Marty Stuart Celebrates Country's Past and Guides Its Future

January 8, 2015

If you are a traditionalist lamenting the state of country music, you can rest easy—Marty Stuart has your back. His two record set, Saturday Night & Sunday Morning [Superlatone] offers a double shot of stripped-down, twang-alicious tunes sitting at the opposite end of the spectrum from the pop-rock that currently possesses the genre. With his band, the aptly-named Fabulous Superlatives, Stuart puts the roll back in rock on “Geraldine,” offers up a shuffle to do Ray Price proud on “I’m Blue and Lonesome” (featuring some blistering B-bending on the late Clarence White’s Parsons-equipped Telecaster), and enough dual Tele action (with “Cousin” Kenny Vaughn) to please the most rabid fans of Leo Fender’s classic invention.

Stuart is more than a triple-threat singer/writer/ picker like Brad Paisley or Vince Gill. At this writing, his photography of country legends and fans hangs in Nashville’s Frist Museum, and his collection of historic instruments and memorabilia would make a curator weep. The joy Stuart takes in the honky-tonk music out of Nashville and Bakersfield, and the gospel roots that form part of its DNA, was obvious when he spoke to GP from the road. It made it easy to see why Marty Stuart is considered by many to be a one-man repository of country music’s legacy.

Did you start as a guitarist or a mandolinist?

I started as a guitar player. First, I had a Kraftsman hollowbody, and then a Teisco. My first Fender guitar was a Mustang. Later, my mom and dad took me to a music store full of every Fender you could imagine. They said, “You can have any one you want. You just have to help pay for it by cutting yards.” I chose a Fender Jaguar because it had more knobs [laughs]. One day, I bought a 78 rpm record of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys at a junk store in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The song was “The Wicked Path of Sin,” and I fell in love with the mandolin. I set my guitar under the bed for a season until I could figure out the mandolin.

Other than the lyrics, what do you see as the difference between Saturday night and Sunday morning music?

Not much [laughs]. At the end of the Sunday Morning record, you can hear me holler out to Pastor Evelyn Hubbard. If you go past Pastor Evelyn’s church in Robinsonville, Mississippi, it’s in the shadow of all those casinos down there. I’m telling you there is no difference other than, as you said, the lyrical content.

Is there anything unique about gospel-style guitar playing?

My favorite gospel guitar player has always been Pops Staples. Pops was the ultimate gospel guitarist, because he never got in the way of the story—it was about supporting the song. He brought such an earthiness, and, at the same time, divinity to his playing. It was otherworldly—helped by the tremolo. There was magic to his playing.

As long as we are on the subject, aren’t you now the curator of Pops’ guitar?

Mavis and Yvonne gave me the rosewood Tele. If you watch him in The Last Waltz with the Band, that is the guitar the family bequeathed to me. It was like being handed Excalibur. It is an instrument of light and truth, and there is a responsibility that falls around my neck when I put that guitar on. I left it tuned down to Eb, the way Pops played it. The big old front pickup—that is the sound right there.

Do you know which pickup it is?

[Asks co-guitarist Kenny Vaughn] Kenny says at some point after The Last Waltz, he replaced the neck pickup with a Fender Wide Range Humbucker, and replaced the bridge with one that had six-way brass saddles.

Is it one of the chambered or solid rosewood models?

It is real heavy—one of the solid ones. I have tried to play country and rock on that guitar, and it won’t come out. But, as soon as I play gospel, it comes to life. Pops was coming to Nashville once and called me. He said, “Marty, I need two things. I need a Fender ’65 with a shake on it and a stretchout car.” I said, “No problem,” and then I called Mavis Staples’ daughter, and asked, “What is a Fender ’65 with shake on it and a stretch-out car?” She said, “Oh Marty, that’s a Fender amp with tremolo and a limousine.” [Laughs.]

You performed many of these songs on your cable show. Was that before or after recording them?

That was before. It was the staging ground where we learned them. For some of these songs, I would write them, we would rehearse them, take them straight to the floor, and then to the studio.

How did you and Kenny Vaughn decide who played which parts?

I’ve never played with anyone as easy to play with as Kenny. We never discuss it. If we do, it might be three words. It falls into place like a tapestry. That is the beauty of this whole band. There is so little said—it just happens. It was that way from the first rehearsal this band ever had. If I happen to step on Kenny onstage, or he steps on me—and that seldom happens—we giggle, and it never happens again.

In the studio, or live, do you do anything to help distinguish the guitar tones from each other?

Sometimes, when doing the TV show or a record, I will have my engineer, Mick Conley, push the faders up, and something different is always happening on each of our tracks—without even trying. The two instruments complement each other every time. That Clarence White guitar is such a distinctive instrument. You could put a thousand Teles in a row, and Clarence would have a voice all its own. Kenny used a Tele made by RS Guitar in Winchester, Kentucky. It is also one of those magical guitars that has a sound of its own—just like Clarence.

What amps were you using?

I use a silverface Fender Deluxe Reverb with an orange box on top that is a bit of a power boost. Kenny uses a silverface Fender Princeton. We are both tone freaks, and we seek out the purest tone we can possibly squeeze out of things without too many effects.

Are the amps in the same room?

It depends on where we record. We have recorded with our amps side by side, and the leakage was more creative than a hindrance.

You have a new bass player since the last studio album.

It got real when Paul Martin joined on bass. Everybody is a star, but Paul is ridiculously talented. He plays steel guitar, vibes, bass, drums, and piano. He can also engineer, arrange harmonies—whatever you need him to do.

You feature him and other band members on vocals. Isn’t that unusual for an artist with his name above the title?

When I was in Lester Flatt’s or Johnny Cash’s band, they made it a point to feature everybody on stage. It makes for a better evening, or a better record. That was the way I was trained, and the wisdom afforded to me. With guys like Kenny, Harry, and Paul, all you have to do is throw them the ball.

Are you still collecting instruments?

I try not to. When someone tells me they have something, I will put my hands over my ears and go, “La, la, la, la, la.” But, every now and then, one comes along. This year, I bought an early ’80s Martin D-45 at Gruhn Guitars that belonged to George Jones. It was one Jones had played a lot, so I needed it to fill that slot in my collection. After Johnny Cash passed away, there was an auction offering a Johnny Cash model Grammer guitar that I remembered seeing him play on his television show. A lady bought it for something like $110,000. I met that lady in South Dakota a few weeks back, and she just gave me that guitar. Those are the two I added this year.

Do you ever display the collection publicly?

Absolutely. It has been around the country several times. There are some pieces on loan to the Country Music Hall of Fame for the Bakersfield exhibit, and I recently loaned them some for the Johnny Cash/Bob Dylan exhibit coming up. There are also some pieces on display at the Ryman Theater in Nashville.

Do you feel any connection bet`ween your photography and your music?

Without question. Whether I am writing songs, taking pictures, playing guitar or mandolin, hosting a TV show, or making up a set list, it is all the same world to me. It is all creative architecture, and I love every aspect of it. I love this job. It is a wonderful life.

MARTY & KENNY ’S ORANGE BOXES & OTHER GEAR

In addition to being a key part of the Fabulous Superlatives’ sound, Kenny Vaughn has lent his picking prowess to records and/or shows with Ray LaMontagne, Lana Del Rey, Pam Tillis, Lucinda Williams, and a host of others. He explains the mysterious “orange box” mentioned by Stuart, as well as describing the dynamic duo’s acoustic setup.

“Marty and I each play through an orange Radial BigShot PB1 impedance matching/ booster device,” he says. “They seem to help out our antiquated pickups. Other than that, the only effects we used were the reverb and tremolo on the old Deluxe and Princeton. “For acoustic, Marty plays his Martin Marty Stuart signature model from the ’90s on the road. He plays his ’39 D-45, previously owned by Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, on TV and in the studio. I play a D-18 from 1992 and an HD-28 from the late ’90s. We use the Radial Tonebone PZ-Pre with Fishman’s piezo pickups under the saddle when we have to plug in. When we tape our TV spots, we use small microphones attached by the soundhole.” —MR

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