Marty Stuart on a Half-Century of Making Music in Nashville and His New Album Altitude

Music Features Marty Stuart
Marty Stuart on a Half-Century of Making Music in Nashville and His New Album Altitude

It’s no coincidence that Altitude—Marty Stuart’s generous new 14-cut album with his longtime backing band, The Fabulous Superlatives—might be the most rollicking, feel-good spirit lifter he’s whipped up in years. And its Duane Eddy-booming anthems like “Vegas,” “Tomahawk,” “Country Star,” and a three-part Roger McGuinn-reverent suite called “Lost Byrd Space Train” prove a perfect pandemic panacea, and reflect exactly where the artist is, existentially, right now at 64. “I’m having more fun now than I’ve ever had in my life, and I think life is rich, life is really rewarding,” he marvels, acknowledging the gravity of The Beatles’ “Will you still need me?/ Will you still feed me?” Line from “When I’m 64.” “And that’s the daily question, isn’t it? And I think if all of The Beatles had been lucky enough to stick around, they would have said, 64? Yeah, absolutely! Come on in!’”

But it helps, as well, that Stuart just might be the most fortunate man in show business. Since the age of 12, when the guitarist/mandolinist formed his first Gospel band, he seems to have had a guardian angel looking out for him, as almost every career decision he made effortlessly panned out, starting with his very next move, joining the backing group of the legendary Lester Flatt on mandolin and working with him until he retired in 1978, at which point he issued his first independent solo album before signing on with Johnny Cash’s ensemble in 1980. The Grand Ole Opry—an aspirational goal for most country performers—was comfortably familiar to him before he hit 14, as were some of its most legendary stars he befriended in the process, like Tex Ritter, Roy Acuff, and Grandpa Jones. Soon he had a solid mid-’80s solo deal with Columbia, but didn’t come into his own until he was snapped up by the Tony-Brown-led MCA Nashville in 1989 for his aptly-dubbed Hillbilly Rock bow, reflecting the two genres his sound smartly straddled, via his booming Fender Telecaster he’d named Clarence. It was a truly golden era for Nashville, he recalls, and he felt lucky to be there.

The Mississippi-bred Stuart proved the perfect Elvis-inspired antidote to the pop-smarmy Urban Cowboy movement, and was more in league with other renegade country trailblazers at the time, like the retro-minded Dwight Yoakam out in California and the traditional purist Randy Travis, although he eventually settled into his own groove, including a hip stage look of vintage cowboy boots, black Levis, a bandanna neckerchief, charismatic salt-and-pepper shag haircut, and a rhinestone-glittery Nudie Western jacket. The look would serve him well when he launched his own popular country music variety program, The Marty Stuart Show, on RFD TV in 2008. A regular guest, of course, was his Music-Row-royalty wife, Connie Smith, whom he first met as a hotshot guitarist teen; He swore to friends he would one day marry her, and in 1997 he made good on that promise, a crowning achievement in the five-time Grammy winner’s eerily charmed life. The avid photographer has also amassed a monstrous collection of country & western memorabilia—which he’ll soon be sharing with the public in his old hometown of Philadelphia, Miss., via the Marty Stuart Congress of Country Music, a $30 million, 50,000-square-foot campus currently under construction. In 2020, circa lockdown, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and last November he celebrated his 30th year as an official Opry member alongside his 50th year residing in Nashville. “And we’re all still here,” he sighs, gratefully.

Paste: I was talking with your missus during the pandemic, and she was dealing with a long-term Covid diagnosis. So first question would have to be, how is she doing now?

Marty Stuart: Connie’s okay. She’s okay. She had a long road getting out of the pandemic, and she was a long-haul customer. But she’s back to singing, so all is okay, And thank you for asking.

Paste: And she said that during lockdown, the fun thing you guys both loved to do was watch old Westerns on TV. And there are so many stations that show them exclusively, like GRIT, FETV, and the Starz Western channel.

Stuart: Oh, we still watch Westerns. Connie and I both love Westerns. Early on in our relationship, we were watching a John Wayne movie, and I looked over and she was crying. And I thought, “I love this girl!” I don’t remember what all we watched—if it was good, we watched it. It was like, anything but reality, please!

Paste: And the film and TV actors back then all used to shift around and jump genres. So it was weird to see Eric Fleming, who played Gil Favor on the series Rawhide and then turn up as an astronaut in the sci-fi flick Queen of Outer Space.

Stuart: Well, when I think about that, there was this hotel in North Hollywood, California, called the Beverly Garland Hotel. But every morning—and this goes back to the ’70s, ’80s and maybe even the early ’90s—you could find Gene Autry, Jack Elam, Ben Johnson, and all those old cowboy guys. They met there and held court pretty much every morning, and told stories. And they were just buddies. And it reminded me, from hanging out with those guys, it really wasn’t any different from hanging out with country musicians or country performers, because those cowboy actors and the country music singers and songwriters were kind of the guys over on the edge of town. They just did what they did, and sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But at one point, you know, all they had was each other, and that’s where they bonded and that’s where all that great stuff came from. But it was just business. Just business.

Paste: And as a photographer, you love imagery. But what did you find to actually photograph during lockdown?

Stuart: Well, I watched films. I still think one of the prettiest films ever made is The Quiet Man, and I think John Ford was at his best there. It was even prettier than his Westerns, and also it was funny. But it was all about his Irish heritage, and I thought that was a beautiful thing. And it’s no different than songs—I love songs, I love writing instrumentals that are cinematic, that don’t even need words. You can just see the imagery by way of the chords. I scored this film one time called All the Pretty Horses, with my friends Kristen Wilkinson and Larry Paxton. It was a Cormac McCarthy novel, but Billy Bob Thornton made the film, and we scored it, but I loved that film because the music that we got to make was so cinematic. And I also learned that it’s unbeatable, when you have a cinematic film with cinematic music alongside it. So it’s one and the same to me. And I love Billy Bob, and the thing with him is, Billy Bob is one of those guys who attracts a whole lot of cool people into his world, and you never know who’s gonna be in his dressing room. That’s one of the fun things about hanging out with him.

Paste: So did you keep your camera in mothballs during the pandemic? And what model is it?

Stuart: I keep my camera close by at all times. Sometimes I go six months and I don’t pick it up, and then I’ll see something—a scene or a situation—and then I click it. But I find that I’m inspired by people. I’m inspired by the right person, usually. And I’m not a great photographer by any means, like, technically, zero. But I think the thing that has made my pictures interesting to me, at least, is the access that I’ve had to so many cool people. And it’s one of those things where, if you can get that and have the opportunity, then you’ll probably get a good shot. I still use a Nikon S2 35-mm film camera, and I get my film developed in North Carolina at Dalmatian Labs.

Paste: But you first went to the Grand Ole Opry when you were only 13. And you met Tex Ritter, Minnie Pearl, all the legends, because they were still around. Who were some of the most amazing stars you met, and what advice did they offer you?

Stuart: Back at that time? Well, Lester Flatt, the guy that gave me my job, he had the ultimate advice, just by watching him. And all of those old characters back then, the master architects of our culture, just being in their presence and watching them survive. Like Merle Travis—when he came to Nashville from California to visit with Grandpa Jones, and was invited out to meet him, he was absolutely at a completely different level. He was not your ordinary hillbilly—he wrote songs, he could act, he designed guitars, he could work on your watch, he could draw cartoons, he was a guitar stylist, a fashionista. He had everything going for him—he could write scripts, he could write copy, he was a radio star, a TV star. Anything you needed, Merle Travis could do—he was a full-service cat. And he blew my head off, just being around him.

Paste: Did you ever appear on Hee-Haw?

Stuart: Yeah! Several times! The first time I was in Lester Flatt’s band, and then when I started my own career, I was on Hee-Haw a time or two, I think.

Paste: Going back to your recent Songs I Sing in the Dark set. Were they all covers?

Stuart: I think there was only one or two originals that I recorded—most of ’em are just covers, and they were kind of songs that—well I love those songs, and they mean a lot to me. I don’t know if they’d as much to anybody else, but they were just songs that I wanted to simply sing, just to keep them alive for myself. And it was part of the survival tactic for getting through the pandemic—it was just having something to do. A reason to get out the microphone.

Paste: What moods did you find yourself going through, leading into this album?

Stuart: Well, the thing that I settled in my mind before, as the world was crashing down, was that somewhere, somewhere, there is a back door to this problem. And in the meantime? One step at a time, take it easy, get out alive, and hope that everybody you love gets out alive. But after I got beyond that, I missed the band, I missed going to play music, but not really, because I hadn’t had a year off in years and years, so it was actually time that I enjoyed at home, I enjoyed being with Connie, I enjoyed what I worked hard for. So I never got anxious about playing, because I knew that it would eventually come around. So in a weird way, it was like a vacation.

Paste: And “Sitting Alone,” you’ve said, was actually written pre-pandemic?

Stuart: They were all pre-pandemic, because we were set to record the album, and I knew we were going to California to make this record, and then all the lights started going off everywhere around the world, and we had a talk amongst ourselves, me and the band, and it was like, “Man, if we want this record to sound like we had it rehearsed and ready to go, we’d better do it now.” So at the very top of the pandemic, we put on our masks, stood six feet apart, trudged through it and made a record. And if we had’ve dropped it for a year and a half or whatever it was, we would’ve had to start all over again, and I didn’t wanna do that. So I’m glad it worked out.

Paste: Your “Lost Byrd Space Train” recurring motif on Altitude is interesting, given that you actually got to tour with Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. How was that?

Stuart: It was awesome. It was a perfect tour. Everybody won—the audience won, Roger and Chris won, we got to be The Byrds, and just the sounds of that tour, the energy of that tour, and the love that filled the air on that tour inspired a whole lot of this Altitude record. And Roger has been like a big brother to this band, and so has Chris. Way before that “Sweethearts of the Rodeo” tour, Roger came and did my TV show twice, then we did some shows with him. And we just wanted to follow him around, after we played with him the first time, and just be his band—we didn’t care. And what I learned from Roger is, Roger’s one of the most fearless creative souls I’ve ever known. He is a great musical adventurer, and he really inspires me.

Paste: Where did “Tomahawk” come from?

Stuart: I don’t know. I think it just dropped down. I remember writing the first line—“An archer shot an arrow that went sailing through the woods/ And the arrow hit the dirt and said, ‘Well, he ain’t no Robin Hood.” And I thought, “That’s pretty good! Keep going!”

Paste: What’s the upcoming Marty Stuart Congress of Country Music in Philadelphia, Mississippi that you’re working on?

Stuart: Well, if you step into the state of Mississippi, there are several like-minded places. The blues are represented at B.B. King’s Cultural Center up in the Delta, and Graceland is five miles across the line, and the Grammys put in a $35 million facility in the North part of the state. And I’m from East central Mississippi, and 35 miles away from my home town of Philadelphia is Meridian, which is where Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music comes from. So country music will be represented at the Congress of Country, with a performance venue, an educational space, and more, and we’re finished with Phase One, which is the renovation of the theater, where shows are being held, and we’re about to start building Phase Two, and so I kinda call it my Hillbilly Presidential Library—it’s where all of my archives, my collection will be located, and people can come and learn about traditional country music, put it into their own hearts, and do what they want with it. And I’m pretty serious about it—my collection has over 20,000 pieces, so it’s pretty strong. I have Johnny Cash’s first black suit, Patsy Cline’s boots that she was wearing when she lost her life, Hank Williams’ lyrics, handwritten, Jimmie Rodgers’ guitar, on and on and on. 20,000 at that level.

Paste: It must have been cool to have your own TV variety show, though. And Connie Smith could drop by whenever she wanted.

Stuart: I kept going around for years, saying, “Why doesn’t somebody do a 21st century version of The Porter Wagoner Show? While we still have a few country legends left? Nobody else was gonna do it, so we did, and we did 156 episodes, and I think we got the timing just right. Because since that show’s been off the air, like 43 people have gone who were on the show. So I love that show and I cherish it. It’s a treasure chest to me. I had Merle Haggard, of course. And Johnny Rivers—I was always a big Johnny Rivers fan, so I was lucky enough to have him on my show.

Paste: On November 26 last year, you celebrated 30 years as a Grand Ole Opry member and 50 years in Nashville. How awesome was that party? And who showed up?

Stuart: Everybody was there—I couldn’t believe it. And the thing about it that was so striking to me was how fast it’s gone. I mean, Labor Day weekend 1972 was when I got started in Nashville, and I swear it feels like it was yesterday. It went by just so fast.

Paste: And how many people get to look up at a singer onstage and say, “That’s my dream girl—one day I’m going to marry her,” and then a few years later actually do it?

Stuart: I know! Isn’t that something? I’m with you on that, I’m with you!

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