Marty Stuart discusses country’s DNA, playing with Johnny Cash, and the psychedelia of the Mojave before Egg concert
On January 30th, country music legend Marty Stuart brings his Fabulous Superlatives band to The Egg in Albany. Born in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1958, Stuart starting playing professionally with a gospel band at 12. From those humble origins, Stuart’s star rose to the highest heights: joining the bands of heroes Johnny Cash — who wound up his father-in-law for a time — and Lester Flatt, winning multiple Grammys, and securing a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame. As he prepares to hit the road with the Fabulous Superlatives, Stuart tells WAMC that establishing the band’s legacy has become his next great goal.
STUART: Well, we were named after a catchphrase at a florist in Nashville. There used to be this old florist called Emma's, and they called it “the superlative florists.” They had great old radio spots that had orchestral music and this old Southern brogue guy who said “mums, carnations, roses, rhododendrons.” And he would always tag with it with, “Emma’s, the superlative florists.” That was just their thing, and everybody loved that phrase. And so when we put our band together, I thought, we need a name. So we became the Superlatives. And I said, well, for an extra dash of grandiosity, how about the Fabulous Superlatives. So, Kenny Vaughan plays guitar, Harry Stinson plays the drums, Chris Scruggs plays the bass, and it's kind of a once in a lifetime band for me. They're just incredible guys.
WAMC: Now, you've been playing for decades at this point. Looking back over your long and prolific career, do you feel like there was a moment early on where you felt like, wow, I'm really in it, I've settled into a practice and in a career that's going to be the rest of my life?
When I was 13, I got a job with Lester Flatt at the Grand Ole Opry. Lester's one of the old pioneers and master architects of country music, and I remember thinking right after I got the job, you got the job! And then this little voice inside me said, now see if you can keep it. [laughs] So, but, I realized early on, I totally understood what I was doing and who I was with. But I understood that there's a lot of people who got a chance- But keeping it’s the other thing.
A popular narrative about country music is this idea of it being a living history. What's your experience of that concept? And was there a moment where you felt like, oh, I now have the ability to actually contribute to this, or have a voice in this- And what does that responsibility mean to you?
Well, I love country music. I always have. I grew up in Mississippi where, you know, you drive across the state line, it says “birthplace of America's music.” And that can be backed up profoundly. But country music got my heart early on. And you know, I think a lot of descriptions come around about country music. The old great songwriter Harlan Howard, when asked to describe country music, called it three chords and the truth. Hank Williams said, I can sum it up in one word: Sincerity. My wife, Connie Smith, says it's the cry of the heart. So I agree with all those things. But you're right, it's the stories. Ken Burns and I agree, it's the stories that make country songs and country music kind of set apart. And somewhere along the way, I guess it was a self-appointed mission, I thought the traditional end of country music is slipping away. And it just kind of became a self-appointed mission for me to jump in, grab it, claim it, preserve it, promote it, and further it. I love having a voice in that. I love having a voice. Especially at this point in my life, I think I'm one of the people that is kind of a bridge between, you know, the past of country music and the future. I love the position.
Now there's the music itself, there's the living history aspect of it, and then there's the showmanship aspect of it, of which you are a brilliant representation. You have a distinct look, the whole band looks phenomenal together- The powder blue suits, I love it. Walk me through that journey. How did you develop that that visual presence on stage that's become so associated with the Marty Stuart brand?
Going back to when I was a kid in Philadelphia, Mississippi, there was a Black café, juke joint called The Busy Bee Café. And all those characters that hung around there captured my attention when I was a little kid. They all wore flashy clothes, some of them had gold teeth and played cool looking guitars and instruments. And they were just great characters, and it just made their music even more appealing to me. And you know, down to through the years, it was Little Richard and early versions of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash and Albert Einstein and Andrew Jackson, those kind of – Porter Wagner – those kind of people that just saw something different and saw life in a different way and have the confidence to step out there and look that way. I just thought that was cool. And last time I checked, we're in show business. And I think, when I go to a show, I want to see something besides some guy that looks like he just came off a deer stand. I love when it's show time going into phone booth and coming out as hillbilly stars.
Now, doing my research for this interview, Marty, I watched a video of you and Johnny Cash doing an absolutely stunning version of “Doing My Time.” Can you describe that experience of being on stage with a giant like Johnny Cash, with that locked in rhythm section truckin’ down the road? What does that feel like?
Just what you said. It was like a train, being hooked up to a rattly old train. The first two records that I ever owned in my life was a Johnny Cash record and a Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs record, and the only two jobs I've ever had in my life was with Johnny Cash and Lester Flatt. So both of those people, they were titanic to me. The first time I stood on stage with Johnny Cash and heard him go, “Hello, I'm Johnny Cash,” and we kicked into “Folsom Prison Blues,” I had to hang my head because it made me cry. It just got my heart. I loved his music. It was an incredible band of- Johnny Cash and the Tennessees, they were my Beatles. I loved those records, I loved those guys. And there were so elementary they could barely change chords together sometimes, barely stay in tune. But it didn't matter. It was just that thing, as you said, it was that clack that they had. I loved being a part of it. It was awesome.
I've heard you in interviews allude to a psychedelic influence coming into your music, you've discussed making cosmic cowboy records, I know you're obviously a Marty Robbins fan, and fans of the Grateful Dead know that that's been appropriated into the psychedelic rock canon in American music. What's that intersection like between traditional country music and then the later forms of psychedelic music that emerged after it?
The gettin’ on place to me for all of that was the Byrds. Originally, it was “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” and the Byrds recordings kind of took me to a place that showed me that you can combine country music and even folk music with those other themes, and it somehow still works. It's an adventurous kind of strand of music. But it still twangs, and it still has stories. You go out into the middle of Mojave Desert and look up, you don't have to play any music. It's pretty psychedelic on its own out there.
You alluded to a moment ago how playing with Johnny Cash and his band was like playing with your Beatles. What's left for you in your career that you want to hit? Are there other long awaited dreams that you want to fulfill? What's in your heart, Marty?
The main thing in my heart is just playing. This band started without any assistance from commercial radio or anything like that. And we've just built this band for the past 20 years, all one handshake at a time and one show at a time, one record at a time. The band is at a place now that I think it is really, it has its nose against the glass and headed for a greater audience. The music is so solid. The Superlatives is one of those bands- I really and truly believe that people that got to see Jimi Hendrix or they got to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or the Beatles – I'm just flipping names here – years later, [they’re like], I got to see those guys one time. The Superlatives are one of those bands. It's a once in a lifetime kind of band. So I think, that's what my dream is. Just get this band’s legacy parked where it needs to go.