Marty Stuart Interview: Nashville Icon’s ‘Woodpile’ Is Stacked With Traditional Country
When Marty Stuart speaks, it is often with the gravitas of an elder statesman. Perhaps that’s one reason that at a mere 53 years old he has become just that for traditional country music — a spokesperson and standard bearer with an encyclopedic knowledge who also still carries with him, on stage and on record, the same young man’s passion and zeal for music that teenaged Marty had when he joined bluegrass great Lester Flatt‘s band in 1972. Today, the Mississippi native is ably assisted in his mission by the Fabulous Superlatives, his band (named after the catchphrase of a Nashville florist) who all share that same zeal and sparkle with talent that’s as bold and bright as their custom-made Manuel suits.
The Boot met up with Marty recently at the warehouse north of Nashville which functions as both his offices and as a storehouse for a dazzling array of country music and American memorabilia — from suits worn by Hank Williams to every album Marty’s wife, Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Connie Smith, has ever made. While the main subject was his new album, Nashville, Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down, out today (April 24) on Sugar Hill Records, Marty also addresses why it’s important for him to carry the mantel of traditional country, explains why a classic duet on the record was performed solo, and reveals what he’d be doing if he weren’t making music. Hint: his band name actually figures into the answer.
RCA’s historic Studio B on Music Row, and studios like it seem to be a key component to crafting the sound of this record. I assume that’s by design?
If you’re after kind of records I hear on conventional country-music radio via the current crop of hit makers, there is a sound and a set of sonics that you kind of have to abide by. But going back to the songs that the band and I are presenting right now, there is also a sound and a set of sonics that you should pay attention to. Going through the hoops at Studio B is a wonderful thing because it requires the band to play quieter; it requires you to listen to the vocal on the floor.
We have the same sound engineer, Mick Conley, the invisible Superlative. He did all of my SiriusXM radio shows, he’s done 104 episodes of my [RFD] TV show, Kathy Mattea‘s Coal record that I produced, he engineered that, Connie’s record, Ghost Train, and now this one. We have a team and the band in place; we’ve been together 11 years now. There’s a thing in place, that’s first and foremost. You drop a song of any kind inside of that and there’s a band to go around it. And if you bring a guest artists or guest musicians in, there’s a thing in the middle that’s already in place. It’s not about exploding drums, it’s not about guitars that are over the moon. It’s about tone and finesse, phrasing, from a vocal standpoint, pure harmonies. It’s really just going back to the old template. If I’m going down the road and I listen to 50 songs in a row, when just about any Buck Owens song comes on the radio, or any Merle Haggard song from the Capitol days, or just about anything recorded at [Nashville's] Quonset Hut, or RCA Studio B, they are head-and-shoulders above everything else that happens around them.
When that’s what you’re striving for, does it inform the writing of the songs or the approach to what you want to say in a song?
I’m spoiled because the TV show has given me a stage that I don’t have at radio. At the end of the ’90s, it was just like a light went out at radio [for me]. I floundered around trying to make a three-minute radio hit happen and it wouldn’t come. So one day I thought, “there are other ways to get around this.” Our television show has a target audience, it has a point of view which is traditional country music. There were so many masterful writers around this town saying, “you can’t get a country song recorded in this town anymore.” I said, “Oh, yeah, you can, on our TV show.” Having that audience to write to, knowing in my mind who watches us and who buys our stuff and who cares, it helps to have a bull’s-eye. You’re not sitting in a cubicle on Music Row hoping somebody will pay attention to your song and maybe stick it on the back of a record. When you take it from the television show to making our own records, doing all those things that I do, it’s kind of easy to write. Once again, it’s back to the blueprint of country music and what it was designed to be, the people’s music. The common man’s dream. Harlan Howard‘s “three chords and the truth.” I can write about things and sing about things that probably wouldn’t get on the radio but the sky’s the limit, and that’s a wonderful freedom to have.
You can also include lines such as “feelings are cauldrons of mystery, they leave but they’re never gone,” in the song “The Lonely Kind,” which is one of the most haunting things I’ve heard in a long time.
When I was getting sobered up, there was a line that came to me: “you’re sick as your secrets.” [laughs] They would talk about feelings. You and I both — and everybody on this planet — we are one big feeling. People either hurt our feelings or they make us glad. And those hurt feelings that we’ve all had down through the years, whether it was something our best friend said to us on the playground or a lover or whatever, when you get your heart broke we try to be adults about it and we stuff them down in there. It’s amazing how, 20 years later, something that you stuff down in there will drag you around by the nose sometimes if it’s not dealt with. That’s a mysterious thing to me, how something that happened so long ago can still rule a piece of your life. You can pretend that they’re out of there but they’re never gone.
Nobody will ever surpass Porter and Dolly’s version of that.
Is that why you decided to do it as a solo?
Absolutely. But the thing that made that song work for me is [musician] Buck Trent. We played a concert and he came out. Off-the-cuff, I started singing that song and he played the exact banjo licks that he played on Porter and Dolly’s record. That’s why we did the song. We really can’t do the song live until we see Buck Trent coming back to town! Porter and Dolly’s presence and Buck’s presence, they were a huge part of my growing up years. Porter was somebody that I dearly loved and Dolly is like a soulmate to me. That whole bunch, I felt like they were family before I got to town and after I got to know them all, they are family to me. I think it’s one of the greatest songs to ever come out of this town.
You do have a couple of duets on the record. When you were recording “Picture From Life’s Other Side,” which was famously sung by Hank Williams [as his alter ego, Luke the Drifter], was there ever a surreal moment when you realized you were singing it with his grandson, Hank 3?
Absolutely! It began right here in this warehouse. He did that on our television show. He came out here and he spotted his grandpa’s suit and said “Can I wear that?” So he put his grandpa’s suit on and when he came out around the corner, I just started laughing and went “Whoa!” I love him, he’s like my brother. Shelton [Hank 3's first name] is like family to me. I support him in everything he’s doing. I’m honored that he did that song with me because he doesn’t turn his beam toward that old traditional side of his family very often, without good reason. I feel like we were both probably under the spell of his grandpa’s influence doing that because it’s as pure as it gets. It’s a treasure.
And you have another descendant of country-music royalty, Lorrie Carter Bennett (whose mother was Anita Carter), featured on “A Song of Sadness.” How did that collaboration come about?
I wrote that track with her in mind. I loved her mama’s singing. I thought Anita was one of the greatest singers in the world. Lorrie is a chip off the block because she has the essence of Anita’s voice, she has the essence of Anita’s presence and spirit and sweetness. And if you’re going to make a traditional country record, name me anyone who has paid the price more than the Williams family or the Carter family around this town. So there was a wisdom and a knowing that came with Shelton’s presence and Lorrie’s presence on this record.
One of the songs that really seems to correspond with the life of a musician is “Truck Driver’s Blues.”
When I first got to Nashville and joined Lester’s band, I found out really fast that the ticket you had to bring in the door with you was your culture. You had to bring who you represented and where you came from, whether it was from Kentucky or whatever world. People brought their former occupations, whether you were singing about farming or truck driving, real-life occupations. Dave Dudley or Red Simpson, those guys [were truck drivers]. Truck drivers are my brothers and sisters out there on the concrete highway. They are the last of the old renegades, the way I see it. I understand truck-stop culture and respect it. It’s a great slipstream of American subculture. I love writing about truck drivers. I understand what they go through because we go through the same thing on buses, maybe a different paragraph, but what a great profession. It’s a sickness, the same traveling up and down the road, playing your guitar, dressing up funny and getting out on stage. But it’s a wonderful sickness.
When you get home, I assume it isn’t long before you’re ready to get out and go again. Has that changed for you after all these years?
Not really. There’s a certain part of me that needs to smell diesel fuel and hear applause and smell popcorn popping before a show starts. A week and I’m ready to go again. In country music, we are weekend warriors and any weekend I’m sitting at home, I’m thinking nobody loves me anymore. [laughs] So I’m ready to get out there and go again.
Having just lost Earl Scruggs and so many other legendary performers recently, do you feel like an elder statesmen in country music and what does that mean for you?
It means as much as anything that you become a shepherd. That’s something I’ve always loved anyway. I think the job is that we see the old-timers home with dignity, as we did with Earl or Porter or John[ny Cash]. We make sure that we honor their time on earth and that they get home. But it’s also our job to teach the young ones that have this thing in their heart and know that it’s to be shared and passed on, the way Lester handed it to me when I was a kid. My end of things is I love traditional country music and there is a handful of people who love it and cherish it and respect it and are in a position to move it forward. That’s the job, to keep writing new songs and hopefully attempt to create a new chapter for traditional country music in the 21st century. I watch the ACM awards or the CMA awards, that end of things is well cared for, it’s the big end of the business. I made peace a long time ago — I’ve got the girl I love, I’ve got a guitar and I’ve got $15 in two different banks, so I’m fine. It’s a lonely place sometimes but I’m doing what I love and I believe in and there’s nothing else to talk about when it comes to that. I’m at peace.
At the other end of the spectrum, “Sundown in Nashville” speaks to the dreams that so many people have come here to pursue and how they sometimes don’t work out. If your dreams had not come true and you had to get completely away from music, what would you be doing now?
Well, I would either be an architect or a florist. [laughs] I love design. I feel like kind of a musical architect, anyway. But at the same time, I love making buildings come to life on paper. And I can probably plant one of the coolest flower gardens in the world. I guess that’s being a flower architect. I love architecture, I really do. I love hanging out with God when the sun is coming up in the morning. In his whole creation, I love God’s presence in my heart. I feel like for the guy who invented the mountains and the seas and the stars, and light and flowers, a three-minute hillbilly song ain’t that big of a stretch for him. So, it’s wonderful to collaborate with the creator. He’s the greatest architect of all denominations.