Fired up and ready to go: Marty Stuart gets back to basics on blistering new album
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Country star Marty Stuart has spent many a session on the musician’s side of the glass, but it was his time in the driver’s seat that steered him in the direction of his most recent album, “Nashville Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down.”
It’s a devil-be-damned barnstormer of epic proportions compared to what’s coming out of Music City these days: staunchly traditional, fiercely independent and a whole lot of fun. And Stuart credits his wife, country icon Connie Smith, and the late Porter Wagoner with preparing him to make it.
“I’m just in the middle of the heart and soul of country music land right now,” Stuart told The Daily Times during a recent phone interview. “‘Ghost Train’ (his 2010 album) was the ramp-up to this, and before that, there was the Porter Wagoner record (2007’s “Wagonmaster”) that I produced. And then last year, I produced Connie’s record (“Long Line of Heartaches”).
“We had a lot of confidence under our belt as a band, and I could see myself getting back into the slipstream of traditional country music. This record goes back to the blueprint of country music. The subject matter is real life issues and occupations.”
Stuart knows that blueprint well; after all, he learned it from the feet of some of the men who helped map it out. He was playing bluegrass with The Sullivans by the age of 12, and at 14 was invited on state at a Delaware show to perform with Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass.
His prowess dazzled the veterans, and Stuart was recruited as a member of the band. He stayed with Flatt until 1978, and after hooking up with roots music masters like Vassar Clements and Doc Watson, he joined Johnny Cash’s backing band in 1980. Although he released a couple of solo albums during that period, it wasn’t until he cut 1986’s self-titled Columbia Records debut that he started to turn heads in Nashville.
“Arlene” was a minor hit, but a dispute with Columbia derailed the album’s follow-up, and Stuart briefly rejoined White as a fiddle player before giving Nashville another go. That time, he struck gold. MCA Records released “Hillbilly Rock” in 1989, and the next year it produced two Top 20 hits, including a Top 10 with the title track. So began a string of singles that put Stuart in a league of up-and-coming country artists touted as new traditionalists — guys like Randy Travis, Vince Gill and Travis Tritt.
Stuart never enjoyed the mega-sales of some of his contemporaries, however, and by the late 1990s, he had fallen off the country music radar almost altogether. He never stopped making music, though, and put out “The Pilgrim” in 1999 and “Country Music” in 2003. The latter album also served as an introduction for his backing band, The Fabulous Superlatives. Bypassing mainstream country entirely, he set up his own label, Superlatone Records, and cut everything from a gospel album to a record that paid tribute to Sioux culture.
He also launched his own half-hour cable program, “The Marty Stuart Show,” which continues to air on the satellite channel RFD-TV. After the third season wrapped in early July of 2011, the stage was set for “Tear the Woodpile Down,” Stuart said.
“We had some songs written and had absolutely worked this record out between the TV studio and the road,” he said. “When we got to the studio, we had already been playing so much of this on the TV show that we could just have fun and record.”
The album kicks off with the title track, a country-rockabilly mash-up that Stuart said was written a couple of years ago for Dolly Parton’s appearance on his show.
“I knew when she came out, it was going to be an explosion, so we needed a song to set the bar high for her,” he said. “It’s got a lot of energy, so that was the beginning of it, and I knew the kernel of an idea was there. As we’ve gone on, it’s evolved, and I’ve rewrote a verse or two, and the song has found its wing.”
Steel guitar is the backbone of the new record, and Stuart’s voice has never sounded more confident. For one thing, he’s doing what he loves and what he’s always been good at; for another, he’s singing about what he knows. There’s little difference, he pointed out, between writing a song called “Truck Drivers’ Blues” and living those blues on a tour across the country.
“They’re the people we associate with out there,” Stuart said. “They’re road dogs, and we’re road dogs. What do we miss most when we’re away from home? Our loved ones. The first thing when I get home, I kiss Connie.”
The album closes with “Picture from Life’s Other Side,” a duet with Hank III, the hell-raising country-punk rocker who’s the grandson of legendary Hank Williams Sr. and son of Hank Jr. It may seem like a strange pairing, but to Stuart there was no other artist who could do what he wanted with the song.
“He’s like kinfolk to me, and he represents a legacy no one else does,” Stuart said. “I realize that musically he can go in 40 different directions, and I know he doesn’t lean toward his grandpa’s music very much, but he happens to do it better than anyone else on Planet Earth. And I was honored that he would turn his beam in that direction to do this with me.”
Such is the influence Stuart has on country music: He commands respect for his longevity in the craft and his devotion to tradition. And with men like the late banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs passing on, there’s no better way than an album like “Nashville Vol. 1” to remind himself and fans where his loyalties lie.
“Flatt and Scruggs and Johnny Cash — they were my friends, my mentors and my professors,” he said. “All of my original chiefs are gone now, and it’s a great loss. But doing a record like this, I think it’s kind of like going to revival at church. You have to be reminded to freshen up the point on your sword and get back at it.”