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Marty Stuart plays at LJVM post-hockey party by Ogi Overman
If Barbara Mandrell was "country when country wasn't cool," then Marty Stuart was alt-country not only before it was cool but before it was. Long before the word Americana had been coined or any of the rootsy derivations of mainstream country had gained a foothold, Marty was out there laying the groundwork. He was plowing the fertile ground of traditional, acoustic-based, bluegrass-tinged country even before Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill or Dolly Parton took the plunge back to their roots.
Stuart has always been an iconoclast of sorts, although probably not intentionally, and that is part of his charm. He kept wearing sequined, Nudie, Porter Wagoner-esque suits long after they went out of vogue; his chosen instrument was mandolin, not guitar -- and he actually learned to play it; and he was including everything from bluegrass to rock 'n' roll in his live shows, when conventional Nashville wisdom dictated that artists stick to the formula.
Yet that is only a part of his appeal. The fact that he genuinely loves bluegrass and traditional country shows through in the way he carries himself, on-stage and off. The smile is genuine, not painted on, and fans are drawn to him as a result. Because of the reverence he holds for the artists who got country music to this point, he has become one of the genre's most eloquent spokesmen.
Stuart is an iconoclast in another way. He is one of the few artists who can claim a large fan base in both mainstream country and alternative country camps. Already an established Nashville star when the fringe country movement came into being around the mid-'90s, proponents of that latter idiom were quick to embrace him and claim him as one of their own. And that was due in large part to all the aforementioned attributes: his genuine love for the music, his reverence for his forebearers, and his willingness to play what he loved rather than what the label brass told him to play.
To understand Marty Stuart, one only need look at the path he chose and how he dealt with the twists and turns a career in show business brings. Actually, as is the case of many of the musically inclined, his path was probably chosen for him. His parents could tell even as an infant, by the way he listened to a music box play "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," that he had the ear for it. They bought him a wind-up guitar at age 3, a real guitar at 5, and loaned him the money to buy his first mandolin not long afterward. Obviously he had the talent to go with the ear.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Mississippi in the '60s, the sounds he absorbed leaned more toward Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash rather than the Beatles and Stones. A pivotal point came in 1971 when Marty, by now a teenaged, mandolin-picking phenom, saw the legendary Flatt at a festival and met his mandolin player, Roland White. White, who went on to found the Nashville Bluegrass Band, saw that the boy had both talent and desire, and a year he later convinced his boss, Flatt, to take the kid on the road. Of course, young Marty still had to convince his paretns, but once they ventured to Nashville, met with Flatt's business manager and saw the fabled Ryman Auditorium, they consented.
Stuart performed with Flatt until his death in 1979. He toured with Vassar Clements, Doc and Merle Watson, and Bob Dylan, while doing session work with Neil Young, Billy Joel, Waylon and Willie and Emmylou. He then caught on with another childhood hero, Johnny Cash, and not only played behind him for six years but also married his daughter Cindy. The union, however, lasted only five years.
By the mid-'80s Marty was an established and respected sideman, but felt the urge to try to make it as a frontman. He had done a couple of solo albums, including one for the Sugar Hill label in '82, which led to his landing a deal with CBS Records. He released his self-titled debut in '86. Although the single "Arlene" cracked the Top 20 and he was nominated by the ACM for Best New Male Artist, the album tanked and CBS scrapped the follow-up (it was later released by Columbia). Stuart left the label and returned home to Mississippi to regroup.
After a rather dark period he landed on his feet, signing with MCA in '89. Since then he has released seven albums for the label, four of which have been certified gold. His latest effort, on Sony, was last year's soundtrack to the movie "All the Pretty Horses." While his songwriting has always been strong, this album truly showcases that particular talent. He wrote or cowrote 20 of the 23 songs in the soundtrack.
Along the way, Marty Stuart has proved that hit records alone do not the artist make. His staying power is guaranteed, his dual fan base secure, in large measure because of the profound love he has for his craft. And that love is reflected back to him from that loyal cadre of fans.
New country or old country, Marty Stuart fits right in.
Saturday, December 1
LJVM Annex (after Generals hockey game)