Forty-nine years ago, a front-page headline in Nashville’s Tennessean proclaimed “Marty’s a Mandolin Pro at 15,” heralding Marty Stuart’s teenaged role in Lester Flatt’s late-period band Nashville Grass. Stuart would also tour with Johnny Cash and achieve mainstream country success before establishing himself and his longtime band, the Superlatives, as stalwarts of the musically expansive Americana landscape.
Now a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Stuart’s efforts to honor country’s traditions while injecting his music with the rock & roll he began playing as a kid served as inspiration on his latest album, Altitude. A gloriously Technicolor-splattered collection, Altitude continues in the kaleidoscopic vein of the group’s 2017 album Way Out West.
The eminently quotable Grand Ole Opry member recently sat down with Rolling Stone for a conversation that ranged from psychedelic influences to his wife, fellow Hall of Fame member Connie Smith, to his take on Nineties collaborator Travis Tritt’s controversial response to a Bud Light campaign.
This album is one of the most colorful you’ve ever done, as if you can almost hear the colors coming from the songs. Was there a particular inspiration for it?
The chief culprit was us going on tour with Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, for the 50th anniversary of the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album in 2018. And it’s interesting that you say that because when Roger plays the Rickenbacker, I see colors. When Chris Hillman plays the bass, I see colors. On the album, there’s Clarence White’s guitar in the middle of all that. The tour was just a glorious experience. On top of that, we were doing shows with the Steve Miller Band that year, as well as a bunch of Chris Stapleton shows. I was just in the presence of these gargantuan songs, just song after song after song that mean so much to so many people. That followed me back to the bus when I was writing songs for this record.
There’s a real thread of psychedelia running through the whole album, too, which is something you can’t really escape when the Byrds are one of your inspirations.
What’s crazy is, it’s sober psychedelia, which even makes it more goofy [Laughs].
Did you ever have much experience with psychedelic drugs?
None. I never went down that route. I was a hillbilly. Hillbillies were about pills and pot and champagne… and cocaine in those old days. I think I was always too scared of it and just left that part alone, thank God. That was one more thing I didn’t have to get sober from when I finally got turned around. But there is no question that that influenced the music and fashion, the light show and the graphics. It all kind of points to that.
This record was made just as the pandemic was starting, but it didn’t really stop the recording, it only delayed the release. How did you handle that time off?
I never got anxious, but what I did is I went home. I hadn’t been home with that much time off from the road since 1972, when I started, other than in 1987, which was a bad year, personally. I truly enjoyed being with Connie [Smith], and getting to things around the house that I’ve been putting off for years. In the midst of it we both got Covid. I had it for five minutes and lost my sense of smell, but it almost killed Connie. This was pre-vaccine, so she wound up in the hospital for, like, 10 days. After she got out of there it was a long, long, long path.
How is she feeling now?
She’s OK. Her singing is fine but I still see a part of that energy that she’s waiting on to come back. I mean, she goes to the gym three times a week, she eats right, takes the right supplements. She works really hard at being healthy. But it hit her for a lick. Now we have a record for her almost ready to go. Connie’s not afraid to wait 20 years between records. I found that out when I first met her. But when she’s in the mood… one day she said, “I’d like to sing some songs that some friends of mine sang that I’ve always just wanted to sing.” We’re almost done with it. She started singing all those old country classics, and a lot of people have never heard those songs before.
There’s a line in the song “Space” that really resonates in these days of rampant social media commentary: “Do you get a little mad when someone you don’t know tells you how you’re supposed to feel?”
I get such a kick out of armchair activists. Outside of however many people they have on their Facebook page, it’s like, why don’t you get up and go do something for real? It doesn’t matter what your opinion is. You can either find somebody to agree with or disagree with. I get all that. But sometimes I just get a little worn out with it. I was confused one day about something and I heard three or four different experts on my television set telling me their perspective on it. None of it felt right to me. I don’t even remember what the issue was but I just thought, everybody’s talking and nobody’s saying anything.
You have a long history with Travis Tritt. What your thoughts are on his controversial choice to boycott Anheuser-Busch products on his tour?
I don’t even know what you’re talking about.
It started with the company sending Dylan Mulvaney, who is a transgender TikTok creator, a can of Bud Light that featured her image on it. Travis posted on Twitter that he was deleting all Anheuser-Busch products from his tour rider.
I don’t know what to say about that other than I’ll go back to what I’ve always said about Travis. The day we did “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’” video we barely knew each other. I mean, less than barely knew each other. I had Ernest Tubb’s bus at the time, and at the end of that shoot we made a deal in the back lounge of the bus. I said, “We’re gonna be brothers. When we’re old, fat and ugly, and nobody cares about us, we’re still gonna be brothers.” And that’s how it’s been. I’ve had opinions down through the years that I’m sure Travis didn’t agree with and vice versa. But, man, I have never let that sway my love for him one bit. That’s between him and whoever. I don’t know enough to talk about what you’re talking about. There was a conversation that came up not long ago about somebody that should be in the Country Music Hall of Fame but is not. Somebody said, “But what about their character?” I said, “Character? If it were about character, there wouldn’t be anybody in there. Maybe three people. We’ve all had our moments out there.”
You’re still working on the Congress of Country Music project, getting a museum built in your hometown for all the artifacts you’ve collected through the years. How did that collection actually start for you?
The first artifact, souvenir that I ever owned in my life was Minnie Pearl’s autograph. In Mississippi, in the early Sixties, she was campaigning for some guy running for governor. They were going from county to county with one of those little pop-up trailers. They’d set up the microphone and play. And Minnie came to my hometown. She went across the street [from the site of the Congress of Country Music] to the bank where my mom worked. Mama recognized her and she got Minnie’s autograph for me.
How far along is the project at this point?
The Ellis Theater, phase one, is up and running. Ricky Skaggs came, then Vince Gill, Bill Gaither. Dolly [Parton] kicks off season two on August 26th. Steve Miller is coming, Roger McGuinn, Wynton Marsalis, the Library of Congress is showing Turner Classic Movies. And the state of Mississippi gave us $10 million to build phase two. So, here we go, man, we are moving! It’s my hillbilly presidential library. And it all started with Minnie Pearl’s autograph at the little bank right across the street.