AS MARTY STUART SAYS, “THERE ARE A LOT OF DIFFERENT
squirrels” in his cage. He and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives,
can rock the house hillbilly style one moment, tear off
some bluegrass the next, then follow that up with some gospel
or maybe a country weeper. Anyone who has seen his band live
knows that its name is more apt than ironic. Stuart’s guitar
partner in crime, Tele-master Kenny Vaughn, interlocks rapidly
flatpicked parts with his boss, creating one big ball of twang,
while the rhythm section lays down killer grooves and supplies
angelic harmonies. On Ghost Train [Sugar Hill] they recall the
sound of early Bakersfield and Nashville without a hint of selfconscious
retro. In addition to playing guitar and mandolin,
Stuart is a walking historian of country music, the owner of
some iconic instruments, and a fascinating raconteur.
You have a historic guitar collection, including
instruments formerly owned by Hank
Williams, Pops Staples, and Clarence White.
How did everything fare in the Nashville flood?
A lot of people were devastated, but
I didn’t lose a thing. I have my own warehouse
and thankfully we were a little
higher up than some of the others.
Who were a few of your guitar influences
Luther Perkins, Ralph Mooney, Muddy
Waters, James Burton, and Clarence
White. On acoustic I loved Maybelle
Carter’s playing. I thought Mother Maybelle
had the most beautiful touch I have
ever heard. When I met some of those
people and could play their instruments,
I was able to understand more about why
they play the way they do. If you ever play
Bill Monroe’s mandolin you will understand
why he sounded like he did. That
Clarence White guitar is another example.
It is a wonderful planet unto itself.
When you play it right and put the right
song around it, that guitar is a magical
piece—it just takes off and sings by itself.
How did you come by the Clarence White
Clarence’s brother Roland got me my
job with Lester Flatt [of Flatt and Scruggs]
when I was a kid. The Whites were like
family, though I only met Clarence one
time. After he was killed, his wife Susie moved back east, near Nashville. She was
considering selling a ’54 Strat that had
belonged to Clarence and asked if I would
be interested. I had just gotten a job with
Johnny Cash, so I was finally making a little
bit of money. One of the pickups was
missing because it was now in the Telecaster.
I said, ‘I’ll take it. Is the pull-string here?’ I
played [White’s B-Bender Tele], and I couldn’t
believe what I was playing. She said, ‘That’s
what you really came to see wasn’t it.’ I said,
‘Yes ma’am, it is.’ She said, ‘Well, I might
There were those two guitars, some
Nudie suits, and some Byrds memorabilia.
I put my checkbook on the table and said,
‘Put in the amount that you want. If I don’t
have it, give me a day and I will borrow it
from the bank.’ I was prepared to pay 50 or
60 thousand bucks. She wrote in the
amount of $1,450. I said, ‘Susie, the E string
alone is worth that.’ She said, ‘I know
exactly what it’s worth, but I think Clarence
would want you to have it. I know you will
take care of it.’ I could not talk her into taking
a dime more.
I could not believe what had happened
to me, but I saw it as a responsibility. When
I played Saturday Night Live with Johnny Cash,
I went to Manny’s in New York and bought
it a leather gig bag. Then I went to American
Airlines and got that guitar an AAdvantage
number. I bought seats for it so I wouldn’t
have to stick it under the plane. That guitar
has a lot of miles.
Do you have any tips for playing B-Benders?
The best you can do is to go back and listen
to the recordings of Clarence White. If you
watch videos of Clarence, he really knew how
to work his shoulder, he had a feel for it.
Gene Parsons [creator of the B-Bender]
worked on the Clarence White Telecaster
about ten years ago and said, ‘I don’t
remember the pull of this guitar being this
long.’ Listen to the Byrds’ “It’s All Over
Now, Baby Blue” [from The Ballad of Easy
Rider]: it sounds like the note is never going
to get there. Most everybody that builds
pull-string guitars makes the pull short and
snappy. To me, the long pull is half the
magic of that guitar.
In a 1986 Guitar Player interview you mention
an E-bender. What is that?
I was playing with Ralph Mooney at his
house one night, just steel and guitar. He
played this lick and I said, ‘I wish my guitar
could play that.’ He said, ‘It will—bring it out
to my garage.’ Ralph took the E string and
put on this little palm pedal that looks like a
trumpet valve. If you mash it down it lowers
the E string a half-step. It is in the wood down
by the bridge pickup. I wouldn’t have let anybody
but Ralph Mooney do that.
The song on Ghost Train that really shows off
that guitar is “Hummingbyrd.” Is that in homage
to White’s work with the Byrds?
Clarence’s showpiece was “Nashville
West.” I’ve tried since 1980 to learn it and
I just can’t get it. To be played properly it
really has to come from Clarence. I always
felt a little guilty about not having a recital
piece for that guitar. With “Hummingbyrd,” I feel like I finally recorded a song that honors
that guitar properly.
Ghost Train is pretty faithful to the honkytonk
country sound of the ’50s and ’60s. How would
you say the guitar style you and Kenny play differs
from the guitar on modern country records?
I think we let our “twang” show a little
more. The whole record was cut on two
Fender Princetons. That doesn’t happen
much anymore. Everybody comes in with
racks and pedals for days. My tracks were
cut with just a Fender Princeton and a Radial
BigShot PB1 power booster.
How do you and Kenny Vaughn divide up the
Working with Kenny from day one has
been just a seamless thing. It’s a tapestry.
He plays a certain lick or tone, I respond,
and vice versa. I sing a certain thing and he
There is a video on YouTube of you and Kenny
playing “Back to the Country” in F. He capos his
guitar at the first fret, but your Fender Esquire
appears to be tuned up a half-step. Do you prefer
raising the guitar tuning to using a capo?
That ’52 Esquire is a great guitar—I think
it belonged to Mick Ronson. There was a
recording where I tuned it up to F so the
strings would really ring openly, like when
you play out of E position. I found that whentuned
up it would sustain for nine years. You
can hit a chord, walk off, and come back a
week later and it is still going.
Did you put lighter strings on it?
It was .010, .012, .015, .032, .042, and,
at one time, a .058. That guitar sounds good
anyway, but especially tuned up to F. I found
out that all the early Flatt and Scruggs recordings
were tuned up a half-step, and sometimes
a whole-step. In the Johnny Cash band,
when John would have trouble with his voice,
we would go up. On the other hand, the
Buckaroos and the Carter Family always
When did you pick up mandolin?
When I was 12 years old I bought the single
record of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass
Boys doing “The Wicked Path of Sin” and
”Little Community Church.” That’s the first
time I remember getting overwhelmed by
the presence of a mandolin. I took seven
years away from the guitar to learn how to
play the mandolin, and when I came back
the experience had made a totally different
player out of me.
It helped me play fast. But playing bluegrass
properly is not just about playing fast.
It is such a deep and soulful music. Also,
if I think about how Muddy Waters played
slide on the original recording of “I Can’t
Be Satisfied,” when you play it on the mandolin
it makes total sense to me—it is a
Mississippi thing. Where I come from in
Mississippi the blues is underlying everything.
Whether you are playing country or
gospel or bluegrass, blues is just a part of
the atmosphere there. The way Muddy
played his slide guitar also touched the way
I play mandolin. There are a lot of different
people inside of me—a lot of different
squirrels in my cage. [laughs]