As keeper of traditional country music’s flame, Marty Stuart burns bright as a bonfire. Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives (that’s no exaggeration) light that fire Sunday at The Egg (Empire State Plaza, Albany) — back on the road after a COVID hiatus.
No country star this side of Dolly Parton would likely win a welcome as warm as what happens Sunday when Stuart steps onstage.
A Nudie-suited, proudly-pompadoured personification of country’s power, Stuart sings its compassionate populism, its poetic punch — poignant or playful — and a deeply loyal love of places and people.
Welcome back — after past celebrations at The Egg: a tremendous tribute to the Byrds, and his own headlining shows.
Looking back across the bleak, desert-night silence when theaters went dark, Stuart mused, “When the world started falling apart, we thought maybe we could go out again next month, next year.” Last week from Nashville, he remembered, “It was like being suspended in space. On the other side, I enjoyed the time off (at home with wife Connie Smith). I hadn’t had a summer off since 1972” — when he started touring with Lester Flatt at 14.
“It was like joining the Navy, an old respected fraternity,” said Stuart of Flatt’s Nashville Grass band. “At that point, the music had all been made, and it was about legacy.”
Flatt, Stuart said with gratitude, “handed me the blueprint for a great musical life.”
“One of the reasons I have the life I do is I had so much freedom,” said Stuart. Both Flatt and Johnny Cash (whose band Stuart joined at 21) were “wide open,” Stuart said. “They taught me always to give bands the chance to speak with a true heart and a true mind.”
Flatt also warned Stuart, “If you play music, you hold your instrument in one hand and you better have a briefcase in the other.” When Flatt enrolled Stuart in the musicians’ union, he offered $65 a week. Knowing how hard Flatt worked his players, the union chief insisted,
”You start him at $90 a week!” Stuart said, “Out of that $90, he took out money for my correspondence course so I could finish school,” also stage suits and a hat: “You had to have a hat!”
Flatt played all over America, but with Cash, “I trotted across the globe and I got to see the world,” said Stuart.
While Flatt taught him about business, and Cash showed him that country music works in any country, Stuart gained the confidence to write songs from Merle Travis. “I said I didn’t think I’d get far as a songwriter since I don’t have a highly educated vocabulary.” Travis asked, “Who are you writing for?” Stuart replied, “Regular folks.” Travis advised, “They don’t have a big vocabulary either, but they like big stories.”
A five-time Grammy winner for both writing and performing, plus Americana Music and International Bluegrass Music awards, Stuart dug up legacy tunes to stay busy at home. He made videos of “Songs I Sing in the Dark.” He called it “a vanity project born of the pandemic … a rescue mission for songs that were unattended or left behind, and I adopted them.”
Stuart went back on the road late last summer. “I remember walking up onstage for sound check (in Saint Augustine, Florida, with Jason Isbell) and … I was always taking the road for granted, my whole life. Looking up at the bleachers, I knew I’d never take this for granted again; it’s an honor and a gift, a sweet moment.”
Another sweet moment: being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in late 2020. “It’s a badge of honor,” he said; also a challenge. “It gives me something to grow into. The best thing was my wife Connie inducted me, and that was wonderful.”
“If country music had a president, it would be Marty Stuart,” said Ken Burns, whose PBS series relies heavily on Stuart’s eloquence. Talking to Burns’ camera about his idols, Stuart affirmed his dedication to traditional country, a soul-deep life’s work he began in childhood.
Stuart and two friends played his first paid gig in their hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi. “We played the Rotary Club and they gave us lunch; we got paid in food!”
Stuart said, “It was the late ’60s and the British Invasion had covered the earth, so even on the back roads of Mississippi, you’d hear people playing songs by the Beatles, the Who and the Rolling Stones. But we wanted to play songs by Buck Owens and Johnny Cash. We were the Country Kids.”
Love of his hometown also inspired another project with Burns: Honor Your Hometown; first-person video testimonials. “It’s a tri-racial town,” Stuart said, citing white, African American and Native American residents. “I just saw everybody as people and I loved that and felt a whole lot of love.” He acknowledged the murders of three civil rights workers there had tainted its reputation, but then defended the place. “That wasn’t my town. That was a handful of radicals who gave the place a bad name.”
Also in Philadelphia — as Stuart pointed out, 35 miles from the Meridian, Miss., home of Jimmy Rodgers, the father of country music — is the planned Marty Stuart Congress of Country Music. As unlikely, perhaps, as “a spaceship in the town,” as Stuart acknowledged, it’s surrounded by country music lore, and possibility. Stuart sees it as both museum for his 20,000-item country music archive and a workshop.
The website of his hometown institution in the making states, “Marty Stuart’s Congress of Country Music is the spiritual home of country music — A cathedral where the spirits of country music legends, and the fires of today’s creative souls, converge.”
Why not Nashville, whose shrines include the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Ryman Auditorium, the Musicians Hall of Fame, RCA Studio B where Elvis made many hits and Stuart recorded his great “Ghost Train” album? Stuart said, “Nashville has all it probably needs. But for some young person who has traditional country music in his heart and needs to develop it and play it, there’s not much in Nashville because it’s such a big-business place.”
He added, “The Congress of Country Music, that’s a place where a young artist can hold Hank’s [Williams] guitar, and look at his [song] manuscripts.
And, apart from the Grand Ole Opry [in Nashville] there’s no place for the legends to tell their stories and sing their songs.”
Stuart essentially carries the Congress of Country Music with him on his tourbus, celebrating those stories and songs with his Fabulous Superlatives: guitarist Kenny Vaughn, bassist Chris Scruggs and drummer Harry Stinson. They play with the freedom he learned with Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash — the willingness to roar down a dirt road together without a map and let a song lead where it leads. Onstage, said Stuart, “The sky is the limit. We have one rule: If you crash and go down in flames, go down laughing!” He added, “We don’t have to talk about it; [the music] just happens. I’m so spoiled. We haven’t had an argument in 21 years.”
Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives
Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
When: Sunday, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $59.50, $49.50, $39.50, $34.50; premium “The Big Chief Special VIP Package” with backstage access, activities and swag: $259.50.
More info: 518-473-1845 www.theegg.org