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Marty Stuart: country's renaissance man

By Jeffrey B. Remz, December 2005

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Stuart's interest in photography also led him to put together a book, "pilgrims, sinners, saints, and prophets," in 2000 of his photos.

For "Soul's Chapel," Stuart says, "We listened to everything. "The Staple Family has always been like my family."

Stuart calls "Soul's Chapel," "one of the records I'm most proud of."

As for the live bluegrass album, that was not even anticipated by Stuart. "I had no idea we were being recorded," he says of the July 24, 2003 show.

Following the Ryman show, the soundboard person (recordings of shows are made at the soudboard for the artist) handed Stuart a tape of the show. "What is this?" Stuart recalls asking, being told, "'It's what you just did'."

The disc is a mixture of bluegrass chestnuts like "Orange Blossom Special" along with Stuart favorites "The Whiskey Ain't Workin' Anymore" and "Hillbilly Rock."

Stuart's love of bluegrass goes back to his youth. He started playing with the Sullivan Family, a bluegrass gospel group when he was 12. By 13, he became a member of Lester Flatt's band. After six years with Flatt, he broke up his band due to health reasons. Flatt died the following year.

Stuart released a bluegrass disc in 1979, something he does not look back at with fond memories. "It sucks like several of my records," he jokes.

Stuart played with late fiddler Vassar Clements and guitarist Doc Watson before hooking up with Johnny Cash in 1980.

Interestingly, the first two records Stuart ever owned were "The Fabulous Johnny Cash" and "Flatt & Scruggs Greatest Hits."

"Working with Johnny Cash was like getting instruction in a lot of stuff," Stuart says.

During this time, he released "Busy Bee Café," in 1982, but his commitment to Cash prevented him from spending more time on his bluegrass career.

He landed on Columbia, releasing an album four years later. "I cut two records with Columbia and one came out," says Stuart.

The problem was Cash or rather Stuart's reaction at label executive Rick Blackburn dropping the Man in Black due to "demographics and numbers," according to Stuart. "I went in there and told Rick Blackburn off in no uncertain (terms).

Apparently!

In relating the story, Stuart says he was told by another label employee. "'I don't know what you did, but you just lost your deal'. I don't regret that."

Three years later, Stuart resurfaced on MCA with "Hillbilly Rock." The title track began a string of hits for Stuart with "Western Girls," "Little Things," "Till I Found You," "Tempted," a few duets with Travis Tritt, "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'" and "This One's Gonna Hurt You (For a Long, Long Time)," and "Burn Me Down."

But while continuing to generally put out good music, the charts were not as receptive to his music. He has not enjoyed a top 20 song since 1992.

"It's always been a push and pull," says Stuart of his career. "1990 was no different. I had a new shot, a new opportunity to get in front of the world...I found myself in a position of riding around in Ernest Tubb's bus, wearing rhinestones, (dating) Connie Smith. I thought (I was) defending traditional country music. At the end of the day, I found if I was following my heart, I was in great shape."

This isn't the first time Stuart has taken a left turn in his career. In 1999, he put out "The Pilgrim," a concept album about a down and outer from Mississippi. Great music, but not so great at the cash register. At the time, Stuart said he did not care because he was recording the music he wanted to make.

He went back to Sony Records where he had recorded a self-titled album in 1986 and came out with "Country Music" in 2003. The music was fine, but the mass audience wasn't there.

Three albums in six months is quite a lot for any artist, but what was the interest of Universal South Records in going along with the program?Label executive Tony Brown has a long history with Stuart. He produced some of his key albums, including "Honky Tonkin's What I Do Best," "Tempted" and "This One's Gonna Hurt You."

"He tried to play the radio game again, and I was going 'radio's so fickle'," says Brown in a telephone interview from Nashville. "They're always looking for the next big thing. So (fellow Universal South head) Tim Dubois loves Marty Stuart as much as I do. He's a country music treasure. He knows more about the country music artists that are the legends and the backbone of this industry than almost anybody."

"He came to see Tim and I," Brown says. "He said, 'I've been watching Emmylou since she got away form playing the radio game, I watched while Willie's done and what Cash has done'. He said, 'I want to cut a gospel record, a bluegrass record and an album called 'Badlands'. I want to do some good quality music in this format, and I want to do it with you guys'."

According to Brown, Stuart wanted his own imprint label meaning he would own the album, but Universal South would distribute it.

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