As the keeper of the traditional country music flame, Marty Stuart burns like a bonfire. Stuart and his fabulous superlatives (that’s no exaggeration) light up Sunday at The Egg (Empire State Plaza, Albany) – back on the road after a COVID break.
No country star this side of Dolly Parton would likely earn such a warm reception as what happens on Sunday when Stuart takes the stage.
The personification of country power, tailored to Nudie and proudly pumped, Stuart sings about its compassionate populism, its poetic punch – poignant or playful – and a deeply loyal love of places and people.
Welcome back – after past celebrations at The Egg: A Tremendous Tribute to the Byrds and His Own Headlining Shows.
Looking back through the dark, desert silence of the night when the theaters went dark, Stuart reflected: “When the world started to fall apart, we thought maybe we could get out the month again. next, next year.” Last week from Nashville, he recalled: “It was like being suspended in space. On the other side, I enjoyed the free time (at home with his wife Connie Smith). I hadn’t had a summer off since 1972” – when he started touring with Lester Flatt at 14.
“It was like joining the Navy, a respected old fraternity,” said Stuart of Flatt’s Nashville Grass band. “By then the music had all been done, and it was about legacy.”
Flatt, Stuart said gratefully, “handed me the blueprint for a great musical life”.
“One of the reasons I have the life I have is that I had so much freedom,” Stuart said. Flatt and Johnny Cash (whose band Stuart joined at age 21) were “wide open,” Stuart said. “They taught me to always give bands the chance to speak with a real heart and a real mind.”
Flatt also warned Stuart, “If you play music, you hold your instrument in one hand and you better have a briefcase in the other.” When Flatt enrolled Stuart in the Musicians Union, he offered $65 a week. Knowing how hard Flatt worked for his players, the union leader insisted,
“You start it at $90 a week!” Stuart said, “Of that $90 he took out money for my correspondence course so I could finish school”, as well as stage costumes and a hat: “You had to have a hat!”
Flatt performed all over America, but with Cash, “I trotted around the world and got to see the world,” Stuart said.
As Flatt taught him business and Cash showed him that country music worked in any country, Stuart gained the confidence to write Merle Travis songs. “I said I didn’t think I would go far as a songwriter because I don’t have a very educated vocabulary.” Travis asked, “Who are you writing for?” Stuart replied, “Ordinary people.” Travis advised, “They don’t have a big vocabulary either, but they like big stories.”
A five-time Grammy winner for songwriting and performance, as well as Americana Music and International Bluegrass Music awards, Stuart dug up some legacy tunes to keep busy at home. He made videos of “Songs I Sing in the Dark”. He called it “a vanity project born out of the pandemic…a rescue mission for songs that were left unattended or left behind, and I embraced them.”
Stuart hit the road again at the end of last summer. “I remember getting on stage for a sound check (in St. Augustine, Florida with Jason Isbell) and…I’ve always taken the road for granted, my whole life. Looking up at the bleachers, I knew I would never take that for granted again; it is an honor and a gift, a sweet moment.
Another sweet moment: being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in late 2020. “It’s a badge of honor,” he said; also a challenge. “It gives me something to grow into. The best thing was my wife Connie inducting me, and it was wonderful.
“If country music had a president, it would be Marty Stuart,” said Ken Burns, whose PBS series relies heavily on Stuart’s eloquence. Speaking to Burns’ camera about his idols, Stuart affirmed his dedication to traditional country, a deep life work he began as a child.
Stuart and two friends played his first paid gig in their hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi. “We played at the Rotary Club and they offered us lunch; we were paid in food!
Stuart said: “It was the late 60s and the British invasion had covered the land, so even on the back roads of Mississippi you would hear people playing Beatles, Who and Rolling Stones songs. But we wanted to play Buck Owens and Johnny Cash songs. We were the Country Kids.
Love for his hometown also inspired another project with Burns: Honor Your Hometown; First-person video testimonials. “It’s a tri-racial town,” Stuart said, citing white, African American and Native American residents. “I saw everyone as people and loved it and felt a lot of love.” He acknowledged that the murders of three civil rights activists tarnished his reputation, but later defended the place. “It was not my city. It was a handful of radicals who gave the place a bad name.
Also in Philadelphia — as Stuart pointed out, 35 miles from the Meridian, Miss., home of Jimmy Rodgers, the father of country music — is the planned Marty Stuart Country Music Congress. As unlikely, perhaps, as a “spaceship in the city,” as Stuart acknowledged, it’s shrouded in country music lore and possibility. Stuart considers it both a museum for his 20,000 country music archives and a workshop.
The website of his up-and-coming hometown institution states: “Marty Stuart’s Congress of Country Music is the spiritual home of country music – A cathedral where the minds of country music legends and the fires of creative souls converge. ‘today.”
How about Nashville, whose sanctuaries include the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Ryman Auditorium, the Musicians Hall of Fame, RCA Studio B where Elvis made many hits and Stuart recorded his excellent album “Ghost Train”? Stuart said, “Nashville probably has everything it needs. But for a young person who has traditional country music in their heart and needs to develop it and play it, there’s not much in Nashville because it’s a big business place.
He added, “The Country Music Congress is a place where a young artist can hold the [Williams] guitar, and look at his [song] manuscripts.
And, apart from the Grand Ole Opry [in Nashville] there is no place for legends to tell their stories and sing their songs.
Stuart essentially carries the Country Music Congress with him on his tourbus, celebrating those stories and songs with his fabulous superlatives: guitarist Kenny Vaughn, bassist Chris Scruggs and drummer Harry Stinson. They play with the freedom he learned from Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash – the willingness to race down a dirt road together without a map and let a song lead where it leads. On stage, Stuart said, “The sky’s the limit. We have one rule: if you crash and go down in flames, come down laughing!” He added: “We don’t have to talk about it; [the music] just happens. I am so spoiled. We haven’t had a fight in 21 years.
Marty Stuart and his fabulous superlatives
Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
When: Sunday, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $59.50, $49.50, $39.50, $34.50; premium “The Big Chief Special VIP Package” with backstage access, activities and swag: $259.50.
More info: 518-473-1845 www.theegg.org
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Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts