"Dean's a dedicated school teacher and just couldn't go on the road. It's worked out fine, and we're still good friends." Stuart pauses, and adds with a chuckle, "Which reminds me, I owe him $20."
Replacing Knight on a full time basis - including on the new album - is Mason Tuttle, a Buffalo native now living in Missoula, Mont., "and he's a great musician too, playing mandolin and guitar as well as bass."
As accomplished and multi-faceted in their talents as they are, the band's core strength continues to be Stuart's remarkable ability to draw songs from more than one creative well. He's more articulate than most writers in being able to analyze his gift - even if the analysis is characteristically off-center.
"I usually don't start with themes. I'm more (into) noodling around on the guitar and singing nonsense until something sticks, and then I start working on it. I hate it when I get a melody before words, but that happens sometimes. I have a theory that there's a perfect melody for any phrase you might say - like 'Uncle Bonaparte left us a stuffed horse' would have a perfect melody to fit those words. That's what I go after, and I never go too far with words unless I have a melody with it. After that, I work on it until the voice in the back of my head stops saying 'that sucks.'"
The new disc's title track exemplifies another aspect of his approach.
"(It) started as a guitar riff I couldn't get out of my head. We recorded most of the album at Eric's studio in Hesperia, Cal., which is in the high desert and the Mojave River runs nearby...I always enjoyed crossing this bone-dry river bed to get to the studio and the sign there, 'Mojave River' stuck in my head because I like mixes of words like that. 'Mojave River' basically means 'dry wet'. I knew it would be the title track even before I wrote it, only because I like titles that have some kind of juxtaposition of opposites."
"But there is a concept to the album based on the geography of the West. I'm finding that I have to include the land in my songs now for them to have any meaning for me. It's something that's bigger than the characters in the songs, and it gives them a world to act in. I don't usually write songs about myself. I mean, I'm a middle-aged, middle-class, middle-of-the-road white guy. I don't even care about my problems."
Another song with arresting imagery is "Sin Stealer," written against the backdrop of a stormy Texas night.
"I wrote (it) in a hotel room in Brownwood, Texas on a night that featured the most God-awful thunderstorm...I was reading Larry McMurtry's novel, 'Sin Killer' and wanted to write a song with that title, but for some reason I started thinking about Jesus as being the one who 'takes away' the sins of the world, so 'Sin Stealer' occurred to me...it's 'Jesus as Boogie Man'. The lead character has heard about this Jesus who goes around taking away your sins, but he doesn't want to lose his sins! According to Dante, those in Hell want to be in Hell. So, it's either a gospel song if you read it that way or an anti-gospel song if you take it straight. And I always take mine straight."
"Mojave River" also features a pair of tunes that illustrate Stuart's love of classic country themes - like drinking and mothers.
"I wrote 'Old No. 7' (because) I'm a little tired of all the self-righteousness in bluegrass these days. I mean, it's great (that) people want to thank God for getting them an IBMA award, but I sincerely hope that God couldn't care less about IBMA awards. I couldn't believe there wasn't already a country song about 'Old No. 7' which, of course, is the Jack Daniels slogan on their bottles. It's a fun song to sing live, but people at bluegrass festivals get a little nervous about singing out loud about drinking. I don't know why. Flatt and Scruggs used to sing 'Dim Lights, Thick Smoke' and all that. It's something that needs to make a comeback, and people shouldn't care so much about offending those with their noses in the air. I'll continue to write songs about the dark side of life because I think that's where most of us live."
And, what's a good country or bluegrass album without a "mother song"?
"The basic idea for this song was Ivan's...we were driving somewhere and he told me his idea about a young girl visiting her mother's grave and the father putting some flowers down on it, but the young girl not understanding that her mother was dead. And, he had the title, 'Don't Throw Mama's Flowers Away'. I couldn't believe he had handed me a great 'dead mother' song, so I wrote the verses, melody, and we worked together on the chorus. I moved it to a highway shrine with one of those little white crosses. I'm lucky to have two other good songwriters in the band in Janet and Ivan. They push me a lot, and I trust and respect their opinion of things."
With a touring schedule in 2003 and 2004 that has taken them not only across the U.S., but throughout Canada and the United Kingdom as well, the whole band is excited about their burgeoning prospects, but Stuart is especially gratified at making a living in music that eluded him in the snows of New York.
"I'm trying to write songs, get gigs, take care of the business side of things and keep the band working. I'm not sure what I want to do with Backcountry Records, whether to just keep it for band and solo projects, or expand out with other artists, such as Eric Uglum. Right now it's more of a logo than a label. But basically, I'm a songwriter, and I need to do that more than anything."