If there’s one way to follow up celebrating 50 years of musical success in Nashville, then releasing a record inspired by one that’s shaped your entire life takes some beating.
Perhaps serendipitously, that’s exactly what Marty Stuart has done on his new cosmic country album Altitude. Written largely whilst Marty and his Fabulous Superlatives – Kenny Vaughan, Harry Stinson, and Chris Scruggs – were on the road with Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman of the Byrds to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their 1968 classic, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the band play Hank Williams and Clarence White’s guitars on the album, which also features one of the final appearances of piano legend Pig Robbins, who died last year.
Marty joined Holler from snowy Wisconsin for the inside scoop on how Altitude came to be.
“Cosmic country” is something of a buzz term in country music at the moment. What does it mean to you?
I think it’s a state of mind. It’s a term that never got fully defined or explored or completed. My idea of cosmic country is the music that the Byrds made in an experimental fashion, or the Flying Burrito Brothers. I see it as a road that went into the desert and all of a sudden just quits. It grew weeds and vines and nobody got around to exploring or finishing what was started due to death, due to a change of times, bands breaking up; a plethora of reasons. When me and the Fabulous Superlatives backed up Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn on the 50th anniversary of the Sweetheart of the Rodeo tour, those things came back alive in my heart.
Tell us about the significance of Sweetheart of the Rodeo on this album. You’ve described it as a blueprint for your musical life but musically you’ve done so many different things. What’s the thread?
There was a fellow called Roland White who played mandolin in Lester Flatt’s band. Roland was the guy who invited me to Nashville and set the stage for me to get the job with Lester when I was a kid. At Roland’s house there as a stack of Byrds record and I said, “what’s the deal with those?” He says, “my brother Clarence plays with the Byrds”.
Not long after that I went into a record store in the early 1970s. There was a discount cut-out version of Sweetheart of the Rodeo for $2.99. I bought it and instantly liked it because it had bluegrass, honky tonk, folk, gospel and a rock ‘n roll flare to it. I liked it because it was the first time I’d ever heard all those styles collide successfully on the one record.
Soon after that we played a concert at Michigan State University. The opening acts were Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Lester Flatt and his band played and The Eagles were out touring their new record Desperado. That night, I witnessed with my eyes and got to be a part of what I thought the Sweetheart of the Rodeo record represented. All of those musical forms collided at Michigan State and I said, “ah, that’s how I’m going to live my life for the rest of my life”.
When the Superlatives and I went out and played with Roger and Chris I saw it again – the sounds wrapped around Clarence White’s guitar. It reignited something in my heart. Sweetheart is one of those records like Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison. There’s a handful of records where I don’t care what format they’re on, I continue to buy it and return to it for inspiration.
Have you played Altitude to the Byrds?
No. It’s kind of like showing your rock collection to Mount Rushmore.
How long did this album take to record?
We recorded probably in the best part of a week to 10 days. We had the record rehearsed, we’d been working on it in the dressing room, in soundchecks, been releasing some of the songs during concerts. We were ready to go and then the pandemic came crashing down. But we thought, ‘if we don’t record this record right now it can get away from us’, so opted to record it in Nashville. We put on our masks and it was stressful, but we did our best. I’m glad we did because it wouldn’t have been the record that it is if we’d waited two and a half years to get started.
What’s the collaborative process with the band?
Well, the Superlatives are like a secret weapon. They’re the most versatile bunch of musicians you could ever hope to play with. We’ve been playing together a long time now so there’s not a whole lot of conversation that goes into it. We just start playing and everyone finds their own way and we fine-tune it as we go. It’s a never ending process. It’s a luxury to play with people where it’s understood more so than talked about, that’s a great thing. Kenny, Harry and Chris are all world class people and musicians, world class musicologists. They have the entire lexicon of musical knowledge at their fingertips.
You worked with Pig Robbins on Altitude - what did he bring that no one else could?
Pig was one of those guys… he walked into the room and everybody just did better because Pig was there. His presence was so respected and inspiring. The fact that we’d played with him a lot, he was kind of like one of our brothers and a band member, he was adored. Losing him was probably like the Rolling Stones losing Charlie Watts. You can keep playing but it’s never quite the same.
What song was the most difficult on this album to get right?
I think this is the third attempt we had made at recording the song ‘Night Riding’. We tried it on Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions, we tried it on Way out West. But we finally captured it on this record. That was just one of those. I had to wait it out. I knew there was a good song in there but something wasn’t right about it and I feel like we finally cornered it.
Do you think there’s a defining song of this album?
I can tell you that ‘Sitting Alone’, from day one, has been like an old friend when we play it. The audience loves that song. The one that has been the surprise hit in concert is ‘Space’. Night after night after night that song continues to thrill me. ‘The Angels Came Down’, when we played it last year to thousands and thousands of people, I took a chance to close the entire night with it. That song, there’s a hush about it, a presence about it. You could have heard a pin drop about two seconds into that song. At the end it was pretty glorious.
There was a line in ‘Tomahawk’ that struck me: “We’re all here for a minute, then our time is up, make way for new recruits coming in a red pickup truck”. It’s got almost the feeling of a cult. What’s that a reference to?
I’ve lost so many friends in the last three or four years. It reminds me just how fragile and precious life is while we have other. Merle Haggard made a statement to me one time right before he died. He said, “when you finally figure it out you find out that it’s over”. That was a sad statement but one that was packed with wisdom. It was a cold bucket of water of reality inside that statement. That probably turned into “we’re all here for a minute and our time is up”. There’s always a new crop of country music stars or athletes or golfers or scientists or whatever. There’s always a new group of people headed to the microphone, to the spotlight.
You’ve said that one of the most radical things you can do in Nashville these days is make country music that sounds traditional. Do you see the current threats to traditional country music as more seismic than previous ones?
Traditional country music will always remain. It will ebb and flow in popularity and awareness. The face value of country music is contemporary country music. When people jump into the whole country music scene, if that’s for you then great, we’ve got you covered. If you want to jump a little deeper and get a little more profound, traditional or authentic country music is just a little further down the hallway. Once you get inside that world, you’re going to get met by an entire cast of colourful wonderful characters who wrote great songs, sang great songs, were folk heroes.
I don’t think traditional country music will ever die. We’ll have to fight and work hard to keep it alive but you can’t do that by living in the past. You have to keep introducing new sounds, new songs. I’m inspired by the past, I lived for a long time inside the world of traditional country music and the architects who invented it. My version is ‘let’s take that knowledge and inspiration and do something new with it’.
This is your first album with Snakefarm Records. Why a European record label?
It’s simple. They were the label that first responded to it. We shopped this record around to two or three labels. Snakefarm was the label that responded. I like what Snakefarm represents. They’re adventurous. They’re kind of the pirate ship of the whole record industry out there.
You said you’ve got three albums in the can. This is one, what about the other two?
There’s a 20-song original instrumental record that I love called Space Junk. It’s a cinematic tour de force of surf and more kind of twangy guitar grooves. I love it. The other one was a project that I started during the pandemic just for something to do called Songs I Sing In The Dark. That will probably find its way out to the market place.
What do you want people to take away from this record?
I hope they see it as an authentic piece of music that came from our hearts. We’re at a point in our lives where we’ve been there and done that 40 times. When the Rolling Stones or Tom Petty or the Beatles put out a record, whoever your favourites are, you want it to be good so you can listen to it and say “they still got it and they’re still teaching us and inspiring us”. That’s all you can hope for.
Marty Stuart's 2023 album Altitude is out on Friday 19th May via Snakefarm Records.