For most country musicians, long stints touring first with Lester Flatt and then Johnny Cash would add up to a fulfilling career. But guitarist, mandolinist, and singer Marty Stuart was determined to break out on his own. And so he has, finding great success over the past 40 years.
Stuart is a Mississippi native. From the moment he was born in 1958, he seemed fated for country greatness: his mom named him after Marty Robbins. Stuart was only 13 when Roland White, who played mandolin in Lester Flatt’s band, recruited him to join the group. It was a long association, lasting until Flatt retired in 1978. Then Stuart played with Johnny Cash, which he did on and off for years as he got his solo career rolling.
The roster of Stuart’s solo albums numbers nearly two dozen, not including the many times he’s been a special guest on other artists’ projects. No matter how many records he makes or how many years he plays, he has kept Johnny Cash close to his heart. In fact, Cash sang on Stuart’s second solo effort, Busy Bee Café (1982). “One More Ride” was written by Bob Nolan. Stuart and Cash’s vocal harmony is as tight as the interplay of their guitars.
A few years later, in 1989, Stuart made Hillbilly Rock. Cash was present on this one, too, as the composer of the album’s biggest hit, “Cry, Cry, Cry.” There are plenty of members of Nashville royalty filling the session chairs: country hit-writers Kostas and Paul Kennerley sing background vocals, and on piano is Glen Hardin, who has worked with Emmylou Harris, John Denver, and even Elvis Presley.
Besides writing some of his own material, Stuart also borrows from many contemporaries. An example, from Hillbilly Rock, is Joe Ely’s “Me and Billy the Kid.” As the album title suggests, there’s a heavy rock influence here, especially in the drums and bass. But Stuart’s mandolin rises like a tiny giant, piercing through the blanket of heavier sounds.
The late 1980s and early 1990s were Stuart’s heyday in terms of record sales. Tempted (1991) produced four Top 20 singles, with the title song, written by Stuart and Kennerley, reaching No. 5. The Eddie Miller track “Burn Me Down” was another big hit.
Tempted opens with a rousing rendition of the Bill Monroe and Hank Williams classic, “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome.” But maybe the most surprising choice on the set list is Neil Young’s “Get Back to the Country.” Stuart’s version is significantly slicker than Young’s (and with significantly less jaw harp!), but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in great energy. Mark O’Connor’s fiddling is like a train engine, barreling along the Tennessee countryside.
[Editor’s Note: Marty Stuart owns one of the most famous guitars in country-music history: the 1954 Telecaster formerly owned by Clarence White of the Byrds and the Kentucky Colonels. Click on this link for more information.]
The music business is known for making some dubious decisions over fears for its bottom line. Take Let There Be Country, an album that Stuart recorded in 1988. At the time, Columbia Records shelved it because Stuart didn’t have much of a track record, and the label predicted it wouldn’t sell. That was right before Stuart hit it really big, of course. Four years later, Columbia realized they should reach into their vaults.
This album is a fine example of neotraditional country. By the time it saw the light of day, that style was well established in Nashville, but when it was recorded, it was a newish trend to go back to the bluegrass licks, mountain vocal harmonies, and blues and gospel chords from which the country genre had originally formed. A fine example is Stuart’s interpretation of Bill Monroe’s “Get Down on Your Knees and Pray.” There’s even a clanky piano that sounds like it could be in a bar room in the old west.
By 1996, when Stuart released Honky Tonkin’s What I Do Best, he was well established with the MCA Nashville label. His records still reached the Top 40, but his Top 10 days were in a lull. That doesn’t mean his output had dropped in quality. As Wendy Newcomer put it in her 1996 review for Cash Box, “With each new album, Marty Stuart comes closer and closer to filling the shoes of the legends with which he once toured.” Fair enough.
A lot of his success comes from the wonderful arrangements he uses and the many great artists he consistently surrounds himself with. These include Nashville session stalwarts like drummer Steve Turner, bass guitarist Michael Rhodes, and fiddler Stuart Duncan. The song “Country Girls,” with its driving guitar rhythm, was written by Stuart and frequent songwriting partner Paul Kennerley.
The history of country music is tangled up in the history of gospel, and it’s part of the neotraditional philosophy to acknowledge that relationship. Stuart did just that in 2005 with the album Soul’s Chapel. It was his second with his new band, the Fabulous Superlatives, on his new label, Superlatone.
Like every major genre category, “gospel” can be many different things. Stuart acknowledges that, tapping into the diverse cultures and time periods that have formed this distinctively American music of non-liturgical worship. Soul’s Chapel includes some originals and some classics, like Roebuck Staples’ “Somebody Saved Me.” All the members of the Fabulous Superlatives sing, and they craft some gripping harmony here, accompanied by a lone, lonesome guitar.
As with his gospel album, Stuart often uses neotraditionalism as a starting point for bringing country history back to life. He did this in an unusual way for the 2010 album Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions. The title refers to RCA Studio B in Nashville, a legendary recording studio that had been out of service for a long time, coopted by the Country Music Hall of Fame as an archive and exhibit space. Thinking that was a waste of top-notch acoustic design, Stuart asked if he could make a record there.
Besides its recording venue, Ghost Train ended up being historically important for another reason. For the album, Stuart visited an ailing Johnny Cash, and the two of them co-wrote a song called “Hangman.” It turned out to be the last song Cash ever wrote; he died a few days later. The spirit of Stuart’s old friend is present in this wistful performance.
Marty Stuart is far from finished making his mark in country music. He also keeps finding great people to work with. In 2017 he made Way Out West, produced by Mike Campbell, best known as the guitarist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The idea was to give the songs a California edge.
The album, which was a big hit, is different from many of his previous records for its small personnel list. It’s just the Fabulous Superlatives: joining Stuart are Chris Scruggs on bass guitar, Harry Stinson on drums, and Kenny Vaughan on electric guitar. As you can hear on “Air Mail Special,” those four men don’t need any help to land solidly in a bluegrass groove.
As if he needed the validation after decades of well-appreciated work in the studio and on stage, Marty Stuart was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2021. It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving musician.
Header image: Marty Stuart with the legendary 1954 Telecaster formerly owned by Clarence White. Courtesy of Alysse Gafkjen.