(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
With his latest musical ventures, Marty Stuart is getting to do what few recording artists in any music genre ever accomplish: namely, to do exactly as he pleases musically for a while. Universal South Records launched Stuart’s Superlatone label with his CDs Souls’ Chapel and Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota. Also coming in early 2006 is a live bluegrass album Stuart recorded with his band the Fabulous Superlatives at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.
All the albums are musical risks, which all parties involved well knew. But now and then, there are musical risks worth taking.
Soul’s Chapel is the first in Stuart’s projected trilogy depicting the South’s diverse musical heritage. It ranges from the white gospel of the great songwriter Albert E. Brumley to the black gospel of the Staple Singers, with Mavis Staples joining Stuart on the Pops Staples song, “Move Along Train.” Badlands grew out of Johnny Cash’s involvement with Native Americans and derives from Stuart’s first visit to the Lakota reservation in the Badlands area of South Dakota. The Cash troupe played a show there, and the experience made a huge impact on Stuart, and he found himself returning many times. Finally, he cut this concept album, with John Carter Cash co-producing, about the Lakotas and their struggles. His third album of the trilogy, Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives Live at the Ryman was originally unplanned but came from listening to a tape recorded at the mixing board at the band’s Ryman show.
Stuart’s career has been infinitely interesting, going all the way back to his childhood. He was a musical child prodigy in his little hometown of Philadelphia, Miss. At the age of 12, he toured as mandolin player with the bluegrass gospel group the Sullivan Family Singers. At 13, he was on the road playing guitar and mandolin with bluegrass pioneer Lester Flatt and his band. He moved on to join virtuoso fiddler Vassar Clements in the group Hillbilly Jazz and to play guitar with Doc and Merle Watson. At 19, he joined Johnny Cash’s road show. Along the way, he has become very fluent and conversant in country’s many facets, from bluegrass to gospel to rockabilly to trad country to Southern rock.
He’s long been infinitely devoted to preserving country’s heritage and history and has spent a lot of his own money over the years buying up and preserving country artifacts. Stuart has the greatest Hank Williams collection in the country. He took me on a tour of his warehouse, stuffed with his music archives and clothing and Nudie suits and boots and guitars and banjos and Lord knows what else from Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash and dozens of others. Just holding Hank Williams’ original handwritten song lyrics in my hand and reading the words of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” exactly as Hank wrote them — what a thrilling and humbling experience that is.
Stuart’s music has always been informed by his understanding of the musical roots of country. Probably his greatest album was The Pilgrim, a concept record that I think was greatly overlooked and underappreciated. But you do what you can. In many ways, what Stuart has been doing musically is an extension of the efforts his friend and teacher Johnny Cash made to extend and expand country music’s reach and its horizons. Cash’s ventures were not always critical or financial pleasures, but he never stopped trying, especially in his outreaches to the unheard, the downtrodden, the ignored Native Americans.
I think one of the many reasons rock music is eroding so badly is that there are no Marty Stuarts in rock to maintain and uphold and preserve the musical and cultural traditions. Rock has no glue holding it together anymore. It no longer has any long-memory record labels that would encourage and foster a traditionalist and adventurer such as Stuart in a campaign to keep the music alive. Sticking the music on a shelf in a museum is one thing; keeping it live and kicking is another.
Thank God country music still has a few oddballs like Marty Stuart around to keep it reasonably healthy.