INTERVIEW: Marty Stuart on songwriting, working with legends, & the future of country music!

Marty Stuart has style. The host of perhaps the best haircut in music -country or otherwise- Stuart is the real deal, a tried and true country legend. Starting his career out with Lester Flatt, Stuart went on to play with Johnny Cash before breaking off into a solo career. In the interim, he’s collaborated with Nashville’s finest, hosted his own television show, and has served on the board with the Country Music Foundation. You can sample one of his biggest hits, Tempted, below, and catch him live this Saturday, April 8th at Headliner’s. We caught up with Stuart to ask him about the state of country music and performing with his idols.

Never Nervous: What got you into music? Did you grow up around it at home, or gravitate towards it otherwise?

Marty Stuart: I can’t remember a time in my life that music wasn’t a part of it. I think one of the first photographs that exists of me has a little Mickey Mouse guitar in my hand. Music was just always there.

NN: What was your first instrument? Was it always guitar?

MS: The first instrument was a guitar, and I didn’t really get into the mandolin until I was about 12 years old. It was always either acoustic or cheap electric guitars.

NN: Was it always country music and southern rock styles or did you ever play anything else?

“I grew up playing rock ‘n’ roll for a minute and some gospel music, but it was really country music that spoke to my heart the loudest.”

MS: Well growing up in Mississippi, it all seemed to come from here. I mean, Mississippi is the land of the blues, it’s the land of gospel music, it’s the land of rock ‘n’ roll, it’s the land of country music, and I listened to everything because our local radio played everything. I was a sponge, and as a young musician I listened to it all, but at the end of the day it was country music that spoke to me the loudest. I mean, I grew up playing rock ‘n’ roll for a minute and some gospel music, but it was really country music that spoke to my heart the loudest.

NN: How was it playing with Johnny Cash? Were you a fan going in, and was it hard not to geek out a little?

MS: I’d been on the road since I was 13 years old with Lester Flatt, and that job lasted for 7 years until Lester passed away. I found myself without a job for the first time in Nashville when I was about 19 years old. A friend of mine was building a guitar for Johnny Cash, and I kept up with the progress of the guitar and Danny promised me I could go along when he delivered the guitar to Johnny. So there was a fellow named Cowboy Jack Clement, and we went to his studio and when the door opened there stood Jack Clement and Johnny Cash. John and I instantly bonded. He stood up and he kept shaking my hand, he said “Where are you from?” I said “Mississippi.” He said, “I thought so.” About a month later I was on the stage with the band. Oddly enough the first two records I ever owned in my life were a Flatt & Scruggs record and a Johnny Cash record, and the truth is, the only two long paying jobs I’ve ever had in my life were with Lester Flatt and Jonny Cash, so it just felt right to me.

NN: What prompted your decision to go off on your own? How does solo work compare to playing with a group?

MS: I knew it was time. There were friends of mine who worked in the Cash organization, they had been there 25-30 years and I knew that they were going to stay there to the bitter end. I knew that to live with myself I had to jump out on my own and start strugglin’. It was hard to make that move, but I knew it was the right move to make. I was determined to do it, and John helped me. He helped me get my first recording contract with Columbia. The minute all the niceties faded away I found myself out in the middle of nowhere trying to figure it out like so many other people, so it was tough.

“I knew that to live with myself I had to jump out on my own and start strugglin’.”

NN: Speaking of, you’ve played everywhere, man. Do you click differently in different places, or is it fairly uniform from place to place? Is there any place you haven’t played that you wished you could still?

MS: Well the Fabulous Superlatives, we founded ourselves on the idea that we treat The New York Times and the most local paper in Alabama with the same regard, and whether it’s the smallest stage in the middle of nowhere or Madison Square Garden, we play the same show. That’s pretty well true. Of course, certain places and cities and venues inspire me in different ways, but in general that band puts on the same show night after night after night.

NN: What got you into doing the Marty Stuart Show? What do you hope folks take away from it?

MS: The Marty Stuart television show, for years I had gone around asking the question, “Why does it sound like a 21st century version of the Porter Wagoner show?” I thought it was cool, it was hip, but at the same time it had lived on and kind of become an important cultural document. Then one day I went, “Well I know how to do that show, why don’t I do it?” And a big part of doing that show was finding a place to do it, which was RFD TV.

But the main reason I did it is that I saw that we had about 15 minutes before that old 20th century culture of country music disappeared and was gone for good. There were certain artists like Kitty Wells, Merle Haggard and Ray Price, and those kind of people that I knew that if somebody didn’t catch them and document it right that it would be gone for good. That was the main reason we did it, to make sure that everybody understood it was a beautiful form of art. It was an entertaining show by all means for regular fans but on a more scholarly level it was absolutely the kind of show that needed to be documented. And what I hope they take away from it, I hope they see the beauty in traditional country music.

NN: As someone long involved in the community, including your work in the Country Music Foundation, what advice would you give to anyone looking to get into country music?

MS: Look around. Look at what it looks like. Listen to everybody before you ever write one song. Listen to what everybody sounds like, and then get as far away from that as you possibly can because we know there’s plenty of that already. Follow your heart, follow your dreams and make what makes you an individual. What makes you unique, what makes your song special that nobody else can claim? Find your own lane and stay in it.

NN: Where do you hope to see the music go in the future, country as a whole that is?

MS: Well it’s pretty much a global entity now. Country music stars are attending the Oscars and walking the red carpet alongside actors and actresses, I think that’s great. There’s nowhere on planet Earth you can go that some size crowd won’t come see it. I hope it keeps evolving. But the main thing, I hope that the roots factor of country music, the gimmick factor, keeps living. I hope it keeps burning brighter and brighter, because that’s what makes country music so special. Country music is “three chords and the truth.” So I hope that that statement gets lived up to in the decades to come.

“I hope that the roots factor of country music, the gimmick factor, keeps living. I hope it keeps burning brighter and brighter, because that’s what makes country music so special. Country music is ‘three chords and the truth.'”

NN: How does solo work compare to playing with a group?

MS: I have no writing process. I get up every day and wonder if a song is gonna come. It’s like going fishing, you never know. Songs are pure gifts from heaven, and I never know when a song’s gonna hit, but I always have a piece of blank paper pretty close by.

NN: What non-musical things are you into lately and why? Have you read, watched, drank, or eaten anything worth talking up lately? Do tell.

MS: [laughs] I still love photography, that’s something that I’m into. What have I read lately, I read all the time. I actually read the biography of Jackie Gleason, I think it was. Sometimes when you look at lives from the past you find a map for the future. No it wasn’t Jackie, it was Lucille Ball. I read the autobiography of Lucille Ball so that was cool, and I’ve been listening to some Tom Petty lately. I’ve been on a Tom Petty jag a little bit.