After finishing his masterful and critically acclaimed recording, The Pilgrim, at the turn of the century, Stuart immersed himself in “team” projects: scoring films, writing songs for others’ albums, producing and recording soundtracks, and collaborating on other artists’ recordings. “This went on for the better part of two and a half years,” Stuart recalls, “and I woke up one day in California and said, ‘It’s time to go home – and I don’t mean Nashville, I mean Mississippi, to the very beginning, and start over.”
Since age 12, Stuart has been on the road, first playing mandolin with gospel act the Sullivans, and then touring with Lester Flatt’s band, leaving his birthplace of Philadelphia, Mississippi, far behind. A tenure in Johnny Cash’s band, followed by a half-dozen successful solo albums, where he spread the word of “hillbilly rock” across the land, has kept Stuart from spending much time in his hometown. About 150 miles south of the Mississippi Delta, which gave birth to the blues, Philadelphia is situated 35 miles north of Meridian, where Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music, was born. Clearly, both genres have been imprinted on Stuart.
“I went back home to Mississippi and just spent time out in the country, in the woods,” Stuart says. “I kept the family farm there with the same pine trees, I could hear the same train whistles, see the same stars, and feel the same atmosphere that inspired me to love country music and play it when I was a kid—before I ever knew anything about doing it for a living.” Fittingly, his return home occurred in the Spring of 2002: the perfect season for a musical rebirth, especially in the environs of his Grandpa Johnson’s old farm, which Stuart had helped to clear of overgrowth in the early 1990s. “Back in the ‘90s when we cleared that land, the most beautiful thing occurred,” Stuart remembers. “The air could pass through the trees again, and everything came back to life. You could see my Grandpa’s signature on the land – the way he terraced his land. Then, when I was down there again last year, something really incredible occurred. The same thing happened inside me. It had come time to clear out everything inside myself and plant a new crop.”
Last spring, listening to classic C&W, along with the recordings of fellow Mississippians Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, Stuart began chomping at the bit to write, play, and record again. “It was time to get back to work, organize the band, write some new songs, and record again,” says Stuart. “This time it wasn’t about fame and fortune, it wasn’t about those kind of things. There was a different agenda. It was purely a musical mission.” Before he got started on what would become the vibrantly textured Country Music, though, he “kept three things in mind”: which brings us to Cash, Rodgers, and Dunaway.
“I remembered what Johnny Cash told me when I was over at his cabin recording the guitar part on a song called ‘When the Man Comes Around’. I said, ‘J.R., I’m getting ready to start thinking about songs again, but it’s hard to follow a record like The Pilgrim. You’ve done it time after time after time. What do you do?’ And he said, ‘The thing about it is, you can never go back. You can never go back after you’ve made one like that…’
“So I knew I had to keep moving. I had a talk with Faye Dunaway [for whom he’d just scored Yellow Bird, her film of the Tennessee Williams short story]. I told her, ‘Faye, I’m about to do a scary thing.’ She said, “What, dahhling?’ I told her, ‘I’ve got to go home and pick up where I left off—that’s so hard to do.’ She said, ‘What’re you going to do?’ I said, ‘I want to go home and make a country music record.’ And she said, ‘You have so much power to draw from, so much to pull from—don’t even give it a second thought. Just go to your heart.’ I really hung onto that.
“The other thing I wanted to come to terms with was that I had never really made peace with Jimmie Rodgers. I’d always honored him, but never really knew why. I got his box set and listened to the entire thing on an airplane to and from Europe—and then I totally understood why he’s the Father of Country Music. It’s the subject matter, everything we’ve now clichéd: trains, mama, prison, Saturday night, gamblin’, hoboin’. All that romantic lifestyle business and true life blues: Jimmie Rodgers went there first. And I thought, I want to make a textbook record in that regard.”
And thus, Country Music, emerged: To help him make a record that lives up to its name, Stuart found likeminded souls who happened to be world class singers and musicians—now known as “His Fabulous Superlatives”—guitarist Kenny Vaughan (Lucinda Williams), drummer Harry Stinson (Steve Earle) and bassist Brian Glenn—along with some very special guests. And the songs came….
Songwriting get-togethers with such craftsmen as Tom Douglas resulted in the haunting ballad “Fool for Love,” as well as the urgent “Here I Am” (Rivers Rutherford) and the gorgeous love song “If You Wanted Me Around” (with Paul Kennerley). Of the latter, Stuart says, “It fell out of the sky in a matter of three minutes. We’ll usually struggle and labor over songs, but that one was so easy we couldn’t believe it really belonged to us.”
Stuart drew from his encyclopedic knowledge of obscure C&W nuggets for some of the album’s best moments: “Sundown in Nashville.” It was originally cut by Carl and Pearl Butler, with whom Stuart first shared a stage when he was 12 years old. “I’ve loved ‘Sundown in Nashville’ for years and years,” Stuart says. “I rewrote the second verse, wanting to bring it into the times.” Of the song’s embittered portrait of Music City casualties, Stuart reflects, “I know that story. Trust me, I’ve been through thirty years of Sundowns in Nashville. Sometimes it hurts so bad it’s hard to talk about it.”
In addition to the Porter Wagoner chestnut “Satisfied Mind,” Stuart dug up a lesser-known number by Johnny Cash. “Walls of a Prison,” based on the mournful English ballad’s melody that also gave us “Streets of Laredo,” tells the tragic story of a lifer who takes the ultimate gamble to go free. “It’s always been my favorite Johnny Cash song,” says Stuart. “It’s from one of his mid-sixties albums—it’s really obscure. I’ve never even heard him sing it.”
Though tragedy and heartache certainly comprise some of Country Music’s greatest songs, just as important are the lighthearted romps that poke fun of hillbilly life. Stuart contributes a kooky tale in this vein, “By George,” while the songwriting braintrust behind the Nashville “cult” band, Billy Hill, provided the humorous “Too Much Month at the End of the Money.” Stuart also managed to find a “hillbilly utopia song” in “If There Ain’t There Oughta Be,” and a country-blues barnburner, “Wishful Thinkin’.” With these numbers, Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives pick up the tempo, giving them the rousing hillbilly-rock treatment.
Stuart invited C&W senior statesmen to join him on a pair of Country Music’s most spectacular tracks. “Tip Your Hat” gives props to the music’s legends, two of whom add their stellar playing to the track: dobroist Josh Graves and banjo master Earl Scruggs. “When I first heard the recording of the song by it’s writer, Jeffrey Steele, I thought, I’ve preached this sermon so many times, but it looks as if I have to say it again,” Stuart says. “I rewrote the second half of the song with his permission,” substituting his own professors for the Southern rockers the songwriter originally namechecked. “Then I called up Uncle Josh Graves and Earl Scruggs—they’re the remaining components of the Foggy Mountain Boys alma mater. Uncle Josh also played with Lester Flatt—he’s my first blues inspiration.”
The album’s centerpiece came from Stuart’s own pen, along with that of his wife, the formidable country singer, Connie Smith. The couple had written the song to be included on a future Smith album, but when it was determined that Merle Haggard would join Stuart on a song and a forthcoming tour, it seemed to be the right one for Hag to sing. “I had put out the word to everybody in town that Merle and me are gonna tour together this year,” Stuart explains. “It would be a perfect opportunity to record a song to sing together on tour. Nobody sent me anything that resembles a classic. It was a tall order as it is hard to find a new country song to impress Merle Haggard. It’s like showing Mount Rushmore your rock collection. The songs that were coming in all sounded like clichéd Merle songs. It was then that Connie gave me a wonderful gift by offering back to me ‘Farmer’s Blues’”.
Haggard loved the plainspoken, yet poetic tribute to the families who work the land, and it shows in his exquisite vocals. He definitely was not just calling it in. His burnished croon and Stuart’s honey-coated throat blend like oatmeal and molasses; Haggard ends the moving track with an ardent yodel that evokes the spirit of Jimmie Rodgers.
Marty Stuart has certainly succeeded at what he set out to do with Country Music: create a template of the American roots sound he loves so much: “The album pretty much encapsulates a thirty-year journey,” Stuart agrees. “It’s very southern. From the perspective of where I was raised in Mississippi, everything you hear on this record is what I heard on a daily basis in my hometown. In the course of one week, I heard the Grand Ole Opry, saw Flatt & Scruggs on their TV show, played my favorite Johnny Cash records, and listened to Otis Redding records that belonged to the lady who kept my sister, Jennifer, and me. I just got to hear all of it, and by the time I was through processing it, it came out sounding like country music.”
As for Country Music, the album: “When you finally boil it down to doing what you purely are, which I think is what I did with this record, then the future looks unlimited,” Stuart believes. “Because when you go back to the source, a timeless quality appears.”