NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Selling Our Birthright for a Mess of Pottage

Marty Stuart Remains One Strong Voice in the Wilderness

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

There’s much to be said for the protectors and preservers of our culture.

And I mean protecting and preserving not just country music but all American strains of popular music, to protect it from the greedheads who would use it up, strip it and cast it aside.

The exploiters of the mainstream audience who collect the big bucks and do nothing for the heritage of the music they’re using for a commercial springboard will not change their ways, but I’m heartened that there are some protectors and preservers.

Any so-called country artists who don cowboy hats should have to write an essay spelling out why they think they’re eligible to carry on the heritage of Hank Williams.

Often, it’s people from outside of Nashville and outside of the country establishment who step forward to help, such as Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, who works to aid the Chet Atkins Music Education Fund. At a time when school music programs are being gutted and discarded as money-wasting frills, people such as Knopfler recognize the enormous teaching tool that is music.

Commercial labels that perform heroic tasks include Germany’s Bear Family Records, now celebrating its 30th birthday. Here in the USA, Sony’s Legacy line continues to release superlative reissues. Reissue packages this year alone on Legacy include works by Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, George Jones, Flatt & Scruggs, Rosanne Cash, Charlie Poole and a bluegrass retrospective. Indies such as Koch are paying attention to reissues. Koch has been releasing works from the Little Darlin’ catalog, including vintage Johnny Paycheck recordings.

Major Nashville labels are neglecting the musical heritage and ignoring the treasures sitting in their vaults. At least I hope they’re preserved in their vaults. There’s no way of knowing exactly what is being carefully saved and what has been thrown out or sadly neglected. It’s very obvious that no major Nashville label, outside of Sony Nashville’s work with Sony Legacy in New York, is paying serious attention to reissuing classic music. And it’s obviously a matter of ignoring anything that doesn’t have the possibility of a huge and immediate payday. Anything that’s not pushing a big product has little or no room in the corporate showroom today.

Marty Stuart is a prime example of someone I’m going to embarrass by praising extravagantly. As an artist, producer, songwriter, archivist, teacher, historian and photographer, Stuart is a one-man repository of country music and memorabilia. His collection of famous guitars, stage outfits, handwritten song lyrics and other artifacts is breathtaking. To hold Hank Williams’ original handwritten song lyrics in your hand is a humbling experience.

And I salute Universal South for committing to his series of historically important recordings. In August, Stuart will release Souls’ Chapel, the first of a series of three albums about Southern culture on his own Universal South imprint, Superlatone Records. On Souls’ Chapel, Stuart and his top-notch band, the Fabulous Superlatives, explore the rich, mystical world of “Delta gospel” from Stuart’s home state of Mississippi. Songs include some Stuart/Superlatives originals, two from the pen of Pops Staples and one (“Slow Train”) by Steve Cropper and William Bell. Superlatives’ drummer Harry Stinson, guitarist Kenny Vaughan and bassist Brian Glenn also sing on the CD.

The next two albums in Stuart’s projected trilogy will be a recording of a live Superlatives bluegrass concert at the Ryman Auditorium and a tribute to Native Americans titled Badlands.

If you missed Stuart’s excellent 1999 album, The Pilgrim, you owe it to your musical education and well-being to search it out. It’s one of country music’s few true concept albums. In this case, I could loosely describe it as a country opera based on a love triangle, a scandal and eventual redemption. Guests on the album include Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, George Jones and Pam Tillis.

You will recall that in the book of Genesis, Esau, the son of Isaac, sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a mess of pottage — a bowl of lentil stew. Giving up your birthright and heritage for short-term, instant gratification is exactly what the country music industry and much of the entire music industry are doing.

As a nation and as a people, we have a duty and an obligation to honor and preserve our musical heritage.