When Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman honoured the 50th anniversary of the Byrds’ 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo by touring it for the first time, there was only one man who could lead their backing band: Marty Stuart. When Ken Burns began filming 2019’s Country Music documentary series, it was Stuart who guided the director through the genre. From Porter Wagoner to Johnny Cash, many Nashville icons have called on Stuart to play with them. Stuart is country’s ruling polymath – a musician whose skill on guitar and mandolin is matched by his encyclopaedic knowledge and vast enthusiasm.
If you only go to one country music concert, then let it be Marty Stuart’s – he’s about to tour the UK for the first time in five years, so the opportunity awaits. “I like playing the UK,” says Stuart. “First of all, I think there is an appreciation for authentic country music over there that sometimes gets lost in America. I love your knowledge of what we do play, of the roots of our music.”
Affable and engaging, Stuart, 63, wears a wry grin, elaborately tailored stage suits and a shock of salt-and-pepper hair. His band the Fabulous Superlatives’ dynamic performances are a high-wire act involving shared harmonies, a capella gospel numbers, honky tonk pathos and kinetic country rock. Unsurprisingly, they command a broad church. Recently, he says, “we played for a Grateful Dead-type audience and they loved what we did. I think music engages with pretty much all who hear us.”
Stuart has been obsessed with country music from infancy. Born in Philadelphia, Mississippi, he joined country-gospel group the Sullivan Family aged 12 and, upon sharing the stage with Lester Flatt’s bluegrass group one evening, the 13-year-old mandolinist made quite an impression. So much so he was invited to join Flatt, who had scored huge crossover success as half of bluegrass duo Flatt and Scruggs by contributing the theme music to TV series The Beverly Hillbillies (and Foggy Mountain Breakdown to Bonnie and Clyde’s car chase). Thus, in 1972, Marty’s formal education ended and he began criss-crossing the US playing mandolin with Flatt – well before he was old enough to drive a car or buy a beer.
Didn’t his parents worry about him playing bluegrass instead of getting a formal education? “I don’t think they would have let me go on the road with Black Sabbath,” replies Stuart. “I had to live with Lester and his people and it was very structured. I tried to study while touring but” – he laughs – “I’m a roads scholar! I tried by way of correspondence but there was nobody on the bus that could help me. They were all old guys and I let it all go about the ninth grade.”
Flatt was forced to disband his outfit due to failing health in 1978. So Stuart joined Johnny Cash’s band (and married Cash’s daughter Cindy in 1983). It was a friendship that would endure even after Stuart set off on his own in the late 80s. “Every day with John was a life lesson,” says Stuart. “He was a country boy, but he was a worldly country boy – he could talk with a head of state or a farmer. He was very down to earth.” He pauses. “I miss his humour. I miss his wisdom. I miss playing music and hanging out with him. His songs pretty much tell you who he was as a person.”
Stuart’s enthusiasm for working with his elders found him producing the likes of Porter Wagoner and producing then marrying singer Connie Smith. Stuart first saw Smith sing at a country fair when he was 11 years old, even then telling his mother “one day I’m gonna marry her”. In 1997 he did, and they remain together today.
“Connie got Covid bad,” says Stuart. “She was hospitalised for 11 days and almost died. She had struggled for months and months and months to get back to normal but she’s kind of there now – she’s back to singing and we have made a new record and she’s performing again at the Grand Ole Opry.”
Stuart produced Smith’s 2021 album The Cry of the Heart, yet he hasn’t released anything of his own since 2017’s Way Out West, a fine album that found the participation of Native American musicians emphasising Stuart’s broad view of “American music”.
“I had a period of making big production records in the 90s that got me into the charts and won me a wide audience,” says Stuart, “and I’m grateful for that. But I dislike the sound of those records – like a lot of mainstream country they were trying to sound like what you hear on pop-rock radio. That’s not what I’m about. I prefer to pursue my own vision. I might not get on country radio these days but this doesn’t bother me.” And new material? “I have three albums in the can – they’ll be out soon.”
Stuart is a long-term collector of all kinds of country memorabilia – I once met him in Nashville and he showed me such artefacts as Johnny Cash’s Martin guitar and Patsy Cline’s cowboy boots. Having raised the necessary funds, he’s now building a Congress of Country Music in his home town, a cultural and education centre, museum and concert hall dedicated to preserving traditional country.
“Mississippi is a pretty interesting place because if you go up into the north state you have the Elvis Presley birthplace in Tupelo,” Stuart explains. “Across the delta BB King has a beautiful cultural centre dedicated to the blues and delta culture. The father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers, is from Meridian, 35 miles away from my home town, so I feel I’m helping celebrate Mississippi’s musical riches.”
Stuart sees the Congress as a place to celebrate interracial solidarity. “In Philadelphia we have Choctaw culture, Black culture and white culture and all three communities want the Congress to go ahead. Charley Pride was from Mississippi and we will be celebrating his legacy alongside that of Ray Charles, who took country music to a whole new audience. There will be gospel and blues artists performing. We are inclusive.”
For Philadelphia, I note, the cultural centre must be a blessing: Stuart’s home town has been blighted ever since the abduction and murder of three civil rights workers who were arrested while driving through Philadelphia in 1964. “Well, thank you for recognising that,” says Stuart, “because that is at the heart of the mission for me. The abductions and murders were a horrible event and there has been a dark cloud over Philadelphia for all these years. Already, the town is getting his life back. So it’s wonderful to stand back and see people smile again and see the town rebuilt around this thing.”
As far as traditional country goes, I mention how surprised I was when Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives joined the surviving Byrds to tour Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the album that stands as the genesis of country rock: don’t the Nashville hardcore avoid LA fusionists?
“Not at all,” he says. “I bought the LP from a discount bin in the nearest record shop to Lester Flatt’s house when I was 15 and it blew my mind. It was the first time that I’d ever heard country music, bluegrass, gospel and folk and rock’n’roll collide successfully.” Even when Stuart was touring with Flatt, he kept his ears open to what was happening in California. “We played at Michigan State University in 1973 and the headliners were Eagles. Opening for us was Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Gram had just returned from hanging out with the Stones and he had black fingernail polish and was talking in some bullshit cockney accent.” He laughs at the memory. “It was fun to hang out with him.”
There’s another connection to the Byrds, too. “Their late guitarist, Clarence White, was the brother of Lester Flatt’s mandolin player, Roland White – and it was he who recommended me to Lester. I now own Clarence’s guitar and I played it on the tour. So you could say I’ve gone full circle by being a Byrd.”
Unfortunately, the Sweetheart of the Rodeo tour never reached Europe. “I don’t know why,” says Stuart, “because we got to have so much fun. Me and the band, we were like teenagers – we got to be the Byrds! There was a magic about those shows. People love those songs and they love Roger and Chris. I think we gained a lot of new fans, people that probably didn’t know who we were.”
The same was true of Ken Burns’ acclaimed Country Music series. “We worked on that show for eight years,” says Stuart. “It was a labour of love. I love the documentaries that Ken makes and whatever he puts his brand on you’re automatically keyed into a different stratosphere of people – people who are deeply interested in history but have probably never heard country music before. Without question a lot of people came to see our shows after they saw that. And they keep coming back.”
Stuart agrees that Burns’s series did more to introduce the beauty and complex, sometimes difficult, character of country music to a general audience than any other previous effort. For anyone yet not converted, he says, just listen to the stories the songs tell. “The original themes of country music – love, drinking, rambling, gambling, heartache, divorce, mother, faith, home, sin, redemption, murder – are universal and, if you pick up the Guardian this morning, you will find every one of those themes there. So when traditional country music speaks to those life themes, to the human condition, I think it crosses borders and has universal appeal.”
• Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives tour the UK from 25 August.