Marty Stuart Spreads the Gospel Across a Double Album

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Marty Stuart and his first-rate band the Fabulous Superlatives are behind some of the most hard-core twang recorded in the last dozen years. It’s hardly surprising that gospel music has had as prominent a place in their repertoire as the honky-tonk numbers, considering Stuart’s made something of an academic study of both musical impulses during his four decades of onstage showmanship.

Early in their partnership, Stuart and the Superlatives devoted an entire album to gospel tunes and appeared on one of those old-fashioned Gaither Gospel package show videos. But the new double album Saturday Night & Sunday Morning is the clearest statement Stuart’s made yet about precisely what hymn singing has to do with songs that could lead to a hangover.

CMT Edge: In Americana, I most often hear performers drawing on African-American gospel traditions and less often on white country or Southern gospel. You’ve got material from all across that spectrum: “Rock Me to Sleep” and “Keep on the Firing Line” from Southern gospel, “Uncloudy Day” and grooves and vocal arrangements from the Staple Singers’ down-home brand of gospel. How important was it to get all of that in there?

Stuart: It wasn’t intentional. I simply tried to honor the songs with sonic surroundings that made sense to me, that spoke to me. … More than any other time in my life, I think I stood upon my Mississippi musical legacy and just looked at all the different musical tributaries that flowed through Mississippi and that flowed into me when I was a kid.

I went, “You know what? The blues and gospel music and country music and rock ‘n’ roll, it’s all the same thing down here. It is all fed by that same kind of spirit.” So, color disappeared. It just became about the spirit.

Back when you made the album Souls’ Chapel, I believe you used the term “Delta gospel” to describe the music.

I think that’s probably where we would fit if you were trying to find a church to put us in. The Superlatives’ home church is Pastor Evelyn [Hubbard]’s church down in the Delta, off of Highway 61 in the middle of Mississippi.

You feature Pastor Evelyn Hubbard on “Cathedral” and you’ve had her on your RFD-TV show. I searched for her church online. It looks like a fairly small, charismatic, primarily African-American church in small-town Mississippi. How’d that relationship begin?

Well, it’s a great story. You know that record I did called The Pilgrim?

Sure.

At the end of the cycle of The Pilgrim, I thought, “OK, it didn’t work commercially. I’m out of gas. I need to sit down.” … Connie and I were down in the Mississippi Delta. We played in Tunica at one of those casinos on New Year’s Eve. On the way home to Nashville, we were driving through that intense Delta darkness.

I told Connie, “It’s 15 minutes till the year 2000. It sure would be nice to find a little church, or a church of any kind, somewhere, and say, ‘Thank you God. We still need your help more than ever before.’” Then in about five minutes, I saw the lights from a little church standing alone in a cotton field.

We did a U-turn. I had no idea what denomination it was. Had no idea about anything. Walked into the church and that was Pastor Evelyn’s church. She was sittin’ at the B-3 [organ], and the first thing that hit me was that it was like Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Mavis Staples quality comin’ at me.

About 40 people, they just stood up, opened their arms and made us feel so loved. And by the end of that service, I saw the entire musical vision of the back half of my life. That’s when I came home, went to work and found the Superlatives and went from there. We still go back down there when our tank runs a little dry, and we need a little inspiration. We go and have a word of love from above with Pastor Evelyn. (laughs)

You performed with her at the Governor’s Awards in Mississippi.

That’s right. So the main thing in my mind when this record was trying to grow, I would think about us pulling into Pastor Evelyn’s church and singing gospel songs and see which ones would work. But at the same time, see which ones would work on the stage of the Opry or out in the field.

And I did the same thing in my mind with this fictitious honky-tonk that I probably invented, that lived out in the Delta or something. So I ping-ponged between the two. That’s kinda how [the album] came together.

There was a time when it was common for country singers to have the gospel section of their sets and to record a gospel album every few years. That was the way it was in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s.

But it’s still that way. I mean, we do gospel in our shows. If you go see Willie [Nelson] tonight, he does gospel music. Connie does. And there’s something that’s always been very special to me about the kinship and relationship between country music and gospel music, especially at the audience level. Because they’re basically hard working people who understand that way of life. They need hope. They need a promise.

I think the greatest rogue prophets of country music have all stood on the edge of the stage and, as you say, taken their hat off and gone, “Friends, we’d like to do you a gospel song.” And the audience goes with it every time. They love it, and they expect it.

It’s certainly something I see at the Opry or at your shows.

When I was growing up in Lester Flatt’s band, that was just a part of the evening. Same with Johnny Cash. When I was in Cash’s band, that was just standard fare.

What did you learn from the way Cash incorporated both Saturday night and Sunday morning impulses in what he put out there — his wild past and tough-talking songs alongside The Gospel Road movie and Billy Graham Crusades?

It was interesting to me. Sometimes I think if a hillbilly finally comes out of the woods and gets converted to Christianity — finally does see the light and embraces all those things that their spirit has been longing for — sometimes there’s a tendency to get overzealous. You can turn people off really fast that way.

I know that’s basically what lost him his deal on ABC-TV because he insisted upon the pure and unadulterated truth, biblical truth, from his perspective. And I think it was a bit much for, you know, Hollywood to handle. But he never let up on that. I think he probably got wiser as he went and sometimes just let his life’s work or his songs speak for themselves.

He never was a finger-pointer but sometimes he could be very bold about it. And I think it made people that bought San Quentin and Bitter Tears scratch their heads and go, “What is he doing?” … But the thing that should be remembered about Johnny Cash above all things is he truly was a man of God, I believe — I know.

A little-known fact that always gets overlooked is he was buried with a Bible in his hand. I told Connie on the way home [from the funeral], “That’s not the guy they’ll remember.” Because he wasn’t loud and crazy.

Somebody’s sold a whole lot of those T-shirts that show him flipping the bird.

Right.

When you were touring with Lester Flatt in the ‘70s and Johnny Cash in the ‘80s, did you see them resisting an overall shift away from gospel in the country mainstream?

I always thought that those two in particular actually were exempt from anybody else’s rules. When I was in Lester’s band, he recorded a gospel album and I was on that. And when I was in John’s band, I produced a gospel album on him.

John, the thing that I took away from him more than anything else was to be creatively fearless. If you believe in something, if it speaks to your heart, it doesn’t matter if anybody buys it or anybody comes. It’s your job to do it as an artist, to put your flag in the ground and stand there. That’s how I was trained and that’s what I believe. I hope other people are following their hearts as well.

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