With his latest tour, country singer-songwriter Marty Stuart will finally play his way out of the woods. He’ll land at the Beachland Ballroom
on April 19 for an intimate show in support of Way Out West
, his newest record. As Stuart shares with us during a recent phone conversation, the tour represents the culmination of a vision that he had when he first assembled the Fabulous Superlatives, his backing band.
“When we started the band, after about a month, my assignment to the booking agent was to book me as far back into the woods of America as you can,” he says. “I want to bring the stories of American people and American cultures, we will play our way out of the woods. I don’t want to see a chart, I don’t want to see demographics. I could give a flying shit about any of that — we’re going to develop our band.”
They did that and along the way, found cultures and causes to represent as they were out playing shows and all the while, Stuart knew that eventually he’d bring the band back to the mainstream in good time.
“I knew it would be time to go back into the cities, and I do feel the light of suburbia in the cities of America and across the world internationally on my face again,” he says. “But it seemed to me the most authentic gettin’ on places back in the towns were small rock rooms, [playing] to a different audience than we’ve played to in a long time [with] a new generation of people. It seems to be working, and I love the feeling.”
Way Out West
finds Stuart, long a student and advocate of country music history, continuing to dig through the layers of the genre, his way of helping to keep a form of music alive that he views as an endangered species. It’s part of what has been an ongoing process for the veteran artist, who has spent the past decade working in earnest on a series of themed projects.
“In my mind, I started way back then with the Superlatives, and I think the first record was Soul’s Chapel
, which was kind of honoring the disappearing sounds of the Mississippi Delta gospel, things like the Staples Singers kind of stuff,” he says. “Then we did Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota
, where I wrote about the people up on Pine Ridge, South Dakota and on and on. And then it became about preserving traditional country music, which is like sliding into the abyss. Somewhere along the way, Way Out West
, the title appeared, and I went, ‘That’s pretty cool.’ It could be a cowboy record, or it could be about space aliens going up in flying saucers out of the Mojave Desert on an acid trip, I don’t know.”
Stuart also quickly identified his perfect co-pilot to help him put it all together.
“It’s a love letter to the American West and so many of the things that inspired me that came from the West. Taking it as a setting and taking it to the edge of the Mojave and kind of making a spirit world trip out of it with psychedelic overtones had a lot of appeal to me,” he explains. “At that time, I thought, ‘This is not a Nashville record. I have to go to the West and make this record authentically.’ The first person that came to my mind was Mike Campbell. I thought, ‘I’ve got to call Campbell because he’ll keep me honest on this thing.’ So that’s kind of how it came together.”
In Stuart’s words, with Campbell on board, he and the Superlatives became “a glorified garage band,” reaching back creatively to the time, “when we were 14 years old and got our first Fender guitars and were trying to impress girls, wanting to be like those guys in California. That’s where our mindset was.”
He had first met Campbell during the sessions for Johnny Cash’s Unchained
album in the mid-’90s. At the time, he found himself in the studio with Campbell, Tom Petty and the members of the Heartbreakers. Stuart saw a parallel between the spirit of Campbell and legendary Muscle Shoals keyboardist Barry Beckett, with whom he had also worked in the past.
“Barry was one of those Muscle Shoals players that played on all of those great Swampers records. He was one of those kind of people [that] if he walked into a room, I did better just because he was in the room with me. And Mike’s one of those kind of people,” he says. “That’s part of it. But the other part of it is that Tom Petty and his band are incapable of playing bad music. Tom Petty’s incapable of writing a bad song. But I always suspected that behind the curtain of that band, that Mike is the guy [who is] kind of the Swiss Army knife of the whole deal. We had been focused as a band on traditional country music that was fresh for 156 episodes of [The Marty Stuart Show
], and I just knew that I needed somebody that was outside of my world — but understood my world — that could help pull me across the bridge, keep me honest, perhaps get the guitar tones that we’ve never played to and all of those things came true with Mike Campbell. That [combined] with his very presence in a room just makes everything click.”
Stuart says that the hardest part of it all was putting the wraps on the album and letting go. Sessions were so prolific that they found themselves with an overflow of material.
“There [were] about five songs that we recorded and finished out that in truth, it made it too long. It didn’t quite flow. The biggest challenge was leaving those songs behind,” he says. “You know, it’s kind of fingernails in the trees, and you’re going, ‘No, no, no — let’s take it!’ But [I just had to turn them] loose — and I think that somewhere along the way, there could be a director’s cut, and this could be a part of it.”
Way Out West
comes off as an interesting opening act for another project that Stuart currently has in the pipeline. He has accumulated an impressive collection of country music memorabilia, rescuing both classic outfits and priceless historical items (such as the original handwritten lyrics to Hank Williams Sr.’s “I Saw the Light” to name one). To date, he has more than 20,000 items, which were initially housed in four warehouses. Nearly a decade ago, a curated selection of things from Stuart’s collection began making the rounds in the traveling exhibit, Sparkle & Twang
, which made a stop at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
More recently, he relocated his entire collection to his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi and unveiled plans for Marty Stuart’s Congress of Country Music Hall, which will be both a museum and live music venue.
“The general idea is that Mississippi claims to be the birthplace of America’s music and can pretty well back it up. The spiritual home of rock in roll in the state of Mississippi to me is Elvis Presley’s birthplace in Tupelo,” he says. “The B.B. King Museum and Interpretive Center over in Indianola, up in the Delta, that’s where the blues live. The Grammys put in a museum at Delta State University, so that’s the north part of the state. And the central part of Mississippi, kind of in the land of Jimmie Rodgers, is going to be Marty Stuart’s Congress of Country Music Hall. That’s where my collection, that’s where the spiritual home of country music will live, as far as I’m concerned.”
The idea is something which has been brewing in Stuart’s mind for about 10 years, and, as he shared with us, Cleveland played a part in helping the plan move towards becoming a reality.
“There were some people from my hometown who came up to Cleveland from Mississippi to see that exhibit,” he says. “That’s when they started talking to me, ‘This is something that would be nice in our hometown’ and I’m going, ‘Oh, really? Okay.’ I’d never really thought of it in those terms. Not long after that, I played a concert for B.B. King over at his place and I went, ‘You know what, they’re right.’ But it was actually in Cleveland that the lightbulb came on for everybody in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and it was like, ‘This is where this should live.’”
During an appearance at the Rock Hall in December of 2008, Stuart talked about his experiences working with Johnny Cash in the early '80s, long before the Man in Black would enjoy what he called a final “victory lap” in the '90s.
“In my heart, I always knew, from the first day that I worked with him [that it wasn’t over]. You know, at that time in his life, he was kind of Patriot Cash,” Stuart says now. “He was working the older crowds, performing arts centers and state fair settings across America, basically. But when we would go to Europe, it was like I could see the second coming, years ahead. Because it was kids, and it was a different generation of people and the thunder that came towards us on stage was completely different. When it finally happened, I remember he called me one day and he said, ‘Come out to the House of Cash in the morning, if you’ve got time.’ So I did. When I got out there, he said, ‘Do you want a Coke or a cup of coffee?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ He gave me a Coke and he said, ‘Sit down.’
Stuart had no idea what he was about to experience.
“I sat down on his couch and he said, ‘Don’t say anything for 27 and a half minutes.’ I went, ‘Okay,’” he recalls with a chuckle. “He took his guitar and he sang me about 12 songs, back to back, just him and a guitar. When he finally got through, I said, ‘What did I just hear?’ He said, ‘That’s my new record, with Rick Rubin. What do you think?’ I said, ‘Just you and your guitar?’ He said, ‘It’s going to be just me and my guitar. What do you think?’ I could tell he was a little bit nervous about it. I went, ‘I think you have just reset the clock for Johnny Cash,’ I said, ‘Because, I think it’s going to work, and I think it’s so honest, just taking it down to what I’ve known all along, and you’re going to find that kids love you all over again. And even people that don’t know you, they’re going to love you.’”
A couple of weeks later, Cash did a show at the Viper Room, the Hollywood club owned at that time by Johnny Depp, The rest, as they say, is history.
“That lit the fuse and it was gone,” he says. “But it was just one of those things that when he took off and went back up into the ether, I stood on the ground and watched and went, ‘My old hero, he’s going to do it again.’”
Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 19, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $42-$70, beachlandballroom.com.