Marty Stuart is dedicated to his Late Night Jam. So much so that he interrupted his vacation in Hawaii to talk with the Scene about the show's 10-year anniversary. And it's a good thing he's so personally invested in CMA Music Fest's unofficial kickoff event — there's probably not another soul in Nashville who could get yesterday's country stars, today's major-label acts and alt-country renegades together on the same stage every year. "I have an interesting phone book," says Stuart.
Over the past decade, his rolodex has helped him land everybody from Connie Smith — not only a fine singer, but also his wife — to Porter Wagoner, Mel Tillis and Dolly Parton (both on this year's bill), Dierks Bentley, Keith Urban and Travis Tritt, Neko Case, Corb Lund and Old Crow Medicine Show — not to mention Native American dancers and picking or songwriting legends who rarely perform anymore, like Dallas Frazier. Some acts on the bill are the sort who'd get booked to play one of the shows at LP Field. But a lot of others won't be heard by festival-goers any other time during the CMA Fest.
"Traditional country music seems to be the very thing that nobody has much of a chance to hear in Nashville, if they come looking for that anymore," Stuart says. "It's the traditional country fan that tends to get left behind anymore. And this show, I think it serves that up."
As the maker of stylish, stone-country albums with his Fabulous Superlatives — last year's Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions is a prime example — the host of an RFD-TV show that hearkens back to an earlier era and an all-around showman and music-history buff, he's especially attuned to hardcore country worth hearing, wherever it can be found. "Along with a ticket," Stuart says, "you have to buy into the fact that you've got to trust me to put on a good show."
Stuart's history with the CMA Fest dates back to before the Late Night Jam. "At the beginning of the last decade," he says, "I had pretty much wiped the decks clear of all of my '90s doings, and I wanted to start over. ... Back then I think it was still called Fan Fair, and I, for some reason, always liked Fan Fair. I thought it was a good time of community. ... It was good [for] relationships between country fans and the artists. But the rules of country music changed. The show moved from the fairgrounds to downtown. It lost that old-world kind of intimacy that it was founded on. It got more corporate. And what I found out immediately was that if you have a major record deal you can play the big show at the stadium. Otherwise you're relegated to lesser shows.
"There was something else I was looking for," he continues. "So I thought, 'Well, I think if I'm going to do this, and do it the way I want to do it, I'd better start my own show and it better stand for something. ... We'll just set up the pirate ship of the whole week.' "
Stuart later circles back around to his pirate ship analogy to clarify: "My point is ... the most outlaw thing you can do in Nashville, Tenn., right now is play traditional country music."
It's hard to miss the parallels between Stuart's ability to make room at the table for musical outlaws and a similar impulse displayed by a former mentor of his — one Johnny Cash — on Cash's important late '60s/early '70s TV show.
"You know, back at that time it was about broadening and expanding the community," says Stuart. "It was a real event to have Bob Dylan or Neil Young — whoever, you know — come to town and do the show. But as time has gone on, we have broadened and expanded so far that we're totally out there in the pop culture now, but it's the hometown family that seems to get left behind in the mix sometimes. That's why Porter [Wagoner] was on the show; that's why [late steel guitarist] Ralph Mooney was on the show last year."
The show benefits musicians away from the stage, too: Each year's proceeds go to MusiCares, an organization that's been coming to the aid of musicians in crisis — whether the crisis is health-related or, say, a devastating flood — for over two decades. This year, part of the funds raised will also go to Parton's Imagination Library.
Even non-performers feel a strong personal connection to the Late Night Jam. Most years it sells out. On a recent European tour, Stuart met countless fans who told him they had come all the way to Nashville for the show. And a few years back, he got a special request from Mr. and Mrs. Jimmy George of Bemidji, Minn.
"There was a couple who were longtime fans of ours that got married on the stage at the Late Night Jam," he says. "Connie and me served as their best man and maid-of-honor."
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