they would end up forever on my list of favorite bands I never saw. But when they announced they would tour one more time, I quickly checked the schedule. First date on the tour: Omaha. Next Wednesday. I’ll be there.





Motley Crue

Motley Crue

Originally published in 1997.  I wrote this story for Cityview in Des Moines, I think. After I interviewed Mick Mars, I spoke with the Crue’s publicist. He asked me if I wanted tickets to the show and I said, “Sure.” I had never really been a fan, but I thought it might be a fun show. Then he asked if I wanted a photo pass as well. I had no reason to take photos since the story would appear in the paper before the show and I wasn’t actually a photographer, but I accepted that offer as well. I don’t remember where the show was – but it must have been Vet’s in Des Moines. Jennifer (definitely not a Crue fan) went with me and we were in the eighth row in the center. Cheap Trick opened, which was definitely a bonus for me, but the pro-Crue crowd was a little lackluster during the performance. Late in the set, Rick Nielsen zinged a cardboard poster out to the crowd and Jennifer nabbed it. It had a handful of his picks taped to it. We still have the poster – and a couple of the picks are still lying around. I went up to the front of the stage to shoot the first couple of songs of the Crue set. About 10 seconds into the first song, I was struck in the head with a lady’s undergarment thrown from the crowd. To this day, I contend that I was the intended target, but Jennifer has always doubted that claim.

After over a decade and a half of rock-n-roll decadence and debauchery, does the end of the century bring a kinder, gentler Motley Crue? Not hardly. Is this a more mature, focused band than the one that hammered their way through the ’80s bent on destroying themselves living out the drugs-sex-rock-n-roll dream? Definitely. 

“I’ve reached an age now, though I definitely don’t feel old, that alcohol and drugs are just not important,” says guitarist Mick Mars. “The music, this band, the live show and touring is the number one priority. It’s a growing kind of thing. We felt we needed to experiment with alcohol, drugs and sex. But we lasted through that and realized it wasn’t important.” 

After the ugly, much-publicized firing of singer Vince Neil five years ago, the Crue is back in its original form like they had never gone away. Their latest disc, “Generation Swine,” has been a major chart success and the supporting tour is doing so well that 150 shows were added. Although the Crue was one of the ’80s biggest acts, no-one in the band was banking on automatic success this time around. But an inspired live appearance on this year’s American Music Awards helped ease their minds. 

“There’s always an element of doubt when you’re doing something like this,” says Mars. “When we did the AMAs we were pretty nervous. But when the Nielsen ratings came in they were really high. Dick Clark called our management company and was really thankful we were on the show. It was cool. It showed us that there were a lot of fans out there that still wanted to hear Motley Crue.” 

For better or worse, the amazing success of Motley Crue’s 1983 album “Shout at the Devil” helped spawn a slew of high-heeled, made-up imitators. The anger and hedonism that Crue espoused quickly deteriorated into slick, androgynous glam/pop in the hands of the well-coifed followers.  

“I didn’t think about it much when it started. We just did what we did,” says Mars. “But then I saw it happening and I thought ‘Man, these guys are wrecking it.’ It’s similar to what happened with the Seattle thing, but it happened even faster for them.” 

Unlike their contemporaries, the band refused to regurgitate the same record over and over. Though never critically acclaimed and hardly groundbreaking, their records did evolve enough to keep the Crue separated from the watered-down throng. The make-up and frills disappeared but the fist-pumping anthems continued throughout the decade. 

“We always tried to think about the next step,” says Mars. “There’s no sense in doing something two times. That’s boring for us and the fans.”

“Generation Swine” is pure Crue. The first line of the opening cut (“I’m a sick mother******!”) leaves little doubt where they are coming from. It’s the band’s high-tech sound on a few cuts that is surprising, though it surely won’t deter old Crue fans. 

“We don’t ever want to repeat ourselves. There’s so much technology out there, and we used it to our advantage. We experimented a lot like we always do. We took each song and thought ‘How can we make this different?’ But that can go on forever, so sometimes you just have to cut it off. We just want to take our music to the next level.”