Marty Stuart isn’t yet 60, but the Philadelphia, Mississippi native has already had four distinct phases of a 45-year career. It’s remarkable, really, to consider that some people only know him as a member of Johnny Cash’s band — but he’s also the guy who’s known for his ‘90s country radio successes and collaborations with Travis Tritt like “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’.”
But those were the second and third acts.In his first act, a 14-year-old Stuart started playing gospel music with the Sullivan Family Gospel Singers from St. Stephens, Alabama. That was in 1972.
“They were stars of the pentecostal church circuit,” Stuart said. “When I joined them, we were playing pentecostal churches, bluegrass festivals, camp meeting revivals, and George Wallace campaign rallies. So that was my route.”
The Sullivan Family Gospel Singers had a syndicated radio program in the South, and young Stuart could hear the group play in Philadelphia. Carl Jackson, a friend of Stuart’s from Lewisville, Mississippi, had begun playing with the Sullivans.
“The Sullivans were playing at this little church down from my house, and I asked Carl if he would ask Brother Enoch if I could get up onstage and play my mandolin with the Sullivan family,” Stuart said. “Enoch always had an eye for kids that could play, so he invited me to come up onstage and play with them at the church. It worked out pretty good. The crowd liked it. So later on when school was out that year, I asked Carl to ask Brother Enoch if I could go on the road and play some shows with them. And he said, ‘Come on.’ I probably made $21 that summer, but I had more fun that I’d ever had in my life. That was the summer I discovered girls and applause and meeting cool people to talk about music 24 hours a day. I could dress like I wanted to, stay up as late as I wanted, and I just knew that that was my life.”
While touring with the Sullivans, Stuart found himself being recruited to join legendary bluegrass musicians Lester Flatt’s band.
“During the summer of 1972, I met just about everybody on the bluegrass circuit, and one of those shows was with Lester Flatt,” he said. “One of his band members was Roland White. We became friends. We swapped mandolin licks and phone numbers and he made the comment, ‘If you ever want to come to Nashville, give me a call and I’ll ask Lester. You can ride along if your mom and dad are okay with it.’ The opportunity came to do that and he owned up to it and I got invited to come to Nashville just to ride along for Labor Day weekend 1972. Lester heard me play, he put me on stage, and he offered me a job by the end of the weekend. There was life before that weekend and life after that weekend.”
From 1980 to 1985, Stuart was in Johnny Cash’s band. On the first record he recorded with Cash, Rockabilly Blues, he was surrounded by Bob Wootton, Jack Clement, Billy Joe Shaver, Nick Lowe, and June Carter Cash — to name a few. He was just 22 years old. In 1996, he came back to Cash’s side under the direction of producer Rick Rubin to record Unchained.
Unchained was the second of Cash’s American Recording series and his backing band consisted of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, Mick Fleetwood, Lindsey Buckingham, and Stuart. Rubin knew that he wanted the centerpiece of the record to be a cover of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage,” but Cash couldn’t grasp the song. So he asked Stuart, then 38 years old, and Heartbreakers lead guitar Mike Campbell to rework the song.
“Rick pitched the song, and I think he played Soundgarden’s version,” Stuart said. “And for some reason, John just didn’t hear into it. He didn’t see anything there for him. But Rick believed in the song; I think he believed in the words. So he asked me and Campbell to stay over after the session and see if we could come up with something. So Campbell and I are sitting side-by-side playing acoustic guitars and Rick had a microphone in his hand and he starts speaking the words. He asks me if I could come up with something — a Johnny Cash type of rhythm — that could get John into it. I remember going [mimics the opening, walking guitar riff] and then Mike just fell right in. Rick started talking the words into the microphone. I don’t remember whose idea it was to break it down into half-time, but it was just Rick looking for a way to get John inside the song.”
Earlier in the ‘90s, Stuart collaborated with Travis Tritt for the tracks “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’” and “This One’s Gonna Hurt You,” along with some joint touring. In hindsight, it feels like an odd pairing; Tritt with a distinct, country-radio-approved twang, while Stuart’s music hedged toward bluegrass. But from the moment they met, they found a bond in their rural Southern roots. That connection was sparked down the street.
“The first time I heard his voice was in a drive-thru in a Burger King in Bessemer, Alabama,” Stuart said. “I had this song called ‘The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’, and I didn’t need it because I had already finished recording my record. Me and my buddy Ronny Scaife wrote it together and we pitched it to Hank Jr. [but he] didn’t hear it. He just didn’t think it was his song. But I just kept thinking, ‘Man, that’s a hit song.’
“So I was going through the drive-thru at Burger King and I heard this voice come through the car radio, and he was singing a song called ‘Country Club.’ And I thought, ‘Man, there’s the guy for that song. That’s a great voice.’ I sent it over to him; I had never met him. … And six months later it was on the charts, and it was a hit.”
His latest is a continuing chapter in his fourth act: Way Out West, a record released under the name Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives. For it, he knew that he didn’t want to record in Nashville, and he knew only one man could achieve the sound that he was looking for: his old friend Mike Campbell, the Heartbreakers guitarist.
“I knew that this was a California record,” he said. “Mike Campbell will keep me authentic. He’ll keep the band authentic, and we’ll get a sound that we’ve never gotten before. He was a shepherd as much as he was a producer. I pitched it to him, and he liked the concept and that inspired me enough to get back in there and keep writing songs. The band — we love Mike Campbell. He’s one of my all-time favorite rock stars, if not my all-time favorite rock star. He’s a great rock-and-roll guitar player, and a great arranger, and a great human being.
“We found ourselves in the presence of a whole lot of rock stars on this record,” he said. “And we haven’t changed a thing. I think what rock stars are responding to in this record is an authenticity. I think when they listen to country radio, they probably hear a lot of people thinking they’re making pop music and rock stars are probably thinking, ‘Ehhh…c’mon,’ the same way a country guy would listen to a rock star trying to making a country record and think, ‘Good try.’”
He says it was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He says it was Deliverance. He says it was O Brother, Where Art Thou? He says it was “Hollywood” that helped put country music back in touch with its roots. And while he traveled way out west for his latest effort and spent a lifetime playing country music with its most legendary musicians, his own roots are still deep in Mississippi.
“[Philadelphia] is probably more important to me now than ever before,” he said. “If you go inside the state of Mississippi, the informal, spiritual museum trail they’ve set up is rock and roll — Elvis Presley’s birthplace and museum in Tupelo, B.B. King has the delta cultural museum over in Indianola. … The Grammys put in a museum at Delta State. And so country music will be represented in my hometown at Marty Stuart’s Congress of Country Music. It’s a city block’s worth of buildings that will hold my collection. Live performances will happen there. It’s a work-in-progress, and we’re still three to four years away from a ribbon-cutting. I go home every chance I get.”
Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives will perform at the Lyric Theatre on Friday, May 5. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30. For more information, visit lightupthelyric.com.