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Marty Stuart has a lot of names--big names--to drop, and he does. But after all, he's been picking guitars and mandolins alongside C&W luminaries since he was thirteen. He's earned his bragging rights.

"When I first heard Flatt and Scruggs, it blew my mind," Stuart drawled during a recent telephone conversation. "I instantly got the fever for it. Man, I was heavily into Forties music by the time I was twelve." By age thirteen, Stuart was a regular member of Lester Flatt's band, and he remembers looking into audiences and seeing such Southern stars as Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubbs looking on.

"You know I was in awe," he laughs, "but I wasn't scared. I was used to being onstage, performing in front of crowds. Their presence just made me work that much harder." The real chore, he admits, was convincing his folks to let him board the bus in the first place.

"I had to sell my parents on it. I was just a kid, of course, and they were worried about school and that sort of thing." Certainly the prospect of having her boy touring the states with a gaggle of grizzled pickers would send any mom into conniptions, but Stuart succeeded in his pitch.

"I kept up with school through correspondence courses and got my diploma. Besides," Stuart recalls, "they knew what it was about."

In fact, Stuart's parents were the ones who got him hooked on music.
"Very clearly I remember walking with my mother, hanging onto her skirts and hearing church bells play. I was four, maybe five. I loved it. And my dad, he had Flatt and Scruggs and Johnny Cash albums. And bluegrass. Dad loved bluegrass. They were the first sounds I ever heard, and they were seared into my soul."

As a young boy, Stuart spent summers touring with the gospel-bluegrass Sullivan Family, playing in the Pentecostal churches of back-swamp Louisiana towns. But it was Lester Flatt whom Stuart most credits with helping him find his way early on.

"Oh, he was a great man," Stuart says quietly, reverently. "When I was touring with him, he and his band were on the verge of being old has-beens. Then we played this big convention in Cincinnati. I can't remember exactly what it was, but there were a lot of kids there. And we had to follow Kool and the Gang!

"Lester simply blew them away. Those kids went crazy, and we got no less than 170 bookings from that single gig, including a lot of colleges."

After Flatt's death in 1979, Marty Stuart had little trouble finding people to pick with. He played with Vassar Clements, whom Stuart calls "the ultimate fiddle player."

"When I was in my early teens, I was always looking for country people who were hip. Vassar had credits with folks ranging from Linda Ronstadt to the Grateful Dead, and a style like no one else. He made a big impression on me." At the time, Stuart was playing country-rock pioneer Clarence White's 1954 Telecaster which, along with two other vintage guitars--Hank Williams Sr.'s Martin D-45 and Lester Flatt's D-28--he still uses in concert.

The turning point in Stuart's career was a six-year adventure touring and recording with Johnny Cash.

"I've made him a real study," Stuart enthuses. "As a kid, I was touching the mountains when I listened to Johnny Cash." That relationship continued as Stuart began to blaze his own path to headliner status. In 1982 he produced his first solo album, Busy Bee Cafe, for the independent Sugar Hill label. Half vocal, half instrumental, that inaugural effort included significant contributions by Cash and the Watsons. Busy Bee Cafe helped him find his musical niche, but it was 1986's Marty Stuart on CBS Records that made him a lead singer and a stylist.

Along the way to his breakthrough record Hillbilly Rock and his new release Tempted, Marty Stuart has collected a Who's Who of studio and concert credits that includes backing up Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Buck Owens, Bob Dylan, and Billy Joel. And Stuart was strumming in the studio during the historic Sun Records reunion of Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and, of course, Johnny Cash.

Now a seasoned veteran of the business and a successful purveyor of smoking honky-tonk rock, Marty Stuart reflects upon the current state of country music. He balances respect for his roots ("At the Grand Ole Opry, I wouldn't play `Western Girls.' It's just too rock 'n' roll.") with a mild concern for his genre's future, which he fears is in danger of becoming too compartmentalized. "Country-western music," Stuart declares, "has to be careful about becoming a house divided.

"I've always been able to hang out with anybody," he says, "from the old-timers of country to rock 'n' rollers. I've never had any illusions about being anything other than what I am. When people ask me what kind of country music I do, I tell them `I'm in the hillbilly division.'"

As for the future, Stuart promises much more of the fiery country-fried chops found on Hillbilly Rock and Tempted.

"Hey, I can't be content with having one hit. My style is, and always will be, like, when a blast goes off, I want seven trees to fall instead of just one." Marty Stuart will perform at Toolies Country on Thursday, February 21. Showtimes are 8 and 10 p.m.

"Dad loved bluegrass. They were the first sounds I ever heard, and they were seared into my soul." "Country-western music has to be careful about becoming a house divided.

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Larry Crowley