Marty Stuart is the keeper of all things heroic and legendary in Country music. He was essentially raised and educated by icons– Lester Flatt, Doc Watson, Vassar Clements, and Johnny Cash are just a few of his teachers. Marty’s solo career began in 1985, and he shot to the top alongside Travis Tritt in the early 1990s. Since then, Marty Stuart has become as enduring a talent as any of his mentors. He’s a historian, a producer, and leader of the greatest hillbilly combo working today: Chris Scruggs, Harry Stinson, and Kenny Vaughn– The Fabulous Superlatives.
When you talk about your music, Marty Stuart’s music– do you still include the “and Western” at the end of Country?
Well, I never have, but I guess after this last record we could. When you do a record called “Way Out West” I guess you could call it… You know, it’s a different kind of western. Sure, it could be Country & Western this go-round.
Well, then let’s talk about that new record. Now, I myself still have dreams and designs about bein’ a cowboy– to slightly paraphrase… I even practice my quick-draw when nobody’s looking. Your new album, Way Out West, is described as a love letter to the American West, specifically California. Is that the Mississippi kid still dreamin’ or do you sometimes feel like the last gunfighter looking out into the expanse?
Oh, a little of both. That’s a great question. A little of both… But you’re a Southern boy– I can hear it in your voice. You know, when you’re that far removed from the West… There’s probably a lot of people out west that feel the same way about the South, but when I was a kid… You know those cowboy shows? They looked mighty big to me, and they sounded romantic and the characters had that lonesome, roguish kind of quality about ‘em that I liked. So, that all looked dreamy to me. There’s a lot of that in it. There’s a lot of romance in this record and the writing.
Dreamy is a good word to use with that one– those sort of desperado characters. We play “old Mexico” and it’s just… Just so full and… Picturesque is a word I would use to describe it.
Well, cinematic is the right word because if you’re gonna write about something, and you’re gonna do the right job… You know, even if you watch those old movies– some of ‘em are just movies they made. They’re just kinda stock movies. But every now and then one’ll come along that was so beautiful, and it was shot properly, and written properly, acted properly– and cinematic. It just takes you on a journey. And that’s what I wanted this record to be.
I wanna ask you about your ridiculously cool memorabilia collection. You have hand-written Hank Williams lyrics, Gene Autry’s boots, Mother Maybelle’s autoharp, Patsy Cline’s make-up case, clothes, guitars, tapes, photos, I don’t know what all… What is the strangest thing you have that you can tell us about?
My buddy… Brian Downes. Brian Downes used to… Well, in the 1970s, when I was in Lester Flatt’s band, Brian Downes was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. He was the classic Mid-Western Irishman– little skid-lid hat, red-faced, talks too loud after two beers and is passionate about what he believed in… So, he became my friend. He loved Bluegrass, and so he just started hangin’ around, and we became pals. But his dad was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, his grandfather was a reporter for the Tribune, so, they had a lot of stories. So, one day he presents me with this photograph, and it’s framed… And it’s of John Dillinger layin’ on the slab in the morgue after he’d been murdered… With bullet holes all in his body and a sheet layin’ over his body… And down at the bottom of the frame is a toe tag that says, “Dillinger,” that his grandpa stole from John Dillinger’s toe and just took it away with him after they took the picture for the Tribune. So, John Dillinger’s toe tag is probably the strangest thing I have in my Country music collection. (Laughs) I never know what to do with it other than just look at it, and point, and scratch my head– but it’s there if you ever want to see it!
I didn’t have any idea what you would come up with when I asked you that question, but now I’m really glad I asked. Alright, I got another one for you now… You’ve done a bit of film work yourself, but I wanna ask you about one particular movie– and let me first say that I am a fan of the movie… 1997’s Fire Down Below– you share songwriting credit with Steven Seagal. Did you actually write with Steven Seagal?
Yeah. I mean… I’ve never acted in a film. I’ve passed in front of a camera a time or two, but I’m not an actor. Steven Seagal came… He was doin’ that film you’re talkin’ about, and he parked himself up in Eastern Kentucky– which is not too far from Nashville. And it looked like a revolving door of songwriters comin’ and goin’ from Kentucky, writin’ songs for Steven Seagal, tryin’ to get a song in his film. So, I got a call from him one day, and he says, “My name is Steven Seagal,” and I’m bein’ dead hones, he says, “Some people up here tell me I need to call you about writin’ some songs.” And he said, “I’ve never heard of you.” (Laughs) And I said, “Well, we’re even, I’ve never heard of you!” So, we go up there, you know, at his request… And we found ourselves tryin’ to write a couple of songs, I think which we did, and they made it into that film. But that’s about all there is to this story… Other than the fact that one of ‘em I remember bein’ pretty good… But I really– if my life depended on it, I couldn’t tell you what they were. But it was an interesting experience writin’ with Steven.
Well, that was a strange film. I mean, not only did you have your little cameo in there, but Mark Collie was in the movie and even Levon Helm shows up in the movie, which I thought was…
Yeah, Levon! Levon, you know… Levon is actually one of my… Most musicians should never act, and most actors should never try to play music, but you know as far as Levon havin’ fun… Levon was one of those rare people. Levon I believed anytime he acted. He was wonderful.
I had that exact same conversation with a fella the other day. We said that whenever Levon Helm speaks, we immediately take everything he says as the truth.
Well, yeah! That’s what he wanted!
Well goin’ off of that… Levon Helm, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings– Lester Flatt, who you mentioned earlier… I’m gonna stop sayin’ names cause I could keep goin’ on and on… Who haven’t you worked with that you would want to– past or present?
Well, in the past it would’ve been nice to sit down with Jimmy Rodgers, the Father of Country Music… Or Hank Williams. But as far as the present… Strangely enough, one of the people I look at out there… I regard what Wynton Marsalis does with a whole lot of respect. Wynton does for Jazz what me and the Superlatives pretend to do for Country music: He treats it as a culture. His shows are as much a classroom as they are a performance, and I have a lot of respect for Wynton.
Well, that seems like something you could hook up…
Well… It’s in the works. Somewhere along the way, I think Wynton and I need to sit down and play. And the song I’d like to play is “Down On the Corner.” Jimmy Rodgers recorded it, and when Jimmy Rodgers recorded it, Louis Armstrong played trumpet on the session. It would be nice to cross the worlds of Jazz and Country music one more time.
Boy, you are settin’ up history to be made, sir! Well, Marty, thank you so much for takin’ the time today. I have one thing left I wanna ask you… It’s really just for me. Can you tell me a Johnny Cash story?
Well, I can tell you this about Johnny Cash: He was one of my original Country music heroes. He was my old chief, my band leader, and you know… The thing at the end of the day that means more to me than anything else about John was… He was the most fearless, creative human being I ever met in my life. If he wrote a song that he believed in or if he had a concept he believed in… If nobody applauded or if nobody came– he saw it through, and he did it anyway. And the mission that me and the Superlatives have been on for the past 17 years… There’s been some spots in this journey that’s mighty lonely– ’cause the masses didn’t applaud. But we knew we were doin’ the right thing. We were followin’ our hearts at any cost. And goin’ back to what John R. Cash taught me about, and what was inspiring about him: See it, believe it, do it– and damn the results. And so, that has been the code which we live by. So, that’s what I have to thank him for this very day.