It's been just about a decade since Marty Stuart decided to quit chasing the country music big-time, and since then, he's put together one of the best bands in the business and made some fine albums. But today, when he talks about country music and the making of his latest effort, Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions, he has the impassioned air of a man who's been born again — and maybe he has.
"Growing up in the middle of Mississippi was the perfect place to be as a young musician," he recalls. "I got to listen to Dixieland from New Orleans. The blues came down from the Delta. Memphis was about Stax and Sun and soul music. If I dug deeply enough, there were people who knew about bluegrass, and of course, the church was everywhere. But country music was the thing that absolutely is what I was about. It was radio and records and those 30-minute TV shows — I knew every record and every star. I devoured it as a 12-year-old kid, and that was my thing. And as time went on, I went with whatever I was doing and wherever my heart led me. But there comes a point in your life you have to draw a line in the dirt and go, 'You know, it's time to define some things.' And what defines me, what reduces me to a puddle of tears when I'm going down the road driving in my car by myself, is the very same thing that pretty much did it to me when I was a kid — the same songs, the same records, after all this time. It's country music."
Stuart calls Ghost Train "traditional country music," but these days, that's a phrase that begs for amplification, as "traditional" is too often used to denote just one strand of the music's rich history — honky-tonk shuffles, say, or drinking songs, or the kinds of artless exercises that try to substitute earnest enthusiasm for musical skill and a deep familiarity with the syntax and diction of the real deal.
"I did not want a retro record," Stuart says with a slight wave of the hand. "The challenge was not just to recreate the past. That's done every day — badly. The challenge was to get started on a new chapter of traditional country music."
It's easy to see that Stuart's the right man for that job. A professional since his teens, he apprenticed with the likes of Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash, then rode a more raucous (but still tradition-conscious) kind of new country music to stardom in the late '80s and early '90s, and the experience has given him a breadth of outlook that he shares with colleagues like Vince Gill, Carl Jackson and Ricky Skaggs — but not many others.
"Look around here," he says, gesturing to the world-class collection of country music artifacts he's acquired over the decades. "When we saw country music take off for a younger crowd and bigger numbers, all of this stuff started fading. It was an embarrassment. It was out of style. But the split in my heart was that I was part of the whole new era — my age, my look, my sound, whatever — and I had to go for that, but this stuff, this is the world that raised me."
Indeed, one of the great strengths of Ghost Train is the way it acts as a sort of musical counterpart to the racks and rows and tables filled with those artifacts. Every song is made up of vintage tones, echoes of signature sounds, sly references to almost-forgotten gestures that made up the vocabulary of decades' worth of country music — and, in one stunning move, Stuart reached out to one of the greatest shapers of the music's past by inviting legendary steel player Ralph Mooney to join him and the Fabulous Superlatives in historic Studio B for nearly half of the album.
"If I had to pick one guy that I'd say, 'Here, take the keys to my car, here's my house, what do you want, my dog, whatever,' to it's Ralph Mooney," Stuart says with a hearty laugh. "He's the alpha and omega of hillbilly pickers to me, and we've been close since the early 1980s. I really got to missing him, and I thought, if we're going to make a country record, I need to go to Texas and investigate this. So I took a couple of songs down there to Fort Worth, just to feel each other out, just to pick and hang out. Well, Mrs. Mooney called us in to lunch, and while we were eating, 'Little Heartbreaker' started coming. I said to Ralph, 'It's somewhere between what you played on Wynn Stewart's "Big, Big Love" and Waylon's "Rainy Day Woman," ' and that's all I had to say — that song came in about three minutes over Mrs. Mooney's banana pudding."
Not every song on Ghost Train has such a straightforward story, but every song has one — not only the ones Stuart wrote or had a hand in writing, but the deftly chosen classics, too, like Don Reno & Red Smiley's rave-up, "Country Boy Rock & Roll," or a dandy instrumental version of Mooney's immortal "Crazy Arms."
"We were there, in Studio B," Stuart recalls, "and I just thought, 'There's a red button, there's a band, and there's the man who wrote the song — whether we use it or not, let's do this!' "
And at the end of the day, that's what makes Ghost Train such a compelling piece of work. Nearly 40 years in, the music he's loved and devoted himself to has sunk so deeply into his heart and his fingers that making rich, complex yet classically straightforward country music has become purely instinctual, and with the Fabulous Superlatives — "the band of a lifetime," he calls them — barely a step behind him in that regard, he's doing exactly what he wants.
"When we first started the Superlatives," Stuart says with one last laugh, "I told somebody, if I could stay in the Hermitage Hotel in every town and play The Ryman in every town, and we had a good meal before the show and a quiet place to tune my guitar, I don't know that I could ask for a lot more than that."
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