Marty Stuart is taking the flavor of the American West overseas this weekend during the three-day, three-city Country2Country Festival, where he and his band are sharing the bill with the Zac Brown Band, Maren Morris and Brothers Osborne for shows in London, Dublin and Glasgow.
That particular flavor is at the center of Way Out West, the just-released concept album Stuart recorded with his longtime allies in the Fabulous Superlatives. As evidenced by the initial video for the title track, the album is a rich, somewhat trippy visit to California music history.
What it’s not, however, is a direct homage to California, even though the influences of Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, the Beach Boys and the Ventures are on prominent display for anyone who remembers them.
“It didn’t need to be another tribute to Bakersfield,” Stuart said earlier this week on a visit to CMT’s offices in Nashville. “That’s been done, and every time Merle’s music or Buck’s music comes on the radio, it takes all those tribute records and puts them back in their place.
“This album was about a much broader span than just the Bakersfield contribution. With the California information being the impetus of it all, when you take that and put it in the broader setting of the Mojave Desert and drawing from the Byrds and Link Wray, it’s a lot more fun.”
There’s also an Old West vibe that originated from Marty Robbins’ 1959 album, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.
“You cannot do a record like this without tipping your hat to Gunfighter Ballads and ‘El Paso’ and ‘Big Iron’ and all those songs that came from there,” Stuart said. “I’ve owned that album on every format it’s been offered on since I was a kid.
“My mother named me for Marty Robbins. … He was probably one of the most versatile people who ever worked in this town. He had it all. Time stands still when you hear him sing.”
Way Out West, produced by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ guitarist Mike Campbell, was recorded in California at the legendary Capitol Records studio and Campbell’s M.C. Studio. Stuart and Campbell first worked together when Petty and the Heartbreakers served as the backing band on Johnny Cash’s 1996 album, American Recordings II: Unchained. Campbell also contributed to Stuart’s 1999 album, The Pilgrim.
Stuart said Campbell was the logical choice to produce Way Out West.
“To make this record, I couldn’t do it in Nashville,” Stuart said. “I knew it needed palm trees and blue sky and desert air and all the things the West offers that the South doesn’t have. I knew I needed a shepherd — a producer of sorts — who had an overview of the entire American music system and what we were trying to do and could get us there into places we’d never gone to as a band anymore.”
The studios played a major role in the album’s direction.
“Campbell’s house is like a guitar emporium,” Stuart said. “Think of a sound, and it’s there hanging on the wall.”
Stuart’s only experience at the Capitol studio was several years ago when he produced a track for singer-songwriter Beck.
“That was the only time I’d ever been there, but I knew that Capitol in Hollywood was part of this record,” Stuart said. “We were in the ‘A’ room. I think Bob Dylan had the ‘B’ room commandeered. But we walked into to the ‘A’ room, and I said, ‘Is this where “Wichita Lineman” was cut? Is this where “Ode to Billie Joe” was cut?’ And the answer kept being, ‘Yeah.’
“I swear, there is Capitol Studios and then there’s every other studio on the planet Earth. It is the ultimate, paramount of sound in the United States of America. It is a magical place.”
The instrumental work of Stuart and his band is prominently featured on the new album.
“If you look back into the Superlatives’ body of work, we’ve always included instrumentals,” he said. “But when we got up to the line of that ‘love letter to California music’ like we’re doing here, all of a sudden there’s the Ventures and all that surf rock that happened out there. If you look at just right, there’s not a nickel’s worth of difference between what Buck Owens and the Buckaroos played on ‘Buckaroo’ and what the Ventures were playing. It’s all that twangy instrumental stuff.”
The music video director Reid Long created for “Way Out West” is easily one of the most inventive country-related productions to ever come down the pike. When it’s suggested that the video is a little emotionally jarring, Stuart says, “Good. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”
Continuing his mission to preserve country music history, he still felt the need to create “something that looks different, that sounds different, that feels different but that doesn’t look like we’re abandoning ourselves.”
He adds, “I think we accomplished that with the video. It disturbs people sometimes. The first one was my mama. She said, ‘What are you doing singing about pills.’ I said, ‘Did you make it to the end of the song? My advice is don’t take pills. It took me 14 years of sobriety to write that song.’
“She said, ‘Well, I hope somebody makes it to the end of the song to hear that.'”
Stuart acknowledges that he’s known a lot of people who took pills.
“It was just a part of the deal,” he said. “When I first got to town in 1972, nobody thought anything about it. Nobody thought it was illegal. There were doctors all over town writing prescriptions for pickers and bus drivers. It was just part of the vocabulary around here: ‘You got anything? What do you need?’
“It got out of hand, and it ruined a lot of lives and ruined a lot of marriages. It wrecked a lot of bands. It is a progressive disease, and it goes crazy on you. But, yeah, I can tell you anything you want do know about the subject.”
Any singer or musician who releases a new album will tell you they’re excited about their latest music. More than three decades after releasing his solo debut album, Busy Bee Café, in 1982, Stuart is clearly taking special pride in Way Out West.
“We’re already performing it live,” he said. “Every single song works live, and people are responding to it in a way that’s making me go, ‘Whoa!’ We haven’t had a response like this off of new songs — ever. They’re singing along to the second chorus and jumping up and down.
“Something’s going on here, and I like it.”