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Geo Logical : Terrain of Marty Stuart's Country Includes Hill(billy), (Blue)grass and Rock

May 19, 1997|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With his soap-star baby face and implausibly large hair, Marty Stuart doesn't cut the figure of a country music traditionalist. He actually looks like What Is Wrong With Nashville, more Branson than Bakersfield. Gaze a little closer, though.

Check out that vintage Gretsch guitar strapped around his neck. More importantly, listen closely to what he's laying down, because Party Marty is among the most gen-yew-wine keepers of the hillbilly torch you're gonna hear on country radio today.

Stuart--who plays the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana tonight--has formidable chops on fiddle and mandolin as well as on guitar. He also has a musicologist's knowledge of hillbilly history and, at 38, a history of his own, with such heavies as Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash. Not to mention plenty of good old-fashioned attitude.

He treads between commercial acceptance and hard-line roots values and admits freely that "there are times when I have trouble honestly committing to one side of the fence or the other. It costs me sales sometimes," he said during a recent phone conversation. "That's the price you pay.

"With country music in the shape it's in now, let's be honest--I have to work. But at the same time, I can't go chasing that train totally."

And what shape is country music in?

"Everybody's crying wolf because we went from selling 35 gazillion records to 30 gazillion records in the last couple years. But the cash register is still ringing, and I don't think you can expect to see a lot of musical changes while it is still ringing.

"What country music is to me right now is understanding that the '90s were good for it, but the new century's coming. And what interests me for the future is taking it back to the roots and hitting it from there."

*

Stuart's latest album, last year's "Honky Tonkin's What I Do Best," was proffered by MCA Nashville as the release that finally would push him over the top, from successful recording artist to bona fide superstar.

The title cut, a duet with Travis Tritt (with whom Stuart has cut his most successful singles), was a radio hit and was nominated for Grammy and CMA awards.

But Stuart is still Stuart, not Garth Brooks. The album was too raw and too rockin' to gain that proffered level of acceptance. Stuart fans should be thankful.

There are echoes of so many styles on "Honky Tonkin' " that listening to it can be dizzying. There's Hank Williams dueting with Jerry Jeff Walker, the Blasters with Johnny Burnette. Ringing, 12-string guitar riffs recall the Byrds and the Monkees. There's a blues rap that comes off like Eric Burdon and War's "Spill the Wine" on moonshine. Stuart even has bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin open a song by introducing his coon dogs and having them bark. That's no damn way to get your record accepted by country radio!

You may have noticed as many rock analogies as country ones.

"To me, rock 'n' roll is just bluegrass hot-wired," Stuart said. "The tempo of rock 'n' roll has that fire, but when you unplug it, it's just bluegrass. I've got as many friends in rock 'n' roll as I do in country. Sometimes that leaves a vague picture in people's minds, and I'm fully aware of that. But when I listen to Hank Williams, it sounds like rock 'n' roll to me."

It's not just Stuart's music that might seem to straddle two worlds. Even his mind set appears to be hard-line traditionalist one minute, commercial politico the next.

Asked whom he respects in contemporary country music, he let a pause elapse and then let go with a belly laugh. But then he recovered and recited a litany of artists from Junior Brown and Dwight Yoakum to Alan Jackson and Tritt (who has helped him earn no small number of royalty checks).

Stuart also said that his next album will define his career, and that it finally will place him firmly in the roots category along with such brethren as Yoakum and Brown.

"Everybody down here [in Nashville] keeps talking about how bad the music sounds down here, but oddly enough, people keep buying it. But I went and talked to my record company the other day about my next album, and I'm going back to the roots. From a spiritual standpoint, I need to reset my clock.

"In my mind, I'm going to start out on the front porch of A.P. Carter's cabin in Virginia and work that through mountain music, through bluegrass music, through folk music, through honky-tonk music, through hillbilly rock 'n' roll to 21st century country music. I've been doing this for 25 years now, so it might just be time to go back to square one."

"It's gonna be a concept record. I couldn't believe it: The record company went for it hook, line and sinker!"

* Marty Stuart plays tonight at the Crazy Horse Steak House, 1580 Brookhollow Drive, Santa Ana. 7 and 10 p.m. $34. (714) 549-1512.

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