Let’s say you’ve been on the country music scene for around 30 years, even though you’re only in your early 40s. And let’s say you’ve served as an instrumentalist for several members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. And let’s say you’ve spent a large part of the late ’80s and ’90s selling millions of records and being one of country’s hottest road acts. What then should you do? For a lot of artists, making a concept album with not a lot of commercial appeal wouldn’t be high on the list. But for Marty Stuart it seemed natural.
Stuart’s latest effort, The Pilgrim, is a masterpiece that tells the tale of love gone wrong and the tragedy, revenge, and redemption that follows. The guests range from his former bandleader, Johnny Cash, to Emmylou Harris, George Jones, Ralph Stanley, Pam Tillis, Earl Scruggs, and more. And the instruments used are enough to make any collector drool: Hank Williams’ 1939 Martin D-45, Mother Maybelle Carter’s Fender Palomino, Don Rich’s ’64 Tele, Luther Perkins’ ’55 Esquire, Bill Monroe’s ’50 Martin D-28, and of course Stuart’s very own Tele, formerly owned by Clarence White.
With that backdrop, we started our interview with Stuart talking about buying instruments.
Vintage Guitar: How are you doin’?
Marty Stuart: Great! I love your magazine. It costs me lots of money. I try to stay away, but it doesn’t always work. Me and Tom Petty were talking about going to Norman’s Rare Guitars…Tom says it’s like going to a dope dealer when you’re trying to stay off the dope.
Let’s talk about The Pilgrim a little bit. How did the idea come about, especially given the state of country music radio?
I’ve been on the road since I was 12, and I figured as the century came to an end – and really it’s the end of country music’s first century – it seemed like a milestone time for me and for country music. It just seemed time to draw down a marker and do something different, rather than just a normal kind of record. Time to close and then open the next door up.
I really didn’t have this in mind when I started…I just wanted to do something different. I didn’t know what different meant and this thing just kind of evolved into this gorilla it became (laughter).
How did you label react? Did you get some funny looks?
Well, I expected to be escorted out of the building by security guards when I brought it up. I presented it in the weirdest way. In North Hollywood there’s a street called Lankershim Boulevard, and that’s where Nudie, the rodeo tailor was, and Manuel was there. There was a guy named Jaime…it was kind of the boulevard of the cowboy tailors. There’s a lady out there named Rose Clemons, who did all the embroidering on the suits. She was a master tailor embroiderer.
Now Rose is closing in on 80 years old, and I just drew out on three paper towels this little scenario – comedy and tragedy in the middle, all points in heaven on the top and hell on the bottom – and took it to Rose. I said “Rose, do me a tapestry, four feet by five feet, like a greatest hits of all the greatest embroidery…just kind of a love letter to Lankershim boulevard. So, she says (Stuart dons an English accent), “Oh, what a wonderful idea.’
She did it, and sure enough, it’s like a museum piece. It’s just an incredible work of art you just can’t walk away from. So, Tony Brown from MCA kept leanin’ on me about “…it’s time to do a record, it’s time to do a record, it’s time to do a record.” This goes on for about two and a half or three years. And I’m like, “Tony, I don’t have anything to say right now. Country music sounds like **** to me and I don’t want to be a part of it in its current climate.”
“Well…” he said. “We need a record.” So, come showdown day I had to go to the record company to tell ’em what I wanted to do, and I took this tapestry. I laid it on the floor and said, “Isn’t that pretty?” Everyone was oooing and aahing and I said, “That’s what I want my record to sound like.” And they all went, “Whaaaa?” Then Tony went, “Cool…I think.”
And that’s how I sold ’em. I said, “I want my record to be a reflection of country music past, present, and future.”
The album’s been out a couple of months. Has it been accepted by country radio?
No. In fact, the first single was “Red, Red Wine and a Cheatin’ Song,” and country radio said it was “too country.” I said, “Thank you very much, I’ve been trying to be ‘too country’ for 25 years.”
My wife, Connie [Smith, legendary country singer], made an observation the other day when she heard somebody say that. She thought it was strange that we’re the only genre of music that uses that term. I’ve never heard anybody say, “It’s too jazz, it’s too rock, it’s too blues, it’s too gospel.” And here we stand saying, “It’s too country.” How can you be too country?
Would it be safe to say the current climate of country radio is not where you’re at?
Well, you know, I’m a contributing factor as to the current state of country. It really seems strange that at the end of this I finally stuck a hat on my head on this album cover and Garth Brooks took his off and grew his hair long. So I guess everything’s gone to hell (laughs).
A lot of the folks who took part on the album are obviously old friends How’d you get everyone involved?
Well, when things started to stretch out and it started to seem like a little opera, a little melodrama piece. I thought, “Maybe this calls for some voices to make casual appearances,” almost like angels to fly in and out and then go away. At the same time I needed the voices, like with Scruggs and those guys…I knew the voices I was using were timeless. They go beyond any trend. That was kind of the benchmark.
Let’s delve a bit into your history. Like you said, you started at a young age, backing some pretty famous folks.
I started on the circuit at 12, playing mandolin with the Sullivan Family. They were bluegrass/gospel people. We worked mostly Pentecostal church meetings and camp meetings, and bluegrass festivals. I think that summer we even worked a George Wallace campaign rally! It was there I got my feet wet and learned the bluegrass world.
Roland White became my best friend in the bluegrass field. He had a job playing mandolin with Lester [Flatt], and he kind of told me that maybe if I had a weekend off he’d ask Lester if I could ride along. So, when the summer was over, I had to cut my hair and go back to school and nobody knew who Flatt and Scruggs or Bill Monroe was.
I wasn’t looking for that kind of life anymore, because I figured out by the end of that summer that if you’re a picker, you can wear your hair weird, wear weird clothes, play music all night long, chase girls, get applause, and get paid for it! So, to forfeit that to go sit in math class just didn’t work for me anymore, so I got kicked out of school. I called Roland and took him up on his offer. Lester heard me and Roland playing in the back of the bus, and he put me on the show that weekend. At the end of the weekend, he offered me a gig.
You must have been in heaven.
Oh, man! My world went from black and white to technicolor…
Were you playing mostly mandolin then?
Mandolin and guitar, and fiddle. Then, we all heard about this thing from Washington state, and this thing was Mark O’Connor. I met Mark at a bluegrass festival in Hugo, Oklahoma. People were gathered around, and man, he was fiddlin’. It was the most incredible thing I’d ever heard coming out of somebody that age. I walked over to the bus, handed Lester my fiddle, and said “…never again.”
What happened from there.
Well, Lester died around 1979. I worked with Vassar [Clements] for a while. Then, Doc and Merle [Watson], and then I went to work with John (Cash) when I was 20 or 21.
I need to ask about something in Johnny’s autobiography. There’s a story about a guitar of yours (Stuart laughs)…you know the one I mean?
Yeah. It was an Ovation, and it was the worst guitar in the world. That particular one – not saying anything against Ovation. It was so bad, I nicknamed it “Old Tunin'” ’cause you couldn’t knock it out of tune. I used to take it off [by taking] the back piece of my strap, unhooking it, and letting the guitar hit the floor. It stayed in tune, but it sounded so bad. John would look at me like I was putting my nails on a chalkboard.
One night I told him, “I’m sick of this guitar, here’s what I want you to do.” When he was doing one of his songs – I think it was “A Boy Named Sue” – he would drop his guitar and take his microphone and strut across the stage – he wears like a size 14 boot – and I told him during that song I’d leave the guitar laying there. I told him to step right in it with those boots and just wear it across the stage. So I expected it. But when he got to it, he never broke stride, man, he just dipped down and grabbed it. He took it up in his hands and held it until the end of the song, when he asked if there were any kids [in the audience]. This little guy stuck his hand up and came up and got it. We all thought, “That’s why you’re Johnny Cash. You’re a whole lot cooler than that.”
What was it like working with Johnny? He was there for the start of rock and roll and for much of the ’50s and ’60s heyday of country.
When I was five years old, I got a record player, and the first two records I owned were Flatt and Scruggs Greatest Hits and The Fabulous Johnny Cash. The next week I got Meet the Beatles, which I listened to one time, then gave to my cousin. I kept the two country records. There was something about his voice…he wasn’t just your ordinary hillbilly. He was mysterious, a great storyteller, and so when everybody else was crazy about the Beatles or Elvis, he was my guy. And he still is my guy. He’s the last one I got left. I’ve gotta’ tell ya’, the first night I walked onstage with him, when he said, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” I just hung my head and started bawlin’. I thought, “You certainly are.”
I love him. He is one of the most important contributions America has to offer as a musician of originality.
You seem so well-rounded, musically. What do you listen to at home or on the road?
When I’m by myself, I love Miles Davis. Miles figured into the making of The Pilgrim in a sense, because when you listen to Miles’ recordings, they unfold like paintings. Once they start, they don’t quit until they’re finished. They take you on a little journey.
I still listen to Johnny Cash. I love the mid-’60s version of Merle Haggard. I still love the Stones. Muddy Waters gets me a lot. Right now, I like Matchbox 20. I think one of this year’s best records is Cher’s Believe. Great record, with beautiful production.
How about guitar players, or instrumentalists in general? Who do you like and who influenced you?
Luther Perkins was my original guitar influence. Muddy Waters. After I moved to Nashville and got the job with Lester, Roland had a brother named Clarence (White), who came through and got me set completely on this guitar trail I’m on now. There was a steel player named Ralph Mooney who played on all the Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Waylon hits. His playing, combined with Clarence’s guitar playing and Luther’s twangin’ kind of stuff, set me on a trail of trying to figure out something on the electric guitar.
As far as mandolin players, I really love the soul of Bill Monroe. I loved Earl Scruggs’ playing. Vassar’s fiddle playing meant a lot. The guitar player in my band, Brad Davis, is an incredible flatpicker. I’m split down the middle…I have an electric guitar on, of course I’ve got Clarence’s old pull-string, but you know I’m just a frustrated steel player who can’t play a lick. I’m a big steel guitar freak. On the acoustic side, the choices are obvious.
Let’s talk a little about the instruments on the album. Some incredible guitars are listed in the notes.
I’ve always enjoyed collecting guitars. I don’t really care how they look, it’s the sound and the feel of it that sells me on them more than anything. I got in on something back in Nashville when I was young…think back, all those guys who really counted, like Luther Perkins, Ralph Mooney, Lloyd Green played a lot of great steel, Scruggs, Vassar, Roy Nichols, James Burton, Clarence, on and on and on, all of those guys, Don Helms is another – three notes and you knew who was playing because everybody’s tone was kind of their signature.
Now most players you hear on the radio…it’s such a factory process to make records at the moment, everybody’s so rack-oriented, it takes a search warrant to find out who played what. You have to go to the union to find out (laughs). Tones don’t give anything away because it’s all kind of a factory processed thing. I’m a huge fan of finding the axe that suits ya, find the amp that suits ya, find a tone in it, and let that be your thing. Those guitars you’re talking about, they’re personality guitars. Most of them on the record have played on a lot of hits, and just to have them there to look at is just as pretty as looking at paintings. But to plug them in and be able to play them – and they still sound like a million bucks – makes it that much richer.
It’s nice to hear someone collects ’em and still plays ’em.
Well, that’s the rule. That’s the only sense I can make out of the ridiculous prices we’re paying for guitars. I have to put ’em to work in one sense or the other.
I’m the president of the Country Music Hall of Fame, and one of the things I’ve had fun doing, is like when they did the groundbreaking on the new Hall of Fame, they brought me Jimmy Rogers’ guitar to hold in my hands while I made my speech. And when Bill Monroe’s mandolin was held by the executor of the estate for a year before the family got it back, I used to go and take it out of the case, oil the keys, touch it, and that mandolin was so used to being played it was like you were letting it out of jail. It just screamed, “Play me!”
Instruments want to be played. I go through the Hall of Fame every now and then and they let me take guitars out of the case and mess around with ’em. Maybelle’s guitar is there, too…that’s all it takes, pick ’em up and play ’em. That’s the way I feel about mine, too.
That guitar of Clarence’s has a following of its own. When somebody walks up to the edge of the stage, I can tell in their eyes that they’re there to see the guitar. The first thing I usually do is just hand it to ’em and say play it. I had guy come up to me one time, I was still in John’s band, the guy was crying. And he kept pointing at the guitar. He couldn’t talk for a second. His name was Dinky Dawson and he was the guy who ran sound for the Byrds and it was his job to pamper that guitar and Clarence on the road. It’s nice when that happens.
You still use it onstage?
It has it’s own Advantage number on American Airlines! It travels in fine style. We went to Japan for the first time five or six years ago, and we were wearing the rhinestone and cowboy suits back then. We were gathered backstage in the press tent, and me and the band, in all our duds, were grinning for the cameras…and they went straight for the instruments!
Stuart’s last anecdote says as much about him as anything. He’s managed to stay humble and true to the music, and even though country ebbs and flows like any style of music, the fact its past and future lie in the hands of someone as capable as Marty Stuart bodes well for its future.
Photo: Raeanne Rubenstein, courtesy of MCA.
This interview originally appeared in VG‘s Jan. ’00 issue.