Back in 2005, country singer Marty Stuart did a whole album, Badlands — Ballads of the Lakota, honoring the Indian people he has visited for decades during his career. Many of those friends are shown in the “Time Don’t Wait” video from his new album, Way Out West. And although he plays Santa Fe for the first time on Saturday, Jan. 20, his knowledge of the town was obvious during a recent conversation about his music and his romance with the West. “If you go to Rainbow Man and look at the Edward Curtis shots, it doesn’t matter when they were taken. They still energize and inform and add dignity to any room. If you go upstairs and start looking at the rugs, it’s the same thing: There’s a lot of power that was involved in the creation of those things, and that’s the key.”
The songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist is known for a jubilantly eclectic résumé and his bodacious showmanship, the serious cowboy hat contrasting with rhinestone-studded suits. He’s also a five-time Grammy winner, a photographer, a country music archivist, and served as the president of the Country Music Foundation from 1996 to 2002.
Stuart was born in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and grew up playing gospel and country licks on the guitar and mandolin. He had five-year stints in the bands of Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash before going out on his own. His recording career began with sideman duties on George Jones’ My Very Special Guests (1979) and Johnny Cash’s Rockabilly Blues (1980). His own first big album, 1982’s Busy Bee Café, featured Cash, Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, and other stars. Sixteen albums later comes 2017’s Way Out West, for which Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives teamed with producer Mike Campbell (Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks) to pay tribute to California country music.
Stuart and the Superlatives — guitarist Kenny Vaughan, drummer Harry Stinson, and bassist Chris Scruggs — play the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Saturday, Jan. 20, sharing the bill with Wayne “The Train” Hancock. Pasatiempo found him on the road in California.
Pasatiempo: How’s everything going?
Marty Stuart: So far, pretty good. I woke up, and I was in Folsom, right in the middle of things. In three days it’s the 50th anniversary of [the recording of] Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, the most important record in my life. Actually, I’m writing the foreword to a book right now about the photographer who covered the San Quentin and Folsom prisons, and it kind of adds to the vibe of the foreword to come through here.
Pasa: How is Way Out West doing?
Stuart: Way Out West took us to places unimagined. It bordered on the fantastic. It was a stretch. We wanted to expand our boundaries musically in every single way. Way Out West kind of became this little magic carpet that carried us to places we haven’t been before, in front of audiences we’ve never played before. It got us back to the world stage for the first time in a decade, so I would consider it a total success.
Pasa: There’s a lot of good music there, and that “Time Don’t Wait” video is a very cool tribute to the Indian people up in Lakota country — all those faces, and a great song.
Stuart: I’ve been going up there since the early ‘80s. That’s almost a forgotten part of the world up there. Most Americans don’t even know that it exists. But there’s some beautiful people ... and I still consider it a privilege after all these years to be able to turn on a camera and document what’s going on there, so it seemed to go pretty good for that song.
Pasa: They look like your friends.
Stuart: It’s interesting you say that, because after I saw the first edit of this video I told them, “It’s pretty good, but you missed the whole point.” You’re putting it out there almost as if it’s an us-and-them kind of situation, but those people are like my family. You have to show the love. Go back into all that footage and let’s get into the faces and the relationship between me and those people.
Pasa: You’re onstage with Wayne “The Train” in Santa Fe. Have you and Hancock worked together a lot?
Stuart: I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with Wayne Hancock. I love him, though.
Pasa: Will you be playing with him?
Stuart: I don’t know who plays first and who plays second, but if it organically works out that we wind up on stage together, wonderful. You know, I’ve been coming to Santa Fe since the mid-1980s. When I first came out there, I got with a photographer named David Michael Kennedy, and we shot some pictures for an album cover. And I used to hang out in Tesuque with Roger Miller — I played in his band for 15 minutes before my first record came out. Then there’s Bob and Marianne Kapoun over at The Rainbow Man and Nathalie and Jim Arndt. ... It’s like so much family around there, and I’ve always walked away wondering why I don’t play Santa Fe, so here we go.
Pasa: We’ve read that when you were growing up in Mississippi, you kind of dreamed about California — about the movies and the music, and also the desert.
Stuart: Absolutely. The Mojave became my Kansas. I didn’t think I needed to go do a Bakersfield tribute record, because that’s been taken care of several times. But I thought we could move it into a broader space, and the Mojave became that palette. I thought, OK, let’s get into the spirit world, get into the psychedelic zone, and tip our hat as we go. When I come to this part of the world I’m still like a little kid when I start seeing cactus. I’m still enchanted by the West. Way Out West, truthfully, is simply a love letter to this part of the world and everything that comes from here.
Pasa: Do you write songs like “Old Mexico” and “Whole Lotta Highway (With a Million Miles to Go)” on the new album on the guitar, or do you compose on the piano?
Stuart: I don’t know how to play piano. Everything I do either comes by way of the guitar or the mandolin.
Pasa: The mandolin? Does that bring out different ideas when you pick it up instead of the guitar?
Stuart: Oh, sure, it’s a different sound. Vassar Clements, who was a great fiddle player, had a beautiful old fiddle that had some Egyptian writing around the side of it that was transcribed at Vanderbilt University and it said, “But for the grace of God I would still be a tree in the forest.” Guitars are like that. You could set up 50 in a room and everyone has a different personality and can inspire different things inside of me.
Pasa: There’s great guitar work on songs like “Way Out West” and “Mojave” — it sounds like that good old surf music with the beautiful clear guitar sound and reverb. You’re carrying on the tradition for Johnny Cash and Maybelle Carter and so many people, but then you’ve got an experimental mind — you’re like a musical gypsy.
Stuart: Well, I come from Mississippi, which is referred to as the birthplace of America’s music, so there’s a creative legacy down there that is pretty expansive. Tradition is a wonderful thing. It can empower you with knowledge or it can box you in and make you a slave to what used to be, and I don’t work that way. I’ve been so fortunate to have been raised by some of the master architects of American music, but they would have considered me a failure and I would have considered myself a failure if I had just stopped there. The idea is to take those timeless forms and, song by song, event by event, project by project, move this kind of music into the 21st century and get it into the hearts of a new generation of players.
Pasa: Bring the young people into the groove.
Stuart: Yeah, and it’s working. I see it, I see it. There’s a group in the UK called The Wandering Hearts that we just played with. And Bennie Haggard, Merle’s son, is coming along [musically], and Lukas Nelson, Willie’s son, and Chris Scruggs, Earl’s grandson — all these people are carrying it into the future. It’s beautiful.