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 growing up?
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 Telecaster?
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 consider selling.’
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 guitar chores?
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 responds.
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 tuned down.
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]