“When I was younger, a friend of mine had the The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Song Books,” says Marty Stuart, who cut his teeth as a teenager backing Lester Flatt, and, later, Johnny Cash, before finding solo success as one of country music’s new traditionalists. “And the image of that 16-album set taking up some serious space on my buddy’s bookshelf always stuck with me. I wanted my music to occupy that much real estate on someone’s bookshelf.”
With the release of three albums within six months—and more waiting in the wings—Stuart may soon realize his dream of bogarting his fans’ CD shelves. In the process, he has also released some of the most ambitious work of his career.
“In the ’90s, I was making one kind of record—simply to stay on the charts,” he says. “But all along, I was banking ideas and concepts for a series of albums that I refer to as ‘cultural offerings.’ I’ve been waiting to do this for 12 years. Billy Bob Thornton said it best when he told me, ‘You’ve got to make a good asteroid movie every now and then to be able to afford to do what you want to do.’”
To that end, Stuart started his own Superlatone record label, and set to work cashing in his creative chips with Live at the Ryman, Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota, and Souls’ Chapel. Needless to say, Stuart is on a creative hot streak, and, with guitarist Kenny Vaughan acting as his 6-string compadre, his mojo is at epic proportions.
“I’ve been in this business long enough to know that when the music is flowing out of you like a river, the best thing to do is go with it, and hang on for dear life.”
What did you hear in Kenny Vaughn’s playing that attracted you to him?
Stuart: Everything. I heard the entire encyclopedia of the guitar when he played. There’s no end to his range. And look at him—he’s a total guitar star! For many musicians, it’s a lifetime search to find a musical soul mate. I know Johnny Cash had a soul mate in Luther Perkins. I know Buck Owens had one in Don Rich, and Merle Haggard had one in Roy Nichols. Well, Kenny Vaughn is my guitar soul mate. The first time I heard him, he was playing with Lucinda Williams, and I forgot to listen to Lucinda, because I was listening to him the whole time! I thought, “Man, this guy has got the inside track. He knows the nuances and subtleties of what the guitar is supposed to say, and he knows how to complement a singer, because he knows what a tune’s lyrics are saying. But, at the same time, when it’s his turn to shine, he can hit the gas and go.”
In the past, you’ve said you missed hearing “identifiable” country guitarists. Has the situation gotten any better?
Stuart: No! It’s more homogenized now than ever. You can’t listen to country on the radio and tell me who is playing what. You could hold a gun to my head, and I’d lose my life. But I can listen to Hank’s Place on XM Satellite Radio, and I can tell you who is playing everything. It’s sad that musicians have had to surrender their tone just to get a job. It’s unfortunate, because many of the players on the records coming out of Nashville are some of the most brilliant musicians in the world, and they’re being asked to check their identities at the studio door.
Vaughn: I would say that 95 percent of everything I’ve recorded in Nashville I would never play for my friends. That’s stuff I do to make a living. Every session guy has gone through periods where they can’t believe all of the garbage that gets recorded—you dog it, you knock it, you complain—but, at the end of the day, it still beats working for a living. It’s funny—one of the reasons I got immersed in country music was because my friends were on the road in Top 40 bands playing music I despised, while I was able to play locally and work solid playing country. The choice between playing an old Merle Haggard song or a Journey song was pretty easy. The irony is that the music I make a living from playing at sessions now is exactly like all of the stuff I hated back then!
Although Badlands is a record about Native Americans, you never attempt to merge traditional Indian music with your own. Why?
Stuart: Well, I flirted with that, but it didn’t come out very authentic, because, frankly, I’m not an American Indian. Johnny Cash’s 1964 album, Bitter Tears, was sort of the spiritual father to Badlands, and he didn’t chase a sound that didn’t belong to him so he could do an album about Native Americans. He put the story in the context of his own sound.
Who is playing the fuzzy lines on “Broken Promise Land?”
Stuart: That’s me playing Kenny’s Epiphone acoustic through a Fender Twin Reverb and a Boss Fuzz. Ever since I heard the Beatles—as well as this crazy song called “D.O.A.” by Bloodrock—I’ve loved experimenting with sounds. But I never go into the studio planning to experiment. I always wait and see what the tune is asking for.
The tones on Souls’ Chapel are bathed in spring reverb and tremolo.
Stuart: Oh, yeah. I’ve fallen under the spell of Pops Staples’ guitar playing, and he used a lot of reverb and amp tremolo. His style was so mystical. I always tell people, “If you want to know what Mississippi Delta music sounds like from a gospel perspective, listen to Pops.” A few years ago, Pops was coming to Nashville to do some recording, and he called me and said, “Marty, I need two things: a stretch-out car and a Fender ’65 with some shake on it.” I had to call his daughter Mavis, and ask, “I know what a stretch-out car is, but what the heck is a Fender ’65 with some shake on it?” And she said, “Oh, Marty—that’s a Fender Twin Reverb with that tremolo stuff on it.”
Pretty much all of my parts on Souls’ Chapel were cut with my old Fender Deluxe Reverb. That amp is my magic wand in the studio. I used a few different guitars, but the one that really sticks out is an old Fender Jazzmaster that I used on “The Gospel Stories of Noah’s Ark” when Kenny and I trade solos. I also used Pops’ rosewood Telecaster that he played in The Last Waltz movie when the Staples Singers did “The Weight.” His daughters Mavis and Yvonne gave it to me.
Kenny, what gear did you use for the Badlands and Souls’ Chapel records?
Vaughn: My main guitars are chambered-body models loaded with Lindy Fralin pickups built by Floyd Cassista, who works for luthier Joe Glaser in Nashville. I also used an early ’80s Squire Strat quite a bit—I found out that Hollywood Fats played one, and he’s my favorite, so that made me feel good—and a ’59 Harmony Meteor that my father-in-law gave me. It’s the model Keith Richards and Dave Davies used. My amps were a Fender Princeton Reverb and a little Valco 1x12 combo. Man, I love Princetons. Turn ’em on, turn ’em up, use too much reverb and tremolo, and go for it! My strings are .012 sets of flatwounds, because I find flatwounds give the front end of the note more pop, and that notes decay smoother than they do with roundwound strings. Also, when I layer parts in the studio, flatwounds toughen up the track without getting in the way of the other instruments—especially if I use a real clean sound, and pick by the bridge using a medium-gauge pick. Listen to Wes Montgomery or Jimmy Bryant, and you’ll get an idea of what flatwounds sound like.
From Clarence White’s original B-bender Telecaster to Hank Williams’ Martin D-45, you own some pretty valuable guitars, and yet you take these pieces on the road and use them. Why?
Stuart: It’s because those guitars do not want to be left alone! When Bill Monroe died, his mandolin went into a vault for years—and that mandolin was played from 1923 until the day the old man died in 1996. All of a sudden, it was stilled. A friend of mine was an executor of Monroe’s estate, and he let me pull the mandolin out and play it after about five years of sitting in the vault, and that thing jumped out of the case! It wanted to be played. There’s a beautiful saying on the old violin that Vassar Clements used to play that goes, “But for the grace of god, I would be a tree in the forest.” That pretty much says it all.