Between his run as a solo artist to his collaborations with Lester Flatt, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash to his signature puff of gray speckled hair, Marty Stuart is one of the most recognized and revered country artists of the past quarter century. While he's traveled mostly in mainstream circles, Christianity has always been a vital component to his life, His recent Souls' Chapel CD includes several Bible belt standards and original hymns cut in country, bluegrass or Southern gospel styles. While making that album, Stuart was actually arrested for drinking and driving, which he now sees as a "wake-up call" from God, and Stuart's been on the straight-and-narrow ever since. We caught up with Stuart to talk about that incident, his new album, his start-up record label, his music memorabilia collection, and much more.
What inspired you to craft Souls' Chapel?
It's something I've been wanting to do for 15 years. Like so many other performers, the first place I ever sang was church. I was raised there and it was my natural habitat throughout the week. My first job was in a Pentecostal bluegrass band. When I got a record deal, the natural thing in my mind was to do a gospel record, but mainstream country had changed drastically. They wanted me to cut radio hits and nothing else, so I had to write gospel music for others. But when I was creatively pardoned [by starting his own label], I was able to do exactly what I wanted. I was at a point in my career where I was wondering what to do creatively. I always depend on God to send music through me, so I simply asked him, "What do you got for me?"
Who were your primary gospel music influences?
The Staple Singers and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I ran into the Staples by way of The Last Waltz film; they did a song with The Band called "The Weight." I also got into their music from Chicago throughout the '40s and '50s when they seemed like ghosts singing in a cotton field. I never got to meet Rosetta and I've only seen two pieces of footage on her, but they're both flawless.
What was it like working with Mavis Staples in the studio for "Move Along Train?"
Mavis is like one of the bedrock sounds in my soul. Her voice is so powerful and as a presence she's so powerful. It's like having mother earth in the studio.
What has the new record meant to fans who don't typically listen to Christian music?
That record really found its mark with most people outside the church that don't like having the finger pointed at them; the hipsters, the young kids, the rock and rollers. I think it's a great testimony to the record. It's great to preach to the choir, but when the message and words go to places where it wouldn't have otherwise been heard, that's even better. My favorite review was written by an atheist who wrote, "I am an atheist, but I can't quit listening to this record!"
How has the church responded?
The church hasn't been ringing so much. I went to several churches when I was researching, from a little black church in Mississippi to cathedrals in New York and France, where I prayed about it. I created from within the church and my local church was very supportive, so I'm ready to go in whenever those doors open. Country music went huge in the '90s with so much commercialization.
What did you make of that?
It makes me sad that not just country music, but in all styles it's become so homogenized. I've always believed that you don't have to force roots and traditions just to get to where you're headed, but that the future is so much richer when you carry traditions with you. When I first started traveling, you could go in a store with a dirt floor and every town had character. Now our nation has become homogenized and we have all the same stores everywhere. I believe in taking character along, and it serves me well.
You're into preserving country memorabilia, with over 20,000 pieces. How did you get into that?
I wanted to preserve American culture by the way of county music. No one seemed to care about Hank Williams' suits or Johnny Cash's guitar, and in doing that, they were throwing away an important slice of American culture. That motivated me to start collecting it and keeping it from vanishing. I still play Hank's guitar. Also, I'm working on an exhibit for the Tennessee State Museum for the fall of 2008. It's a friendly exhibit I loan out to the Tennessee State Museum, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If you go online at MartyStuart.net, one of the chapters on the website profiles the exhibit, and every month there's a different artifact we feature; who it belongs to, what it's about. It's pretty interesting.
Are you ever worried in transporting these items and playing the instruments that they will become damaged?
They're treated with a lot of care and dignity. They are historical items and they're museum pieces, but they're also guitars; and guitars love to be played. So I try and play along one way or another, whether it's by way of recording sessions, television appearances making videos with them or even on the road.
Is it ever hard to find new items?
Well I used to really get out and treasure hunt a lot and then I kind of got everything I was going for. And nowadays I hear about things, but it's getting harder and a whole lot pricier now that everybody knows what I'm up to. I have to wade carefully.
Aside from Soul's Chapel, what other albums are on your radar right now?
Live at the Ryman is a bluegrass record made at the mother church of country in Nashville. It was a one-night concert when we became a bluegrass band by adding a banjo and a fiddle, and it was one of those magic nights. Badlands is inspired by the first time I went to the Badlands in 1983 as part of Johnny Cash's band for a benefit concert. I learned that Custer County, South Dakota [home of the Lakota Sioux American Indians], is the poorest county in the United States. I've never seen people in America so beautiful, even though they had been shoved out to this godforsaken land to die by the government. They've sustained their dignity, integrity and power, and I just fell in love with the people. I'm never going to quit going, and I've tried to spread the word now that nobody's telling their story anymore.
In what ways did Johnny Cash inspire you?
He was my main inspiration for music since I was five years old, and he's been my lifelong friend who wound up being my next-door neighbor. He taught me to be fearless when it comes to creativity. He was also a man after God. He reminded me of King David, who blew it a lot of the time; as I blow it a lot of the time; and sought forgiveness. Johnny blew it from time to time, but went out holding a Bible and never quit.
What is your take on the movie Walk the Line?
I haven't seen it. I don't have any desire to see it. I was in the real movie.
Were you with him during his times of struggle or once he cleaned things up?
What were the differences between the two?
You know what, I don't have any answers about Johnny Cash's personal life that way. That's not for me to say.
In what ways have you grown from some of your public downfalls?
The most public ones were drinking and driving twice, the second one being two years ago when I had a relapse. I was right in the middle of making Souls' Chapel and really felt worthless, like a powerless hypocrite. I was embarrassed, trying to represent the gospel in music, but God gave me a way out.I remember being arrested on a Wednesday night before a prayer meeting at church, but Connie and the pastor and everyone all got on their knees and prayed for me. That's what church is about!
Were those prayers answered?
Have you had any temptations since then?
Not a one. It's called deliverance.
How do you resist any temptations, or is it just completely gone?
Well, deliverance covers it all. There's a set of principles that [Alcoholics Anonymous] people will call 12 steps; I call it my Christian administration. I have an incredible wife who's very strong and supported me in that side of life, and I take it seriously. And when you do that, God's faithful. He meets me there everyday. Temptation kind of goes out the window.
If that wake-up call hadn't happened, do you think you would've continued on that path?
That certainly was a wake-up call. I think that was God's way of meaning business. Once you make a commitment, his covenant is strong; he doesn't back up on his word. I think there comes a point with all of his children when you say, "Okay God, I'll do this," and you try to walk this way and live this way.
How would you encourage someone dealing with that specific type of temptation?
I was brought up in a generation when it was better not to talk about it, and leave it under the cover. For goodness sake, raise your hand. Go to your clergy. There's AA groups in every town. There are recovery groups in every town. Raise your hand and ask for help, and you'll find it. There's a thousand people with worse stories and worse cases than you think you have, but you'll find like-minded people, like-minded spirits, like-minded souls that are all there for the common purpose of getting better and putting life back together to where it makes sense again. It's beyond just going down to the front and praying at the altar. Sometimes the problem's bigger than that. You absolutely have to raise your hand and ask for help. The good news is there's a lot of Christian help out there.
Any other advice to someone who's stumbled, even in the most severe cases?
The greatest lie of the Devil is that you are worthless or too sorry to ever go back [to God] again. When you go back to God and church, you'll find true love waiting.
Andy Argyrakis, subject to licensing agreement with Christianity Today International. All rights reserved. Click for reprint information.