Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Marty Stuart, Classically Inspired

By Tom Roland
August 30, 2010

Marty Stuart photo courtesy of The GreenRoom.

When Marty Stuart set out to record his latest album, Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions, at a historic Nashville studio, he was the perfect guy to do it.

RCA Studio B was the breeding ground for a ton of country hits by the likes of Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers and Jim Reeves. It’s currently owned by the Country Music Hall of Fame and serves more as a tourist attraction these days than a working studio, but it was a great location for Marty, who has an avowed appreciation for country’s past.

The RCA studio had a personal connection, because it was the site of Marty’s very first recording session, when he worked as a sideman for Country Music Hall of Fame member Lester Flatt. Since then, Marty’s gone on to have some important final moments with several other Hall of Famers. He was the producer of Porter Wagoner’s very last album, Wagonmaster. And Marty co-wrote the last song that Johnny Cash authored. Both Porter and Johnny are recalled on Ghost Train — Marty wrote a recitation called “Porter Wagoner’s Grave,” and he recorded the song that he and Johnny wrote together, “Hangman.”

“He was my next-door neighbor, and I went over there and had that song started, and it didn’t take 10 minutes to finish it,” Marty told American Songwriter. “As I left, I said, ‘Well I’ve got to go to Washington, and I’ll see you in about four days.’ I said, ‘You feeling good?’ And he said, ‘I’m feeling good.’ And I said, ‘How’s your spirit?’ ‘It’s good.’ ‘You got plenty of rope left?’ And he said, ‘Yup.’ And I said, ‘I’ll see you when I get home.’”

Of course, he did not see Johnny. The Man in Black died while Marty was out of town in September 2003. Marty is working to keep the the spirit of classic country alive, and it becomes tougher every day as contemporary country sounds overtake the old stuff. Many members of the country-music community — and some fans — are frustrated or angry about that development. But Marty has no ill will about it.

“I absolutely encourage modern country music, trust me,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of people out there that think the way I do about some things, but we need modern country music as much as we need traditional country music. It’s a balance, and we need bluegrass, and folk music. We need all those divisions of country music, firing on all cylinders. That’s what makes country music so cool to me.”

Marty Stuart Returns To His Roots On 'Ghost Train'

by Ken Tucker
August 20, 2010

Like countless performers before him, Marty Stuart portrays himself as hunted, haunted, misunderstood — a rebel on the lam. It's a familiar story, whether it's coming from the blues, honky-tonk or hip-hop. The trick is to make that story sound fresh. Stuart does in the ringing guitars and high-lonesome holler of a song on his new album, Ghost Train, called "Branded." Whether he intends it or not, "Branded" is also something of a pun: This new collection is Stuart's proclamation that, while he can't help but become a consumer brand, his branding is that of the outsider. All of this would be hopelessly hokey if the music didn't bolster his line of patter.

In "Drifting Apart," Marty Stuart howls about a broken marriage in what amounts to an homage to the kind of steel-guitar super-hits George Jones and Buck Owens made decades ago. Stuart wrote the song and produced it himself. The steel guitar is played by Ralph Mooney, the man credited with nothing less than inventing the so-called "Bakersfield Sound" on hits with Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart, among many others. Stuart is a fluid guitar player himself, who played bluegrass mandolin behind Lester Flatt when Stuart was 13. But he never gets bogged down in fussy arrangements or mere nostalgia.

Stuart's duet partner in the vibrant new song "I Run to You" is his wife, Connie Smith, a great country singer, starting with her indelible 1964 hit "Once a Day." Sometimes it seems as though Marty Stuart has built a life around him that allows him to live in a kind of perpetual country-music time-machine. He curates exhibits of music memorabilia and photography, and does restoration work on legends such as Porter Wagoner, for whom Stuart produced a lively 2007 album, shortly before Wagoner's death at age 80. Stuart has a song on Ghost Train called "Porter Wagoner's Grave" that's at once eloquent and maudlin in a long tradition of country death songs.

All is not gloom and grave-dust, however, as "Little Heartbreaker" demonstrates. The longer you ride in Marty Stuart's Ghost Train, the more its speed and energy hits you like the wind in your face. In the liner notes to this new album, Marty Stuart says that he felt it was time to "write some songs and play some hard-hitting country music." Most of the time, Ghost Train hits hard, dead center in the sweet spot between old and new, until you can't tell the difference.

Marty Stuart has country music in his blood, and Ghost Train is no retro record

Let It B

by Jon Weisberger
August 19, 2010

Playing Wednesday, 25th at The Belcourt It's been just about a decade since Marty Stuart decided to quit chasing the country music big-time, and since then, he's put together one of the best bands in the business and made some fine albums. But today, when he talks about country music and the making of his latest effort, Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions, he has the impassioned air of a man who's been born again — and maybe he has.

"Growing up in the middle of Mississippi was the perfect place to be as a young musician," he recalls. "I got to listen to Dixieland from New Orleans. The blues came down from the Delta. Memphis was about Stax and Sun and soul music. If I dug deeply enough, there were people who knew about bluegrass, and of course, the church was everywhere. But country music was the thing that absolutely is what I was about. It was radio and records and those 30-minute TV shows — I knew every record and every star. I devoured it as a 12-year-old kid, and that was my thing. And as time went on, I went with whatever I was doing and wherever my heart led me. But there comes a point in your life you have to draw a line in the dirt and go, 'You know, it's time to define some things.' And what defines me, what reduces me to a puddle of tears when I'm going down the road driving in my car by myself, is the very same thing that pretty much did it to me when I was a kid — the same songs, the same records, after all this time. It's country music."

Stuart calls Ghost Train "traditional country music," but these days, that's a phrase that begs for amplification, as "traditional" is too often used to denote just one strand of the music's rich history — honky-tonk shuffles, say, or drinking songs, or the kinds of artless exercises that try to substitute earnest enthusiasm for musical skill and a deep familiarity with the syntax and diction of the real deal.

"I did not want a retro record," Stuart says with a slight wave of the hand. "The challenge was not just to recreate the past. That's done every day — badly. The challenge was to get started on a new chapter of traditional country music."

It's easy to see that Stuart's the right man for that job. A professional since his teens, he apprenticed with the likes of Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash, then rode a more raucous (but still tradition-conscious) kind of new country music to stardom in the late '80s and early '90s, and the experience has given him a breadth of outlook that he shares with colleagues like Vince Gill, Carl Jackson and Ricky Skaggs — but not many others.

"Look around here," he says, gesturing to the world-class collection of country music artifacts he's acquired over the decades. "When we saw country music take off for a younger crowd and bigger numbers, all of this stuff started fading. It was an embarrassment. It was out of style. But the split in my heart was that I was part of the whole new era — my age, my look, my sound, whatever — and I had to go for that, but this stuff, this is the world that raised me."

Indeed, one of the great strengths of Ghost Train is the way it acts as a sort of musical counterpart to the racks and rows and tables filled with those artifacts. Every song is made up of vintage tones, echoes of signature sounds, sly references to almost-forgotten gestures that made up the vocabulary of decades' worth of country music — and, in one stunning move, Stuart reached out to one of the greatest shapers of the music's past by inviting legendary steel player Ralph Mooney to join him and the Fabulous Superlatives in historic Studio B for nearly half of the album.

"If I had to pick one guy that I'd say, 'Here, take the keys to my car, here's my house, what do you want, my dog, whatever,' to it's Ralph Mooney," Stuart says with a hearty laugh. "He's the alpha and omega of hillbilly pickers to me, and we've been close since the early 1980s. I really got to missing him, and I thought, if we're going to make a country record, I need to go to Texas and investigate this. So I took a couple of songs down there to Fort Worth, just to feel each other out, just to pick and hang out. Well, Mrs. Mooney called us in to lunch, and while we were eating, 'Little Heartbreaker' started coming. I said to Ralph, 'It's somewhere between what you played on Wynn Stewart's "Big, Big Love" and Waylon's "Rainy Day Woman," ' and that's all I had to say — that song came in about three minutes over Mrs. Mooney's banana pudding."

Not every song on Ghost Train has such a straightforward story, but every song has one — not only the ones Stuart wrote or had a hand in writing, but the deftly chosen classics, too, like Don Reno & Red Smiley's rave-up, "Country Boy Rock & Roll," or a dandy instrumental version of Mooney's immortal "Crazy Arms."

"We were there, in Studio B," Stuart recalls, "and I just thought, 'There's a red button, there's a band, and there's the man who wrote the song — whether we use it or not, let's do this!' "

And at the end of the day, that's what makes Ghost Train such a compelling piece of work. Nearly 40 years in, the music he's loved and devoted himself to has sunk so deeply into his heart and his fingers that making rich, complex yet classically straightforward country music has become purely instinctual, and with the Fabulous Superlatives — "the band of a lifetime," he calls them — barely a step behind him in that regard, he's doing exactly what he wants.

"When we first started the Superlatives," Stuart says with one last laugh, "I told somebody, if I could stay in the Hermitage Hotel in every town and play The Ryman in every town, and we had a good meal before the show and a quiet place to tune my guitar, I don't know that I could ask for a lot more than that."

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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