California All the Way:
Marty Stuart Gets Lost In the Wild Wild West
In a year highlighted by alt-country giants Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton’s new albums and sweetened by potential breakout releases by John Moreland, Jade Jackson, and the like, a familiar voice from the past wowed loyal listeners with the best new country album that might’ve flown under your radar.
The veteran artist is Marty Stuart, and he and his Fabulous Superlatives pushed old-time country music and early rock ‘n’ roll further into the 21st century with recent album Way Out West. It’s an homage to California’s rich history of country-influenced music, from the Bakersfield sound to the far-out vibes that once emanated from Laurel Canyon, produced by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell.
“We went into the studio looking for inspiration,” Stuart says. “There were a couple of trips to the studio where nothing really happened. But you know the old saying, ‘It all starts with a song.’ I wrote the song ‘Way Out West’ and went, ‘Wait a second. I don’t know what this is, but I kind of like it. If we did ‘Way Out West,’ it could be a cowboy record with pretty harmonies, or it could be way out West with flying saucers and flying monkey elephants.”
The final product is both an old-timey cowboy record and a peyote trip gone wrong. There are songs like “Old Mexico,” furthering country singers’ longstanding lyrical obsession with their south of the border neighbors. Conversely, the rocking title track is more Gene Clark than Guy Clark, positing California’s musical mystique as a natural high that’s more potent than pills.
Other themes incorporate country song tropes, from the truck driving man in “Whole Lotta Highway (With a Million Miles to Go)” to the thirsty, drifting cowpoke narrating the old Dallas Frazier composition “Lost on the Desert.” These songs are dispersed among instrumental tracks that highlight one of the best live and studio bands in the game and a few more smatterings of psychedelia, including punchy country-rocker “Time Don’t Wait.”
Stuart approaches the great music of the ’60s as someone who first heard it as an impressionable Southern Baptist kid in Philadelphia, Mississippi – a setting where cosmic country might as well have been from Mars, and the most rocking band in town was at the local Pentecostal church. “We discussed everybody from the Buckaroos and Merle to the Byrds and the Ventures and the Batmobile and go-go girls on the Sunset Strip, Have Gun Will Travel cowboy shows and Nudie suits,” Stuart adds. “It was amazing how much that comes from that part of the world influenced us as Southern kids when were becoming musicians.”
Like many past and current country artists, church played a role in Stuart becoming a roots-leaning musician. “The church in the South is one of the most popular places and one of the most successful places for kids to get started if God gave them the gift of music,” he says. “Our church down in Mississippi is a place that welcomed kids to sing, and I remember my first public performance was standing next to the piano bench to sing while my mama played. I’m sure that’s the same story for a lot of people. Travis Tritt is a Georgia boy, and I know he was a church kid.”
For the uninitiated, Stuart is the full package – a talented songwriter and performer and a charming entertainer. These skills could have made him a success in any era of country music. It’s not hard to imagine Stuart strumming hillbilly music on the radio daily in the ’30s and ’40s, with a wife to play fiddle and a young son to sing those high notes. When the music that inspired Way Out West was emanating from the West Coast, Stuart could’ve easily been on variety television series back when there were only three or four channels to choose from, singing duets with Perry Como or cracking jokes with Bob Newhart. Shoot, Stuart could have been the established country star in Burt Reynolds movies if he’d been born sooner. Fans got most of those things anyway, with the Marty Stuart Show on RFD-TV having been a family affair, highlighting the talents of his Country Music Hall of Famer wife Connie Smith. Years prior, Stuart got a few chances to gain national exposure in Hee-Haw’s corn patch.
The career that has unfolded for Stuart began with him more as the next Don Rich, not a potential Buck Owens. That’s to say he was a sought-after side man years before his name was on the marquee.
Stuart cut his teeth in the ’70s as a teenage member of Lester Flatt’s latter-day backing band, the Nashville Grass. He spent the first half of the ’80s backing his father-in-law at the time, Johnny Cash. During that span, Cash and his supporting cast did two albums with rockabilly legends: 1981’s Survivors Live with Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis and 1986’s Class of ’55, featuring Perkins, Lewis, and Roy Orbison.
Before age 30, Stuart had worked side-by-side with a broad range of Southern country and rock music legends, preparing him for his own run at roots-infused stardom. Over 30 years later, Stuart still mirrors Cash’s willingness to see a concept through, even if it’s way out. “He was one of the most creatively fearless human beings I ever knew,” Stuart says of Cash. “If he believed in a concept and song and nobody else bought it or applauded it, he did it anyway because he believed in it. I’ll tell you, that’s a great way to live. It’s a dangerous way to live, but it’s a great way to live.”
Considering the rich life Stuart lived before his ongoing solo career began with 1989’s Hillbilly Rock album, it’s no wonder that even his most forward-thinking songs over the years have served as country history lessons. “It’s just a love mission for me,” Stuart says. “I’m sure it’s a self-appointed mission, but in my mind those were the people who raised me. I see myself as one of the few people that’s a link between that time and our current situation. There was such a wealth of knowledge and creativity in that bedrock sound of country music that’ll never go out of style because it’s the authentic end of things. It’s wonderful to represent that in the 21st century. Those people loved me and shared their lives with me when I was a kid, so the least I can do is carry their legacies forward.”
Stuart’s dedication to what he calls “educating and entertaining at the same time” expands beyond pointing back in song to country and bluegrass greats. He has quite the collection of country artifacts, including legendary performers’ guitars and stage outfits, that’ve made their way into books and museum exhibits. The Grammy Museum in Los Angeles is currently hosting “Way Out West: A Country Music Odyssey,” an exhibit culled from Stuart’s personal archives.
Within the next three to five years, a cultural center bearing Stuart’s name is expected to open in his hometown, creating new avenues for sharing his love of country music, Western wear, and pop culture. It’ll hopefully be a permanent home for Stuart’s work as country and Western culture’s unofficial public historian.
Stuart isn’t alone in celebrating country’s roots after decades of rubbing shoulders with stars. Longtime Fabulous Superlatives guitarist Kenny Vaughan (Terry McBride and the Ride) and drummer Harry Stinson (Steve Earle and the Dukes, Suzy Bogguss) are hardly music business novices and have been on the road with Stuart for over 15 years. Putting an act or two from their discographies in brackets barely scratches the surface of these men’s experiences as band members and session players. In short, they’re lifers.
The new guy is 34-year-old bassist Chris Scruggs, the grandson of Earl and a former backing musician for everyone from Charlie Louvin to Michael Nesmith. It’s easy to imagine today’s new country stars daydreaming as children while memorizing Emmylou Harris liner notes. The younger Scruggs probably did just that while sitting on an equally seminal artist’s knee, and now he’s listed among the personnel on albums that are hopefully reaching impressionable ears down South and way out West.
Stuart and his band’s conscious attempt at honoring the past in song builds on the oral and musical traditions passed down by mentors and grandparents – even those without the Cash, Flatt and Scruggs surnames. In the process, they made an amazing album that sounds as modern and relevant as anything by the younger artists credited with keeping real country music alive.
Photo by Alysse Gafkjen.