Marty Stuart Keeps It Real
RFD-TV Show spotlights Bluegrass and Classic Country Music
|This appeared in Bluegrass Unlimited - August 2010|
A 14-year-old kid from Philadelphia, Mississippi, Marty Stuart found himself thrust into a bunch of new worlds after joining Lester Flatts Nashville Grass in 1972. One was the world of country music television. Back then, that didnt mean multi-national corporate cable television like todays CMT or GAC. It meant low-budget half-hour shows hosted by the likes of Porter Wagoner and the Wilburn Brothers.
Going back to those first days with Lester, when we would do Porters show, I remember it was shoved into the corner of a studio at WSM, says Stuart. They were done on the cheap, musicians standing on a bare linoleum floor, equipment cords running everywhere, with ramshackle rural-themed backdrops. But those $1.49 sets framed million-dollar talent, including a young Dolly Parton at the peak of her songwriting skills, along with guests from the golden age of bluegrass (Flatt, Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin) and country music (Don Gibson, George Jones, Merle Haggard). It was intimate, it was homespun, it was folk art, it was cultural, Stuart recalls. But, at the same time, it was just great country entertainment.
Eight years ago, Stuart found himself once again glued to the TV, watching those old shows. This time it was on the Marty Stuart & the Fabulous Superlatives tour bus. I saw The Porter Wagoner Show and I thought I was watching somebodys DVD they brought from home. Then they went to commercial and I thought, What am I watching?
It was RFD-TV, a cable channel aimed at rural America. Stuart, a fan of all things authentically country, was hooked. Id be on the bus after shows and say, Turn back to the country channel. And wed watch farm reports and FFA (Future Farmers of America) conventions, and I was thinking, This man is on to something. Hes put his arms around a culture thats been abandoned. And thats the same thing that Im doing with my music.
RFD-TV founder and president Patrick Gottsch is a visionary former satellite dish installer from Omaha. Stuart says he set up a meeting with Gottsch. And I said, Why doesnt somebody redo the old Porter Wagoner show? Why doesnt somebody redo the Flatt & Scruggs show, the Wilburn Brothers show? There was a template that went along with those shows. And nobody at CMT or GAC or the CMA cared or understood. But, I still saw beauty in them; I still saw entertainment value. Country music, the corporate side of it, is so grand. The song and the performancethe real performancessometimes get lost in all the grandiosity. I wanted to make a show that just walked away from all the rules that we abide by these days, and go back to what I know, what I know works.
Gottsch didnt need convincing. I loved the idea from the first moment. You can tell Martys passion for what he wanted to do and that he had a clear idea for what he wanted to do. Ive learned in the ten years that weve been operating RFD-TV, when you find talented people that are motivated and really want to do something, you give them the support they need and get out of the way.
That support will continue. RFD-TV has committed to The Marty Stuart Show for a third season. Even as the country music industry reports a 28 percent drop in sales in 2009despite Taylor Swifts massive successthe Marty Stuart industry is booming. Hes a cutting-edge traditionalist, his fans spanning demographics (old and young, rural and urban), drawn to his combination of deep roots and wide-open eclecticism. He has his own label, Superlatone, that releases his projects as well as his wife Connie Smiths new albums. He recently published Country Music: The Masters, a coffeetable book of the photos of country and bluegrass icons hes been taking since his Nashville Grass days. Theres a new glossy souvenir photo book of the TV show, a throwback to the merch offered by first-generation country TV stars, which gets an additional historic spin due to the fact the pictures are by legendary Nashville photographer Les Leverett. Add to that a new two-DVD set of some of the best performances from the first season and plans to repeat that for the second season.
The numbers back up Stuarts confidence, says RFD-TV spokesman Dan Kripke, who says The Marty Stuart Show drew 2,748,000 adult viewers in January (or almost 550,000 a week). RFD-TVs January music programming accounted for 5,772,000 adult viewers weekly. The station has created an entire block of Saturday night music programming around that success, including new episodes of Renos Old-Time Music Festival, the bluegrass series hosted by Ronnie Reno.
Tune in once, and youll understand. The Marty Stuart Show moves faster than Stuarts version of Rawhide, in a half-hour that both pays tribute to and reinvents classic country TV. Its now in its second season (it premiered November 2008), with the first two episodes featuring living legends Little Jimmy Dickens and Earl Scruggs.
Since then, the show has featured bluegrass artists from Ralph Stanley to Dailey & Vincent, mainstream country stars such as Merle Haggard, Ray Price, and Dolly Parton, and such eclectic performers as Old Crow Medicine Show, Riders In The Sky, and the Quebe Sisters (a young western-swinging trio of harmonizing, fiddling siblings who sound like Bob Wills-meets-the Boswell Sisters).
Instead of the no-budget backdrops of old, Stuart fields what show announcer Eddie Stubbs jokes is televisions most expensive set. It looks like an explosion at the Country Music Hall of Fame; walls covered with a rhinestone rainbow of vintage stagewear by legendary country designers Nudie and Manuel, along with boots, hats, scarves, outsider art, Native American ceremonial costumes, Indian-blanketed hay bales and, of course, the vintage instruments Stuart plays, including his trademark Clarence White Telecaster, his autograph-covered F-5 and the priceless prewar Martin D-45 guitar given him by former boss (and ex-father-in-law) Johnny Cash.
The normally deadpan Eddie Stubbs, arguably the worlds most knowledgeable champion of traditional country and bluegrass, grins like a kid on Christmas as he talks about the show between tapings. Were all so blessed to be part of this. We know that this is something very special. Were making history with what were doing, Stubbs says. The biggest complaint we hear is that the show is just not long enough. All of this fun is in 22 minutes. A lot of people dont realize that. We pack a lot of music into 22 minutes worth of time.
Superlative Nashville Grass
A lot of the music is bluegrass or bluegrass-based, whether its Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs, the Whites, and the SteelDrivers, or Stuarts fittingly named Fabulous Superlatives: guitarist Cousin Kenny Vaughan, bassist The Apostle Paul Martin, and drummer Handsome Harry Stinson. They proved their bluegrass chops on Stuarts acoustic Live At The Ryman CD, but even plugged in, Stuart and the Superlatives (who also serve as the shows house band) put their unique stamp on bluegrass classics like Im Blue, Im Lonesome, Country Boy RocknRoll, and Doin My Time. For the Dailey & Vincent episode, the featured gospel song is a powerful two-band performance of Bill Monroes Get Down On Your Knees And Pray.
Marty loves bluegrass, says Stubbs. That was his first love, and he features bluegrass and bluegrass-related music on every show. Stubbs, best known as the voice of traditional country on the Grand Ole Oprys home, WSM radio, pays tribute to his own bluegrass history as fiddler with the Johnson Mountain Boys by breaking out old stage wear. At the taping featuring the Whites, hes sporting a vintage red string tie. When Ralph Stanley was here, I wore the suit and the tie that I was wearing the first time we appeared on a show with himway back in 1980.
Stubbs and Stuart met three years before that, an event Eddie says changed his life. I probably wouldnt play the fiddle at all if it werent for Marty. We met February 27, 1977. I was 15 years old, he was 18, and he and I bonded that night and that bond has never gone away. Marty Stuart is an absolute genius. Everything he does just takes the music and the level of respect to another level. This show has all the elements, the foundations of what good, traditional, country music is all about. Whether its ballads, shuffles, honky-tonk, a little rockabilly, bluegrass, gospel music, blues, old-time string band musictheres something for everyone.
Old-time, pre-bluegrass music is represented weekly by singer/comedian/clawhammer banjo master Leroy Troy. Bluegrass may be TVs redheaded stepchild, but television has treated old-time music like mirrors treat vampires. It takes a special kind of person to want to put it over on the television and Martys a special feller, Troy says backstage. Theyve been friends a long time. Stuart produced Troys 2001 Rounder CD, The Old Grey Mare. Troy, who also appears on the show with his Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, is surprised by the reaction to his weekly appearances. Since this started, I get mail from everywhere, orders for CDs and stuff. Its like, My gosh, wheres all this stuff coming from? I get all these orders from England, California, Oregon, up in New England, the Midwest, Tennessee. I found out theres some places in Tennessee I didnt even know existed.
The shows tape at North Star Studios in Hendersonville, just north of Nashville. Fans drive hours to attend. The day of Dailey & Vincents taping, Curt and Debbie Roberts drove four hours in the snow from Brown County, Indiana (home of Monroes Bean Blossom festival) to be there. Debbie, a long-time bluegrass fan, recalls seeing Stuart with Lester Flatt in the 70s. Its their second time at the show; they also attended the very first two tapings. Theres nothing like it on television, says Debbie. Theres a lot of variety there. Its all just good music, adds Curt.
Stuarts guests agree. Marty keeps the music at the roots level and its very important that we keep this alive. If you watch other TV shows on mainstream television, youre not hearing our kind of music on there, says Jamie Dailey. This show is extremely important, even for younger generations who dont know about Dailey & Vincent, dont know about Lester & Earl, dont know about Marty Stuart. If they see this and give it a chance, theyre gonna like it. Weve got to grow this music. We cannot let it die. We cannot let it start to fall. And younger audiences and TV is the key.
Advice From Andy
I hope to turn some people on to bluegrass that still dont know about it, says Stuart. Bluegrass can always use a place to be heard and seen. And by way of satellite radio and various places across the globe now, bluegrass probably has more outlets now than it ever hadand that includes a couple of movies. But it always needs a place thats integrity-based and entertainment-based and culturally-based for those people that have never seen it before. Bluegrass music has a friend in me and it always will.
His shows broad appeal is represented by the celebrities in the audience during one production day. For the Whites morning taping, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant are there; in the afternoon, when Ricky Skaggs is the guest, Lester Flatts widow Gladys and daughter Tammy are on hand. Its kind of the story of my life, says Stuart. Keith Richards one day and Ernest Tubb the next feels normal to me. It feels wrong to me when its not that way.
RFD, celebrating its tenth anniversary, remains much more Ernest Tubb than Keith Richards. Along with its block of Saturday night country, Stuart, Ronnie Reno and other stars of RFD also perform live at RFD-TVThe Theatre, located in Branson, Missouri.
And years after those re-runs first inspired Stuart, you can still see Porter and Dolly, along with the Wilburn Brothers with their girl singer Loretta Lynn and classic episodes of Hee Haw! on RFD-TV. The Marty Stuart Shows star hopes his series has the same longevity as those country television cornerstones. You want to make shows that are evergreen, that are timeless, says Stuart. Heres my latest record is a phrase that will never be heard on this show. I learned that by watching the Porter Wagoner shows, the Wilburn Brothers. Those shows do things for fifty years from now, as well as right now. They will keep re-airing. They will live somewhere.
For that, along with lessons learned from his country and bluegrass idols, Stuart looks to the wise old sheriff from Mayberry. I produced a Christmas album on Andy Griffith a few years ago. And everybody that came by to talk to him had some kind of Mayberry question. And he was gracious, and he accommodated everybody. And I declared I was not gonna gurm him, Stuart says with a laugh. But as the proceedings were winding up, I said, I have one question for you from those days. When you had that cast, that magic cast, did you know, did you know that you had it? And he said, Oh, I could not wait to get back to work on Monday morning. We had so much fun doing that old show. He said, We were creative, we felt good, it was a great time in life for everybody.
He said it really was a joy to go work. And thats the way I feel about this show.
(The Marty Stuart Show airs Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 10 a.m., Mondays at 3 p.m., Tuesdays at 1 a.m. All times are EST.)
By Larry Nager
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