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Marty Stuart writes 'a love letter to the American West'

Marty Stuart
Marty StuartAlysse Gafkjen
  Play Now [12:21]

by Bill DeVille

April 09, 2017

Way Out West is the new album from Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives, which Stuart describes as a "psychedelic, twang-ified journey through the Mojave Desert."

Ahead of Stuart's show at the Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis, The Current's Bill DeVille connected with Stuart by phone to talk about the new album and also about Johnny Cash, Lester Flatt, and the Nashville mystique. Stuart also recalls a story that connects Minneapolis to what is arguably the greatest trucking song of all time.

Interview Transcript

BILL DeVILLE: Hi Marty Stuart, how are you, sir?

MARTY STUART: I'm doing good. Happy spring!

Happy spring to you. Where are you hanging your hat today?

Today I'm at our office in Hendersonville, Tennessee.

Right outside of Nashville, then?

That's right.

Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives are coming to Minneapolis to play the Fine Line on Tuesday. Looking forward to the show, Marty.

Looking forward to seeing you. I think our last play in town there was at the State Fair for a couple of days last fall, and man, we had a wonderful time.

Excellent. And I recall the last place I saw you was at the Dakota in downtown Minneapolis a couple years ago.

That's a cool little place as well.

Very nice. So you have a new album, Marty, called Way Out West. What was the inspiration behind this album?

Well, Bill, it's kind of a love letter to the American West, and so many of the sounds and the sights that were inspiring when I was a kid, whether it was Fender guitars or the Batmobile or the clothes Porter Wagner wore or … all those little cowboy shows that came out of there — I just love that side of the world.

So it's kind of a psychedelic, twang-ified journey through the Mojave Desert. It was just time to turn the wheel a little bit, and this record is one I'm absolutely fond of. I love every note of music on it. It's special.

I have had a hard time hitting the eject button; there are so many different styles. I'm hearing the Buck and Merle Bakersfield sound. That's obviously a big thing for you.

Well, sure. I started my first band when I was nine years old, and I think the very first song I ever learned to play on the guitar was "Tiger by the Tail." From the time I was a little kid down in Mississippi, in our original set list as a neighborhood band was "Folsom Prison Blues," "Branded Man," and "Tiger by the Tail" — those kind of songs. When the rest of the world was playing Beatles songs back then, we were playing that stuff.

And the Beatles were actually covering the Buck Owens sounds back then.

That's right. So I guess we were all on the same page anyhow, weren't we?

Yes. And I also hear things like the Byrds on a few of the tracks.

Well, the guitar I hang around my neck every single night was played by Clarence White, he was the first guitarist for the Byrds. And Mike Campbell, Tom Petty's guitar player, actually produced this record. We did it in California to try to be authentic about it. But there's a song on there called "Time Don't Wait," I think it's track 7, and we used Mike Campbell's Rickenbacker guitar that he's played on so many of those Tom Petty hits. And that 12-string guitar goes right back to Roger McGuinn.

That sounds pretty amazing. There's lots of surf sounds on the album as well. You do kind a twisted cover of the old Benny Goodman tune, "Air Mail Special." What's the story behind that one?

Well, actually, I learned that particular song off a bluegrass band called Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys down at the Grand Ole Opry. They recorded that song kind of in the fashion that we did it, except in bluegrass style, back in the early '50s. So I thought it was a bluegrass song for all those years.

On that song, I hear something special going on between you and Kenny Vaughan. There's that guitar interplay that you guys have. Does it just happen, or does it take a lot of work to sync in with each other?

From the minute we started playing together, we'd just look at each other and smile and it just king of happens. Once we stumbled into an idea, it may take a little woodshed time, but in general, it just happens. It's interesting to me, sometimes when we make records, I'll take all the tracks down and turn up my guitar track and then Kenny's guitar track, and without saying a word, it's kind of like a tapestry. He's a good dancing partner.

I've met him a couple times and he always mentions playing at this joint called the Longhorn in downtown Minneapolis way back in the day.

Yes! And we hear that there's a photograph circulating out there in the world somewhere from his days at the Longhorn when he had a peroxide pompadour and he walked around in cowboy boots and a pair of short pants and a sleeveless shirt. So we'd pay money to anybody who might have a copy of that! (laugh)

I think there's probably a picture out there somewhere. Do you remember the first time you played around the Twin Cities and do you remember where it was?

I think the first time that I played up there was at a place called — was it the Caboose?

Yeah, the Cabooze.

I think it was with Vassar Clements' band, right after Lester Flatt died. Of course, not long after that, I went to work with Johnny Cash and his band, and we played the Carleton a lot. Me and my band have played several spots around there. But Minneapolis is one of my favorite cities in America for a lot of reasons. And the music scene has always been great around there, all forms of music.

One of my favorite things that ever happened in Minneapolis was at Kay Bank studios. So many people don't know that "Six Days on the Road" by Dave Dudley was done at Kay Bank. I'm telling you — that is a big moment!

That's arguably the greatest trucking song of all, you suppose?

It absolutely is. That's right.

What was it like playing in Johnny Cash's band? First of all, how did you get invited to join his band back in the '70s.

The first two records I ever owned were a Flatt & Scruggs and a Johnny Cash record, and the only two jobs I ever had were for Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash. I joined Lester's band when I was like 13, and he passed away almost seven years later. I think I was on the back edge of 19 years old, so I needed a job. I happened to walk into a guitar store in Nashville one day, and a buddy of mine was building this really fancy, black guitar. I said, "Who's that for?"

He said, "Johnny Cash."

I went, "Could I go with you when you take it to deliver it to him?"

I kept up with the progress of the guitar and [my friend] promised me I could, so I went with him when he delivered the guitar, and I met John and we shook hands. It just worked — I mean, he just kept shaking my hand and we just kept talking. We played music that day and I think about a month later, I was onstage playing with him.

Was it a thrill? Were you intimidated playing with the Man in Black?

Lord, no. I was ready. I was ready. But I tell you, the first time that I was on stage, I didn't audition. I didn't do anything. I was just called and I went out on the road. Somebody loaned me some black clothes, and they stood me on a spot on stage and I didn't even see him before the show started [although] I talked to him on the phone. And when he walked out and said, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," and the guitar player started into "Folsom Prison Blues," I hung my head and I had to bite my lip because that was my old childhood hero. That was a big moment for me.

I can imagine. I also recently noticed that you played on the Unchained album by Johnny Cash.

I was on an airplane one day headed out to California, and John was on the plane. He said, "What are you doing on so-and-so date?"

I went, "Well, we're doing some shows, me and my band."

He says, "Well, can you come back through L.A. and work with me on a record?"

I said, "Sure." He was my chief, you know?

And so, when I got to the studio, I found out that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and myself, we were the band for the record. And that's where I got to know Mike Campbell.

It was a wonderful record to be a part of because the world was starting to rediscover him, and a whole new generation of people were starting to rediscover him after a long time of kind of obscurity. He was still Johnny Cash and he worked all the time, but this whole new wave of interest was out there for him. And I knew we were on to something, finally, and there were rock stars coming to the session and there were great writers and great journalists, and I thought, "Oh, the second coming is here, the victory lap is here." And I knew we were making the right music around him at that time. So it worked out.

So we're coming up on the first anniversary of the passing of Merle Haggard. Now you officiated Merle's funeral, didn't you, as per Merle's request?

I did.

That must have been quite an honor.

It was the ultimate honor. I mean, what more could you do? I stood out there and told the truth, and that was an easy one. I miss him. He's like John, you know? They were two of my dearest friends.

Your life is never the same after you hang out with characters like that. I've often said it was kind of like hanging out with Sitting Bull and Geronimo. The thing that both those guys shared in common — beyond being master architects of a great form of American music — but as people, there was a "been there, done that" sensibility about them, and the well of wisdom that both of those guys possessed. And in both cases, I could pick up the phone and ask advice or their take on something and get it.

The other thing about both of them is that it did not matter how brutal the subject was, and how truthful and how much it hurt or pained to talk about it, you could talk about it with either one of them without fear of judgement. There was just a great understanding there. I was blessed to have it for a long time, and I sure do miss it.

You seem like a person who seems like you're still kind of in awe of Nashvill and of country music's history. Is that true?

I don't know that I'm in awe of it, but I respect it and I certainly understand it, and I understand that it's important that it is preserved and furthered, and I understand the legacy part of it probably better than I ever have in my life.

What I go back to is Lester Flatt giving me a gig when I was 13 years old or Johnny Cash giving me a gig when I was 19 years old or whatever it was. They probably didn't need a teenage chimpanzee in their world, but they saw something in me that was worth investing in, and they passed on their wisdom and their craft to me. So what I'm struck with these days is it's my time, and some of my peers — people like Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill, those kind of statesmanlike characters — it's our job to pass our culture on and preserve it and further it and make sure it gets in the hands of the next generation.

You've done a lot in your career: you've had country this, you've had your own TV show, you've made a ton of cool albums. What haven't you done yet? Who haven't you worked with who you always wanted to?

A guy that I respect a lot is Wynton Marsalis. I think Wynton is probably somebody I would look to — I think Stevie Ray Vaughn would have been the same kind of character for the blues — but when I look at what Wynton has done for jazz, for the culture of jazz, how he's put his arms around it, embraced it, loved the old-timers and taught it to a new generation of people, that goes right along with what my mission statement is for the culture of country music. So somewhere along the way, I'd like to sit down and play with Wynton, and the first song I would play would be a Jimmie Rodgers song, I think it's called "Standin' on the Corner," because when Mr. Rodgers recorded that song, Louis Armstrong played the trumpet with him on it, so that gives us a good starting place.

Does Wynton Marsalis know about this yet?

I think so!

Right on. Marty Stuart, it was a pleasure talking to you.

Thank you, and I appreciate you letting me be on your show. I'm looking forward to coming to the Twin Cities.

The new album is called Way Out West. Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives play on Tuesday, April 11, at the Fine Line Music Cafe in the Twin Cities.


Marty Stuart - official site

Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives, 'Way Out West'
Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives, 'Way Out West'
Superlatone Records