West By Southeast
Marty Stuart's Blend of Country, Rock and Gospel Returns to the Variety Playhouse

By Lee Valentine Smith

Before he helms a press conference later this month to announce the new Congress of Country Music in his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi Marty Stuart returns to Atlanta for a show at the Variety Playhouse. The "Congress" is his name for an ambitious new cultural arts center that will eventually become the permanent home for his massive collection of over 20,000 pieces of memorabilia and music-related artifacts.

It's just one of many events on a full slate of activities for the busy musician/photographer/archivist. His latest album Way Out West introduces a new member of his Fabulous Superlatives band, with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Chris Scruggs. Produced by Mike Campbell of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, the record is a stylistically varied tribute to the romance of the West, continuing Stuart's fondness for mixing pure country with roots rock, jazz and old-time gospel.

The musical nonconformist also has a deliciously skewed sense of humor and his high-energy live shows bristle as if the Grand Ole Opry was somehow beamed via the psychedelic swirl of The Fillmore instead of the staid traditions of The Ryman. INsite caught up with Stuart by phone during a recent holiday tour break.

The first time I saw you play the Grand Ole Opry, you did one of the best and funniest non-sequitur stage moves I've ever seen. [After a heartfelt country ballad, Stuart kneeled, unscrewed a lightbulb from the edge of the stage and dramatically presented it to a man in the front row.] Do you remember that?

(Laughs heartily) No! Apparently, I thought he needed it - whoever he was.

I hope he saved it.

Yeah, I do too.

Your new album is informed by the fact that you were inspired by the Western United States as a kid growing up in Mississippi. What is the appeal of the West for someone from the South?

You know, I really don't know - other than the fact that maybe it's just so different. The landscape is so different. It's not the people because people are people, but I think it's the landscape. We don't have mountains like that in the South and the sky seems a little bigger out there. There's an openness and I'm so glad we have it to go to. I'm still enchanted by the West. It's a romantic place for me and it still inspires me.

It's great that it hasn't lost any of its charm after all these years.

I don't think there's any end to it. There's always more to see and explore. I'm jazzed by it every time I go there.

When you started this project, did you intend it as a loving tribute to the area you love or did it change directions as you worked on it?

As a band we discussed it and then once the title appeared and the first song came, then all of a sudden there was the direction. Bullseye. It gave me something to shoot for and it almost became a movie in my mind as I was writing. A cinematic piece.

When you approach such a distinctly familiar subject as the West, it's easy to rely on a few Morricone-isms and overdo the big cinematic feel of it. But this is a very subtle journey.

Yeah, but even with those sounds, I just hear it as twang. Because part of what came from there was the kind of sound that Luther Perkins, who played with Johnny Cash was doing. Duane Eddy, too. He's a Phoenix guy and he's kind of the king of twang.

Speaking of Cash, [album producer] Mike Campbell and you played on some of his last recordings. How long have you known Mike?

That was when we met, we were part of the part of the back-up band for one of those American Recordings. We just absolutely hit it off. There was a record I did in the late '90s called The Pilgrim and we co-wrote a song for that.

So you knew he was the right man for the job.

For this particular record, I knew he could authentically get what I was going for. I didn't need to do this record in Nashville, I wanted to go to California and make it. So I started thinking, 'Who is the one person who can keep us honest, push us and make us try a little harder?' Campbell came to mind. He's a world class musical citizen and it worked out exactly as I'd hoped it would.

You can both handle country and rock and you both have a strong southern heritage. And best of all, you both have incredible guitar collections.

Aw yeah, but he wins, man. He's got guitars for years!

You wanted to record the album out West, but do you think it would have sounded the same if you'd tracked it in New York or Boston or even Atlanta?

It might have sounded similar but it's just the air out there. There's something about walking out of the studio into that light. The natural sunlight in California, the palm trees and just the atmosphere of the place. And the legacy.

You can't beat the legacy of the Capitol studios in Hollywood at the tower. That's such a magical place.

Yeah we did it in Studio B, and that's where Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Bobbie Gentry, Glen Campbell and even Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole did their work, so it was just about gettin' out there and gettin' amongst it.

For an historian such as yourself, it must have been quite a rush to get in there and use some of the same mics and equipment from sessions that have inspired so many people. There are some incredible spirits inhabiting the place.

Oh absolutely, I think so and it would dazzle anybody. I think the room we used was where they cut "Wichita Lineman" and "Ode To Billie Joe." You can just feel those songs when you're in those rooms.

Speaking of history and strong lineage, you've got a walking musical encyclopedia in the band now with Chris Scruggs on bass.

Yeah, well Chris is our third bass player. When "Apostle" Paul Martin left, we thought, 'Who in the world are we gonna get?' I said, 'Let's call Chris Scruggs and see if he knows anybody.' He said, 'How about me?' I said, 'You gotta be kiddin'!' We didn't see that one coming. I didn't even know he could play bass. He's the best guitar and steel player in the band, too. He outplays all of us. He jumped in and took us to a completely different level. His enthusiasm and musicianship is just astounding. We've all watched him grow up since he was a little kid and he was a satellite Superlative when I was doing my TV show. When we'd need a little extra something, we'd call Chris. So he was in the bullpen already. I think he really didn't join us, we joined him.

When you change personnel, it always changes the band dynamic a bit.

It does but at this point, the Superlatives have a pretty solid foundation as to who we are and what we do; the harmony structure, the guitar legacy and just the general vibe. Chris was just a natural for every bit of that. I couldn't believe how up to speed he was before we came in and did the first night with us.

You guys must have a ball with music trivia.

That's why I named him "Professor" Chris Scruggs. If you want to know what color shirt Hank Williams was wearing when he cut "Cold, Cold Heart," call Chris, he can tell you.

You said you're solid on who the Superlatives are and what you want to do. You guys are all over the map stylistically so what's the foundation of that variety-pack mindset?

When I first put the band together, I'd discovered an Ella Fitzgerald box-set called Ella: The Verve Years. It was beautiful. It had Ella Sings Porgy and Bess, Ella Sings Spirituals, Ella Sings Louis Armstrong, Ella sings this, Ella sings that. It was her entire Verve Records catalog. I thought, 'Man, that is a wonderful way to live a musical life.' So that's the kind of records I started making with the Superlatives when we first started [in 2002]. I think, at the end of our run, you'll be able to put us all in a box set. You'll see we went down a lot of different musical avenues, being brave and adventurous to ourselves, and hopefully entertaining and educating people along the way. It's risky, yeah. But it's also the thing to do. Just be fearless and go for it.

Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives will play on Wednesday, January 24 at 8pm at the Variety Playhouse. For more information, please visit variety-playhouse.com.

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