Widely acclaimed as one of country music’s greatest warriors, Marty Stuart turned a childhood obsession into a lifelong career filled with hit records and collaborations with numerous Nashville legends. A member of the Country Music Foundation and the Grand Ole Opry, he’s preserved the traditions of the genre by assembling a collection of country-related artifacts that has no rival. His most recent project is The Marty Stuart Show, a weekly television program airing Saturday nights on RFD-TV. Stuart discusses the development of the show, his thoughts on the future of country music and his role in honoring its past.
What was the single driving force behind creating The Marty Stuart Show? What are your hopes for the future of the program?
The most important thing was the right setting, the channel, RFD (a Nashville-based television station focused on rural America programming). I’m a big fan of the network and I’ve watched it grow. As a country music fan, I loved those old syndicated shows—The Porter Wagoner Show, The Johnny Cash Show, The Flatt & Scruggs Show, The Wilburn Brothers Show. I loved the spirit of those shows and started talking to Patrick (Carr, Stuart’s biographer) and really wanted to develop this idea. There was nothing like it on television at the time. Traditional country has so few outlets now. I wanted to give it a voice and show the integrity and entertainment value. You know, you have your Kenny Chesneys and Taylor Swifts, and they’re great for the genre, but this is the absolute other end of the country universe, the real traditional stuff. I’m just trying to present country music as a part of American culture, our heritage.
Have you had a favorite guest on the show or a favorite moment that’s transpired during the taping?
No. Honestly, I just can’t pick one. From the first note, there’s not one stray moment, not a bum song, not a throwaway performance. It’s been that way since Little Jimmy Dickens kicked off the first show. We’ve got six more shows in Season One and after we tour this summer and work on some new projects, we’ll be thinking about what we did right, what we can improve, and go on with the next season. I heard somebody say that the show is a throwback, but to me, it’s taking the tradition and putting a new twist on it, bringing it into the present day.
In the thirty minutes, something will appeal to every viewer. Connie (Smith, legendary country singer and Stuart’s wife) says that it’s just one smile from top to bottom. Each segment is sculpted around the individual artists. We’ve carefully selected each piece. It’s just as tailor-made as a Nudie suit (laughs). Right off the bat, with the response that we’ve gotten, it seems to be working. There were a lot of people that were looking for this type of show.
You’ve mentioned how Johnny Cash passed down the torch to you and the younger generation in the 1980s. What artists now do you trust to keep the flame burning?
A lot of people, Ricky (Skaggs), Vince (Gill), me, Alan (Jackson), Patty (Loveless), Alison (Krauss). It’s our turn to scoot it on down the line. Brad Paisley has a heart for it, Keith Urban has a heart for it, even artists that don’t get played on the radio all the time are doing it. There’s a great singer, Sunny Sweeney, from Texas and a lot of really cool bluegrass acts, like SteelDrivers and this guy from Kentucky, Trey Hensley. All these artists keep the tradition alive and well. Just because it’s not front and center, in the mainstream, it doesn’t mean that it’s still there. It’s an eternal flame.
Recently you served as producer on Porter Wagoner’s final album (2007′s Wagonmaster) and Kathy Mattea’s critically-acclaimed project, Coal. What about the role of producer feeds your creative spirit?
It has to be the right project. It all depends on the feeling that gets inside me. It’s about a need. With Porter’s album, I wanted to keep his legacy intact. I thought it would be a great injustice for the integrity and dignity of one our statesmen, one of our elder chiefs, to be overlooked and brushed aside.
With Kathy’s album, Coal, she came to me with this desire to shine a light on the coal-mining industry, something she was familiar with being from West Virginia. She wanted it to be authentic and get back in touch with her roots, draw from her experiences. The best word to describe it is “need.” I needed to do it. Great music is about passion and belief.
What’s the status on new music from you as a recording artist?
Well, I’m sitting here right now with a pile of about 20 songs for my next album, and we’ve got three more songs to go on a gospel record that I’m doing with the Superlatives. And I’m doing an album of instrumental hillbilly surf music!
Instrumental hillbilly surf?
It’s gonna be interesting. (laughs)
Connie has three albums that she’s working on, too, so that’s six albums total by the end of the year. I’m producing Connie’s and they’re gonna be great, great records. Connie sings from the heart.
She owns one of the most powerful, pristine voices in country music.
Absolutely. When someone comes up to me and tells me about this new singer I’m supposed to check out, well, I say, “Hey, I’m married to Connie Smith!” That’s a pretty high measure. She’s the real deal.
How has your approach to making records changed since you broke as a solo act in the mid-1980s?
Back then, it was a popularity contest, all about having a hit and chasing the charts and becoming a part of the parade. Now, I can follow my heart and let it go from there.
The exhibit featuring all your treasured memorabilia, Sparkle & Twang, was recently showcased at the Tennessee State Museum and finishes a run at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame at the end of the month. Where can fans see the exhibit next?
The Gene Autry Museum in California (Los Angeles); this spring we’ll be opening up a new exhibit there.
What’s the greatest satisfaction in maintaining this historical collection you’ve amassed throughout the year?
Country music is a treasured city, a vanishing race. It seemed so wrong for me to see it discarded and overlooked.
Connie and I went to Rome last week. They’ve taken great care of the Vatican. Every stone has been cared for, every scene photographed. In country music, nobody was at home, so to speak. So much of this songs, the artifacts, the artists, were lost. I wanted to be a missionary, to represent and keep watch over the music, to have some sort of remembrance of it. It’s part of America’s culture and history. It defines who we are, who we were, and who we’ll be. Country music is timeless. I wanted to be a steward of this stuff.
Your book of photography, Country Music: The Masters, was released in November. Two photos in particular stand out. First and most famously, the picture of Johnny soon before his death. The one that struck me, though, was the photo that you took of Connie in the backseat of her car when you were just twelve years old.
The local radio station, WHOC, announced that Connie Smith was coming to the Choctaw Indian Fair. Connie was mama’s favorite singer, and she had the album, Ms. Smith Goes to Nashville and we loved that album. She’d play on the Opry and I was just in awe. My dad couldn’t go, but mama took me and my sister to go see Connie. I had her go buy a yellow shirt so that I could stand out in the crowd. So me and Jennifer (Stuart’s sister) went down to get her autograph. I still didn’t think that Connie had noticed me, so I borrowed mama’s camera and snapped that picture.
This year is the 60th anniversary of the Choctaw County Fair, and it’s one day after our 12th anniversary, so we’re going to play a concert there together right at the scene of the crime where cupid shot his arrow.
In the past, you were known for wearing rhinestone-studded Nudie suits onstage, but some have said that you took to wearing black to honor Johnny Cash. What’s the truth behind the rumor?
That’s not true at all! A lot of folks said I was wearing it out of respect or dedication, but I just like black. The style rolls on. It doesn’t give me any trouble when I go to the closet. It’s really slimming.
It never goes out of style.
Yeah. You know, it’s Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday this week and Johnny always patterned himself by him and that’s what Lincoln wore. It’s not bad company to be in. I’ve always liked the high collar clothes, the dark clothing. It just works. Even back when I was young and touring with Lester Flatts or wearing all those Nudie suits, it was black, just with a bunch of rhinestones on it! But there’s white in my heart. (laughs)
Your annual Late Night Jam (a CMA Music Festival staple) is slated to go on sale soon.
Tickets go on sale Valentine’s Day, February 14. Last year’s show sold out. We’ve got the Oak Ridge Boys and Cherryholmes this year. I don’t remember who else we’ve got coming, but you just know it’s going to be a great show. It’s just back-to-basics country music.
Tickets to Marty’s 8th Annual Late Night Jam will go on sale Saturday, February 14 through Ticketmaster. The Marty Stuart Show can be seen on Saturday nights on RFD-TV. Check your local cable provider for times.