After a string of hits during the ‘90s, Marty Stuart found new creative energy as a record producer, working on projects such as Billy Bob Thornton’s Private Radio (released in 2001) and the all-star Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to the Songs of Johnny Cash (2002). Stuart also expanded his involvement in films by scoring All the Pretty Horses, a project directed by Thornton and starring Matt Damon, Penelope Cruz and Bruce Dern.
Stuart and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, recently released Country Music, an aptly-named album containing several of his original songs and additional covers of songs popularized by Johnny Cash and Porter Wagoner.
Inspired by small-town America, Stuart launched the Electric Barnyard Festival earlier this month. Merle Haggard joins him on the road, as well as a variety of others: Old Crow Medicine Show, Connie Smith, BR549 and Rhonda Vincent.
The Mississippi native and Grand Ole Opry star recently visited with CMT Radio’s Shannon Wayne Turner about the lessons he learned during his “intermission,” the state of contemporary country music and what’s on the other side of the rainbow.
CMT: After your success in the ‘90s, why did you leave the Nashville mainstream for a while?
Stuart: I left off in the year 2000 with a record called The Pilgrim. I loved it a lot, but it was a very artsy record. At the end of that, I remember on Jan. 31, 2000, we played a concert in northern Mississippi. I sat my suitcase down at the end of that concert and put all my show clothes in the closet and became a civilian for a minute, or tried to. I left home when I was 13 — 12 actually — and I hadn’t been home in 27 years, to speak of. It was just time for “intermission,” as I termed it. I wound up scoring films and producing records on other people, writing songs with my friends, playing music with people just for the fun of it.
CMT: When did you decide it was time to come home?
Stuart: I had been out in California scoring films for a few months, and one morning I got this feeling in my heart. I knew it was time to go home and say goodbye to California and get back to making country music. But home to me at that point wasn’t Nashville. It was about going back to Mississippi, to my farm and getting in tune with the land and nature and with the train whistle down there. I thought, “Man, I would like to make some country music.” So I went back home and started writing it and thinking about it and just kind of went back to basics and square one. I fell back in love with Flatt & Scruggs records and Johnny Cash records. I was just looking for a sign, a getting-on place.
The night before I left California, I had a talk with Faye Dunaway, one of my favorite people and one of my favorite actresses. I said “Fay-bob, I gotta go home and do something that’s gonna be hard.” And she said, “What, dah-ling?” I said, “I am going to go home and pick up where I left off and go back to work.” She said, “Oh, don’t even think about it. You have so much to draw from, so much power and inspiration to draw from. Just go home and let God do His thing and you do yours.” I thought, “Well, that’s easy to say,” but that’s kind of what happened.
CMT: When did you decide to take on a tour?
Stuart: We were in this little town in Pennsylvania, playing next to a cornfield. The moon and stars were out. Amish people came and brought pies and cakes and goods to sell. There was, like, a 4-H Club there with calves and livestock. New tractors were being displayed. Everybody was there, from babies to bikers. We had 5,500 people in the crowd, and there was this local group called A Tribute to the Late Great Conway Twitty (laughs). And there was a herd of them on-stage, and they were doing Conway Twitty songs. I just totally fell in love. I said, “This is it, man. This is America.” There was a sense of community everywhere we were going. Our presence was bringing communities together in a special way.
I went home and called my booking agent and said that I wanted to stay on the back roads, but I want to make something out of it. And I thought of the name — the Electric Barnyard Festival. Well, who would I use? We needed an American icon, and I immediately thought of Merle Haggard. I also thought of Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. She’s the queen of bluegrass. Old Crow Medicine Show is a string band I found in a parking lot a couple of years back. BR549 is on some shows. Connie Smith [Stuart’s wife] is on some shows. It’s been a go-to-the-office-every-day kind of job for the last year to put this together and get this record off the ground, but we’re there.
CMT: How does the Electric Barnyard Festival fit in the realm of the big stadium tours out there?
Marty: Sometimes I think we’re down here like this little bitty mom-and-pop peanut gallery, while Tim and Faith and Kenny Chesney and Alan Jackson and George Strait are just ripping up the world. But when I start working hard, and I get inside my own vision, those kinds of things fade away. You just get into the radiance of your own vision. That’s when magic starts to occur. I’ve spent a lot of my life absolutely pushing and shoving and trying to be this or be that, when it really wasn’t the right thing to do spiritually. I’ve learned that it’s better to just lay back and go out there, and it really doesn’t matter what the outcome is.
I mean, come on. I have my health. My mom and my dad and my sister are still with me. Connie and I have an incredible marriage. Home feels peaceful. There’s a recording contract on the table. There’s a tour on the table. There’s work. The songs and the creativity are flowing now. It would be wonderful to take a snapshot of it like it is right now and leave it that way, but it can’t be that way. It’s a very blessed time and I recognize it.
CMT: Since you’re taking such a roots-oriented approach with the Electric Barnyard Festival and your new album, what does that say about your opinion of other contemporary country music?
Stuart: First and foremost — and this is coming from over three decades of doing this — there comes a point, it never fails, that country artists are the worst in the fact that we when have a little fame as an industry and we get a little success behind us, our numbers go up. And the next thing — you can just set your watch by it — is that we try to become pop stars. It never fails. It’s always been that way. We always try to broaden our base and go to a larger mass of people, grab a larger culture.
When you do that, a lot of times the roots and the original point of view get left behind. Then, somebody has to speak up in church and ring the bell and go, “Oh, but remember.” And I think there’s been a lot of that going on in the last couple of years. It’s healthy to see O Brother, Where Art Thou? be successful, and it’s healthy to see what music the Chicks have played. People like Ricky Skaggs and Alison Krauss are always there. I just thought it was my turn to get back in there and do my part. I just simply wanted to stand up for the cause. People always ask what kind of record my new album is going to be, and I just thought, “Well, let’s just take care of that and call it Country Music.” (Laughs) That’s what I love, and I think what I am trying to simply say is, “Here, share my life’s experience with me, share this point in the journey.” These songs come from my heart and they come from my experience. If you need ‘em and they help your life out, great. Take the advice and run with it. If not, just dance to it and forget it. That’s the beauty of it.
CMT: Do you think that the rivalries or controversies that sometimes happen with artists, like Toby Keith and Natalie Maines, hurt the music?
Stuart: Hillbilly feuds ain’t nothin’ new. When you have that many egos and that many personalities, and that much money and that much fame, on the table, it’s going to get crossed up from time to time. It’s bound to happen. On the other hand, let’s look at it from another perspective. Wrestlers make a good living by saying, “I’m gonna do this to you.” It becomes a bit of a finger-pointing match from the other side of the ring, so it becomes good business, too. Scrapping sometimes means more to ticket sales and more fame.
As an industry and for the dignity of the industry, I don’t think it helps us. At the same time, it isn’t any of my business. I’m not a part of it, so it really doesn’t concern me. But from an industry standpoint, let’s take a breath and get back to playing. Like the bumper sticker I saw when I went to Memphis, Tenn. We booked Sun Studios, and there was a bumper sticker above the control room that said “It’s about the music, stupid.” (Laughs) So, there it is.
CMT: You’ve said that you’ve been in extraordinary circumstances, known extraordinary people. Have you found your place among them, your own purpose?
Stuart: Funny you ask that. I’ve always felt like that old U2 song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” but I know I’m looking. I can’t say that I have hit it. I felt like the ‘70s were about learning, the ‘80s were about living, the ‘90s were about doing and this go-round is about accomplishing — about fulfilling the destiny. I’m not quite sure what it is, but I believe in preparation. I believe that if you go back to the Old Testament, everybody that meant anything was prepared. Moses was prepared for his moment; Jesus Christ was prepared for his moment. There’s an incredible amount of preparation that goes into meaningful lives and meaningful duties. And I swear, pick a ditch, I’ve stepped in it. Pick a pothole, I’ve fallen into it. Pick a mistake, I’ve made it. However, I also understand about getting up and going on. There’s a point when experience becomes your most valuable asset, and wherever the road goes this time, I’m ready for it and totally looking forward to it, because I feel the other side of the rainbow is around the corner.
CMT: What’s on the other side of the rainbow?
Stuart: I have no idea. Isn’t that great?