When Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives played at the Bluegrass Music Museum and Hall of Fame in November of 2018, Stuart said he felt more like a fan than a country music star.
Stuart grew up listening to bluegrass and even played in Lester Flatt’s band as a teenager before joining Johnny Cash’s touring band, which helped pave the way for Stuart’s solo career and a string of country radio hits in the ‘90s.
So Stuart told Owensboro Times he is especially looking forward to his tour stop at the Bluegrass Hall of Fame on Friday in support of the Deluxe Edition 20th anniversary re-issue of his iconic album The Pilgrim.
“(The Bluegrass Hall of Fame) is one of those facilities I have an affinity for, and the reason I’m coming is we like to support the cause,” Stuart said by phone from Washington D.C.
During his previous show at the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, Stuart spent an afternoon enjoying the museum’s exhibits and said his favorite moment was seeing Uncle Josh Graves’ dobro.
“Uncle Josh Graves played with Flatt & Scruggs. When I was a little boy, I’d watch him on black and white TV. I could tell there was something different about his playing. Then I would go downtown to Philadelphia, Mississippi to the Busy Bee Cafe where them ol’ boys played a bluesy style like Uncle Josh, so I recognized it,” he said. “Well, Uncle Josh went on to be a legend and one of my dearest friends, so to see his old dobro out of the case, up close, it really got me. It was sort of a full-circle moment for me.”
On his return trip Friday, Stuart said fans can expect an unforgettable night of music that is essentially two shows in one.
“We’ll do 35-40 minutes of song after song,” he said. “Then there’s sort of a line in the sand where we talk about The Pilgrim and then do those songs. So it’s a great night of music. When I walk off the stage, every night is memorable for me, so I hope it’s memorable for everyone else too.”
The Pilgrim tour started in September and continues through May, playing small to medium size halls that sell out most nights. The re-release the 10 songs on the original album recorded in 1999 plus 10 previously unreleased bonus tracks.
Stuart explains, “For instance, Ralph Stanley was in the studio working on a track and when we were done, I just kept cutting songs. So there’s this extra stuff. Same way with Earl Scruggs. Same way with Uncle Josh Graves. So when we got to working on this re-issue, we found these old tracks and I thought man, twenty years later, this is an American treasure. We gotta put these out! And they sound wonderful.”
In preparation for his return to Owensboro, Stuart talked with Owensboro Times about recording The Pilgrim, as well as his involvement with the Ken Burns documentary Country Music and his time with Johnny Cash.
Owensboro Times – You said The Pilgrim changed the course of your musical life. Can you say more about that?
Stuart – I had a 10 year run of blatantly, unapologetic commercial success. It was more, more, more. Louder and louder. Brighter and brighter. But by 1997 or ‘98, the radio stations were changing. So it was troublesome. I tried to keep up and reform, but nothing I did seemed to work. But chasing was the part that tore me up more than failing records. I was not born to chase. I was born to follow my heart at any cost. Follow where your heart leads you. So I was looking for a place to sort of make a U-turn and get off that ride, and The Pilgrim became that for me.”
OT – So these songs came from your heart?
Stuart – Right. I rented Sun Studios in Memphis for two days. On the second day, I got the word that Bill Monroe had passed away. So I took a walk to shake it off and wrote the song (Pilgrim). That song was the only song I had to show for this album for a year or two. But then a story started to form around that song that had nothing to do with Bill Monroe, but it was still a story. Then I started writing songs and they just started flying. We basically worked them out in the studio. We didn’t really do much pre-production.
OT – You’ve had several collaborations with Johnny Cash in your career. You brought him in again for The Pilgrim.
Stuart – I needed a big finish for the record and I couldn’t come up with one. I had bought a piece of stained glass in Austin, Texas. At the bottom of the stained glass were some beautiful words by the poet Tennyson. When I looked at those words I thought ‘That’s the ending of the Pilgrim album right there. And the voice that needs to say those words is Johnny Cash.’ That’s how it worked out.
OT – Before your solo career, you played in Johnny’s band for six years. What can you tell us about playing with Johnny Cash?
Stuart – I can say the first two records I ever owned were a Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs record and a Johnny Cash record. And the only two jobs I ever really had were playing for Lester Flatt and then Johnny Cash. So it seemed divine to me. I think about Johnny every day and I miss him all the time. We were next-door neighbors so I miss walking across the yard and having coffee and talking about life.
OT – You were a major contributor to the Ken Burns Country Music film. How did that come about?
Stuart – I had heard in passing that Ken Burns was thinking about it, so I wrote him a fan letter. I had never met him. So I told him ‘I heard you’re thinking of doing a piece on country music, and if that is the case, you’re invited into my world. I am in the deep end of the pool. I can’t fly a spaceship but I can get you into the world of country music.’ And they showed up and we figured it out and got started. It was eight years of a great project. And it’s a project that will last a lifetime.
That film is a hit. Ken Burns told me the biggest hit he ever had was The Civil War but this is catching up to that one. And it doesn’t surprise me because country music was a story that needed to be told. And he presented it as a culture and he entertained people by doing so. It has that much power. I was in on it from day one as a supporter. When it came time to do interviews with me, we just kept talking and talking. Historically, those guys lean on scholars and let them speak on the subject. But what I think was cool about the Country Music film was instead of using scholars they used people that had lived through it and helped create it. I would call it a “road scholar” because we had been on the road our whole lives. So I was honored to be one of those people.
OT – You were named an “Artist in Residence” at the Country Music Hall of Fame. What was that like?
Stuart – That was a huge honor. I enjoyed every bit of it. It was three performances over three Wednesday nights last September. The Hall of Fame is kind of like the Oscars or the Pulitzer Prize of country music, so anything to do with that institution – that’s the air you’re breathing. I feel at home there.
OT – And now you’re performing at the Bluegrass Hall of Fame…
Stuart – Yeah, I kind of feel home there too, in a way. Bluegrass music is a huge part of my life. It’s a foundational layer of my life. It’s rewarding. So again, anything I can do to run alongside that cause, I’m all for. I play the mandolin, but I’m not a bluegrass star. If you’re looking for a real bluegrass star, go see Del McCoury or Alison Krauss or Ricky Skaggs. Those guys are doing it right. But I’m still one of bluegrass music’s best friends and supporters and champions. And I’m proud to be performing at the Bluegrass Hall of Fame.