The Marty Stuart story is like a well-plotted drama. Act one began early. A music fan almost from birth, Stuart performed professionally by age 12, joined bluegrass legend Lester Flatt’s band at 14, and eventually backed Vassar Clements, Doc Watson, and Johnny Cash. In 1985, he started act two by striking out on his own, building a career as a country music hitmaker while advocating for the music’s history, traditional sound, and visual style.
For many artists, the third act of a music career is anticlimactic, but in Stuart’s case, it may be his most significant. Along with his Fabulous Superlatives — currently, Kenny Vaughan, Harry Stinson, and Chris Scruggs, the five-time Grammy winner and Country Music Hall of Famer has forged a unique path in American music.
Calling his band superlative isn't hyperbole. It's a pedigreed group that brings a rarefied level of artistic knowledge to the equation. Their collective understanding of America's musical vernacular supports Stuart's passion to keep traditions alive and relevant to today's audiences.
The upcoming release of Altitude by Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives, and the recent opening of phase one of the Marty Stuart Congress of Country Music, a museum/performance venue/educational center in his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi, prove this story is far from its finale.
As the 20th century ground to a close, Marty Stuart was experiencing a closure of a different kind. His 1999 album, The Pilgrim, was released a year earlier to almost universal critical acclaim. The album was an ambitious and literate country music song cycle on the themes of love, infidelity, and redemption. Reminiscent of Willie Nelson’s 1975 outlaw country classic, Red Headed Stranger, it was a personal artistic statement, defying every rule of contemporary country radio programming “wisdom.”
Nelson’s album beat the odds and became a cross-over commercial success, while The Pilgrim fizzled commercially. Slightly over a year after its release, the album had barely sold 25,000 copies. Stuart found himself dropped from his record label, his publishing deal, and even his management.
“I had gone as far as I could possibly go,” Stuart says. “I had done everything I knew to do and then some for the assembly line process of country stardom. At the end, I wound up on the sidelines yet again. As [Nashville studio musician legend] ‘Pig’ Robbins used to say at the end of every session, ‘Washed up again.’”
Stuart was anything but “washed up.” He refocused his talents on film soundtracks, his position as Board President of the Country Music Foundation, and regular performances on the Grand Ole Opry. “I was not thinking about going on the road or being in a band,” he recalls. “I just needed time off.”
His Fabulous Superlatives come into view
Though the Music Row Hit Machine was receding in Stuart’s rearview mirror, the desire to play music with great musicians remained on the horizon. “I was watching Austin City Limits one night,” Stuart says. “Lucinda Williams was on, and Kenny Vaughn was playing guitar with her. I had never seen Kenny before, but after about two songs, I quit looking at Lucinda and watched his playing for the rest of the show. I loved it. He was wonderfully cool and odd in all the right ways.”
Vaughn was already well established as one of Nashville’s most respected left-of-Music Row guitarists. With a background stretching from progressive jazz to punk rock, Vaughn had also carved out a niche as a top-notch honky-tonker in Nashville’s Lower Broadway nouveau hillbilly music scene during the early 90s.
“We bumped into each other a few months later,” Stuart says. “We had lunch, and I asked him if he wanted to start a band. By the time the check came, my assignment was to find us a drummer, and Kenny’s assignment was to find us a bass player.”
Stuart soon conscripted an old friend, Nashville musician/singer/producer Harry Stinson for drums, while Vaughn recruited veteran musician Brian Glenn on bass. With the assembled talent and experience, it was soon evident that the Fabulous Superlatives would more than live up to the name.
“I just knew from the first rehearsal this band had a different aura around it,” Stuart says. A sentiment Stinson shares, “I figured it would be something special,” Stinson says. “We had a higher purpose in mind, something beyond just going out and playing shows.”
Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives made their recorded debut in 2003 with the release of the album Country Music. A back-to-basics collection of country rock, the record enjoyed critical acclaim and healthy sales, serving as a warm-up for what was to follow.
“I knew our job was to champion things that were forgotten,” Stuart says. “To shine a light on projects, peoples, and cultures that were left behind but still relevant. Tim DuBois and Tony Brown hooked us up with Universal to start Superlatone Records, which meant we could do whatever we wanted.”
We don’t have the luxury of the machine to support us. We get up and go to work, and we’ve forged ahead on guts, grit, and talent.
With their record label, Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives codified their higher purpose on their subsequent two albums. Released less than two months apart in 2005, Souls’ Chapel and Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota were separate artistic statements sharing a common purpose. The first was an adventurous gospel album paying tribute to traditional Southern gospel’s roots while incorporating elements from its many offspring — blues, soul, R&B, hard country, and rockabilly. The second album told the story of the Lakota people — their history, spirituality, and legends — written by Stuart with input, guidance, and approval from tribal elders.
Stuart & Co. followed with a live album of bluegrass recorded at the Ryman and a string of critically acclaimed records drawing from country music’s deep well, bringing new sounds and songs to the table. Stuart’s touring priorities also departed from the mainstream.
“Our deal was that if we believed in [a venue], we’d pay to get there,” Stuart says. “If we don’t, you don’t have enough money to get us there. We wanted to champion cultures that had lost their voice; small-town America, theaters that had gone out of business and were trying to get back into business to get their town’s life back.
“We felt like we were honored guests wherever we went, but we still didn’t have a place to drive our sword into the dirt. The more we looked, the more we realized our place was traditional country music, and that’s what led to 156 episodes of The Marty Stuart Show.”
“Nobody's gonna do it, so why don't you?“
Produced from 2008-2014, The Marty Stuart Show was a modern take on the classic country music showcase programs produced in Nashville and syndicated to local TV stations nationwide during the 1960s and 1970s. “There was a production company in Nashville called Show Biz that produced The Porter Wagoner Show, The Wilburn Brothers Show, Del Reeves’ Country Carnival, and others,” Stuart says. “I watched those shows when I was a kid, and I loved the characters, the costumes, the stories, the instruments. For years I was saying, ‘Why doesn’t someone do a 21st-century version?’ One day Kenny Vaughn said, ‘Nobody’s gonna do it, so why don’t you?’”
Partnering with the cable channel RFD TV and recruiting WSM DJ Eddie Stubbs as the announcer, Stuart delivered a show with all the classic country elements. “I knew hay bales, costumes, wagon wheels, and cutting to a picture of Jesus at the end of a gospel song would make the industry in Nashville go, ‘Oh, God, no, just when we thought we had this fire put out!’ but we stuck to our guns and all of a sudden these rock & rollers wanted to be on the show.”
The Marty Stuart Show won over the hearts and ears of both veteran country fans and a new generation of hillbilly hipsters by staying locked on great music. “It was really about championing and preserving the very last of the golden era of country,” Stuart says. “We got it just in time. It was Kitty Wells’ last performance, Charlie Louvin’s last performance, the last great footage of Ray Price, and on and on. I think there were about 43 people on the show that are now gone.”
Stuart wasn’t just collecting farewell performances. The goal was to present classic country stars in the best possible light by showcasing each artist’s unique voice. The job required a band with vast historical musical knowledge, virtuosity, and adaptability — qualities the Fabulous Superlative have in spades.
“[The Nashville A-Team of studio musicians] specialized in giving artists a sonic identity,” Stuart says. “As time goes on, songs drift off into road band arrangements, and the singers follow. On the TV show, we stood them back up straight and tried to put each one in the frame that made us fall in love with them in the first place.”
Kenny Vaughn recalls one memorable case: “I loved Stonewall Jackson’s early recordings, but every time I saw him on the Opry, he didn’t have that sound. When we went into his first song, he looked around at us like a guy that hadn’t seen a family member for 40 years. He was stunned. He sang really well because it allowed him to sing like he used to sing. That kind of thing happened a lot on the show.”
In 2014, bass player Paul Martin (who had replaced Brian Glenn in 2008) left the Fabulous Superlatives, and Chris Scruggs, who often joined the band as a guest instrumentalist on The Marty Stuart Show, became the newest and youngest Superlative. “Paul was leaving, and Kenny asked me if I had any ideas for a new bass player,” Scruggs says. “I said, ‘I’d love to do it.’ Kenny asked if I would mind being stuck on bass, and I said, ‘Man, I don’t care. I’ll be the tambourine or ukulele player if I like the music!’” In addition to being a first-class bass, guitar, and steel guitar player, Scruggs brought youthful enthusiasm, a deep knowledge of country music history, and an authentic country music pedigree as the grandson of bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs.
From Way Out West to The Byrds to Altitude
With the current line-up, Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives released the album Way Out West in 2017. Produced by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, the album pays tribute to the Golden State’s most famous strains of country — Hollywood cowboys and Bakersfield honky-tonk — while mixing elements of folk rock, cosmic cowboy psychedelia, Laurel Canyon pop, and more.
“On the Way Out West record, I felt the needle turn,” Stuart says. “We really achieved something different.” Drawing high praise from critics, the album also led to a 2018 tour with Byrds co-founders Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Byrds’ country rock classic, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
The experience left an indelible mark on Stuart and the band. “We got to be The Byrds and had a ball,” Stuart says. “You cannot be in that zone without some of that following you home and into the studio, and on Altitude, we just kept going, dialing back into cosmic cowboy land.”
On the forthcoming Altitude, Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives continue their mission of exploring and celebrating hidden and lost corners of American music through great new songs and superb performances. Still, this time, the recording of the album faced unique challenges.
“We had the record ready to record and time booked at Capitol Studios in Hollywood when COVID hit,” Stuart says. “I knew if we didn’t get it, then it would not have the same sound if we came back three or six months or a year later. So we opted for the House of Blues Studios in Nashville. We put on our masks and stayed six feet apart. It was uncomfortable and weird, but we made the record, and I’m glad we did.”
Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives
(l-r) Kenny Vaughan, Harry Stinson, Marty Stuart, Chris Scruggs, and future Superlative.
Stuart checks off many of his musical touchstones and influences on the album: a little Johnny Cash chick-a-boom rhythm, some cosmic cowboy Burrito Brothers spice, a healthy portion of Nashville Sound honky-tonk, a dash of West Coast Jimmy Webb existentialism, a side of Tom Petty garage rock jangle. The result is a delectable, nutritious, and timeless musical feast.
As with all the Fabulous Superlatives’ records, Stuart acknowledges it could not have been made with any other band. “There’s a special magic around this band I’ve never experienced before,” Stuart says. “We don’t have the luxury of the machine to support us. We get up and go to work, and we’ve forged ahead on guts, grit, and talent.
“You could put any of these guys in a classroom, and they could enlighten people on what music is all about. That is a rare thing. From day one, whatever we approach, we try to do it authentically, and between the four of us, we find a way to do it.”
In addition to creating great albums over the last 20 years, Stuart has continued his dedication to preserving country music history by constructing Marty Stuart’s Congress of Country Music in Stuart’s hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Centered around the historic and recently renovated Ellis Theater, the 50,000-plus-square-foot campus will eventually include a separate museum, classrooms, a community hall, a meeting and event space, and a rooftop performance venue. The complex will be the home of Stuart’s 20,000-plus collection of country music artifacts, including historical instruments, stage wear, and assorted memorabilia.
Over the last two decades, Stuart’s successes have secured his place as traditional country music’s most prominent evangelist and preservationist, but the big question still looms. Is there a place for “authentic” country music in the 21st century? Much of the music’s foundational values and themes of home, hearth, and heartbreak were formed in an early 20th-century version of America that no longer exists — a world of tragedy and tradition, faith and poverty, heartbreak and the sweet release of a honky-tonk Saturday night.
Perhaps the arena rock-tinged pre-packaged sounds often found on modern commercial country radio occasionally seem soulless because the culture and values that country music sprang from have withered in a world of smartphones, social media platforms, and constant clickbait. It appears to be a riddle wrapped in a conundrum. Or not.
“I think there is still a place for it,” Stuart says. “I look around the landscape of bluegrass festivals, and I see a lot of kids with fire in their eyes playing fiddle, banjo, and mandolin — and writing good songs. I look at the alt-country world and see people on the fringes putting their spin on it.
“If you think about it, that’s how country music started: on the fringes of town, in cinder block buildings, with a blue-collar language, talking to working people. It’s a beautiful language. It’s a reflection of the true human condition regardless of time or trends. Love, heartache, jail, drinkin’, cheatin’, lyin’, and redemption — all those blues that Jimmie Rodgers gave us to build upon are still relevant.”
Stuart pauses, contemplating the future. “Will it ever have the blue-chip prominence it once had?” he asks. “I don’t know; perhaps it will happen someday. In the meantime, out of the fringes, I still feel like it’s alive and well. It’s what’s in my heart to do, that’s what we’re doing, and I’m seeing results.”