Marty Stuart: The legendary ex-Johnny Cash sideman discusses playing Country 2 Country, his new record ‘Way out West’ and the future of country music

Every year Country 2 Country festival manages to bring a legendary artist to the shores of the UK – this year sees the man who not only played guitar in Johnny Cash’s band but has had an amazing career of his own hit the O2 Stage. Marty Stuart is playing the festival on the release of his latest studio album ‘Way Out West’ with his band The Fabulous Superlatives. It’s not often that we get to speak to an artist who has such a rich history in country music (including being the president of the Country Music Foundation) so we jumped at the chance to speak to Marty upon his arrival in London…

Welcome to England Marty! Have you just arrived today?

No I arrived a couple of days a go so I’ve had a couple of days just to enjoy the city.

Brilliant. Is it your first time over here?

No I’ve been over several times. I think the first time I came was in the eighties when I was in Johnny Cash’s band then I played over here in the nineties and me and my band played over here maybe seven or eight years a go. It’s good to be back!

We’re glad to have you! Obviously you’re along to play at the Country 2 Country festival. How excited are you to hit the stage?

I’m looking forward to it! It helps to have a new record and a new energy. I know that there’s a segment of the audience that wasn’t here the last time because they probably weren’t born yet! They’re young people so it’ll be nice to just stand out there and see what we can drum up.

It’s interesting that you say that because the rise in popularity of country music in the UK is huge and it can be quite a young crowd so I guess it’s a good opportunity to get up there and show them what you guys can really do?

We’ll see if it matters to them and that’s the main thing!

With all of the modern, mainstream country these days do find you it quite rare to be so high up the bill at a festival where there are a lot of new acts on the bill?

I don’t know. That remains to be seen. It’s a challenge and a vote of confidence that they put us in the slot that they did! I think we’ll just have to get out there and rough it up and see what happens!

I suppose it feels kind of condescending for me to ask that as you’ve been there and done it all before…

No no no! I mean when I look at bands like your hometown guys The Stones – how many times have The Stones introduced that same set list to a different generation of kids? It works every time because they’re the frickin’ Rolling Stones and they know how to back it up! They represent, a time honoured band like that, represent something that brand new acts can’t get to so it’s nice to have the combination I would think.

Exactly. The musicianship that a band like yours bring along can’t be replaced…

No. A guy like Kenny Vaughan on steel guitar, Harry Stinson’s playing drums and Chris Scruggs is out here playing bass with us. You can’t just run out and replace them. There was a time in Nashville when you could find players like that all over town but it’s really rare… really rare to find people that can play that language any more.

So you’re on the same stage with Zac Brown, Brothers Osborne and Maren Morris that day. Do you know much of their music? Are you into much modern country?

Oh I do! We’ve played shows with Zac before in the States and it works fine. Maren and the Brothers Osborne, I do a show in Nashville every year that kicks off CMA fest every year called Marty Stuart’s late night jam, we do it at the Ryman Auditorium and it starts a 10pm every night and we quit when we’re through. For the last two years Brothers Osborne have been on the show and last year Maren was on the show. The thing is the late night jam has a really good track record of is keeping an eye on young talent. Connie and I, my wife, we search for people who have it. Through the years we’ve had Keith Urban, Eric Church, Miranda Lambert, Maren and Brothers Osborne plus people like Brandy Clark – young artists who needed a place to sing before anybody was really paying attention. All of those kids I saw when they were just starting so I love to see them exploding and see the masses respond to them.

It’s fantastic that these acts get a leg up from someone who is so well thought of in the industry…

It worked that way for me. When I was a kid it was Johnny Cash and Lester Flatt who gave me my leg up. It’s a responsibility that needs to be passed on.

I’d read about some of the work that you’d done for the Country Music Foundation in the past which was really interesting. Are you still quite well involved in that?

Not to the extent that I was. I was the president of the Country Music Foundation at the Hall of Fame for, I think, six or eight terms and then I think Vince Gill has it now… so it’s in good hands with Vince! I’m still around though so if they need me they know who to call!

Moving on to the upcoming album ‘Way out West’. How excited are you to get a new record out there?

Well it’s been two years so it was time. This particular record I love a lot.

I have to say it got me from my first listen. I love some of the instrumental tracks on there. You’ve released a lot of studio albums over the years – what keeps you motivated and fresh?

I keep looking for fresh songs. I keep writing and looking. It’s kind of like going fishing – once you catch a big one you always want to catch another. It’s always about chasing a song so I’m always looking for a song. Also, I like concepts. I like cinematic albums that are more than just a collection of songs. I like records that take you somewhere and that’s the deal with ‘Way out West’ it’s kind of a love letter to the American West and so many of the things that came out of California and inspired me and my band. I was just looking for this cinematic listening experience and I hope I achieved that.

It’s really interesting that you say that and that’s what I felt listening to the album. It could have been the soundtrack to a Western or a book like Grapes of Wrath…

It’s funny that you mention the Grapes of Wrath because when I was researching this project I went to some of the spiritual hot spots and a friend of mine that likes around Bakersfield took me on this journey through Bakersfield and we wound up at a place called Sunset Labour Camp and that’s where the movie of Grapes of Wrath was filmed. Standing in the middle of that San Joaquin desert it felt like Old Testament, like biblical, you could feel the oppression and you could feel the hope and the dreams and the broken hearts of people. I took that in and I really wanted it to be a part of this record.

Well that’s strange that’s exactly what I felt over here in England!

Good man good man!

Just quickly going back to your performance at C2C what kind of set can we expect from you?

Well there are only four of us on stage but it’s a wall of sound. It’s a wonderful band to be a part of. I can tell you, and I may eat these words but I don’t think so, there’s a lot of people of a particular age that got to say “I got to see The Beatles or The Stones or Muddy Waters or I got to see Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard” Well I can tell you from being a part of this band on a nightly basis that there’s a blue fire around The Superlatives right now. It’s a special time in a bands life and I think it’s going to be one of those bands that somebody can say in fifteen or twenty years time “I got to see those guys one time!” That’s the way that I feel on the bandstand every night – like I’m a part of something that’s really going somewhere.

I suppose that’s part of the magic of this festival for us in that we can see you one year or Vince Gill or Dwight Yoakam. It’s something special for us all…

I like what Willie Nelson said one time when he said when he was on the bill with some kid that was really really popular and they asked Willie what his plan was and he said “old age and treachery will beat out youth and inexperience every time!”

What are you expecting from the crowd then?

I never walk out there with expectations from a crowd. The greatest I’ve ever heard it put was Aretha Franklin who one time said, “I stand out there to do my thing. I close my eyes and stick out my hand and hope that somebody takes it”. So I’m sticking out my hand with my heart on the end of it and I hope that somebody takes it at C2C!

Finally, have you got any plans to head back over here in the future and maybe do a headlining tour?

Absolutely! We’ve not been back in a few years because I just didn’t feel like we had everything lined up. Whether it’s old records to re-release or new records to release or museum exhibits or books we have a whole cauldron of things that we can offer the listener or the viewer over here now so I think that you’ll find us much more of a steady presence in the days ahead!

Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives latest album ‘Way Out West’ is available now. Check out our review here

It’s available to buy on iTunes here

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