Marty Stuart reflects on his historic musical career

Throughout his career, Marty Stuart has maintained a front row seat to the evolution of country music. The hit recording star, multi-instrumentalist and record producer made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry stage in 1972, when he was 13. It’s not surprising that the five-time Grammy winner, who is also a country music archivist and professional photographer appears prominently in the recent Ken Burns’ “Country Music” PBS documentary.

Stuart’s passion and sheer love for the music he personifies continues to this very day. One of his current projects is developing a country music museum, performance space and educational facility in his hometown of Philadelphia, Miss. Another is the reissuing of “The Pilgrim,” a landmark recording he made in 1999, which now includes 10 never-before-released tracks.

And the road has always played a big part in the songwriter’s nearly five-decade career. He toured with bluegrass legend Lester Flatt in the ’70s and another six years with the great Johnny Cash, in his band in the ’80s, followed by his chart-topping success as a solo artist. Stuart’s unending travels take him into Ridgefield on Nov. 21, when he and his band the Fabulous Superlatives perform at the Ridgefield Playhouse.

The country superstar took time out recently to talk about his career, his projects, and country music in general.

Mike Horyczun: It’s unbelievable that you started performing professionally at such a young age. Do you think you should have waited a little bit longer?

Marty Stuart: I would have started 10 years earlier, if I could. I would have quit school the day after I started kindergarten, had it been left up to me, and gone to play the guitar somewhere. I couldn’t wait to be a part of that tribe of people that I watched on TV, who wore cool clothes and sang story songs. That’s what I wanted to be, and that’s what I wanted to do. So that’s what I’m doing now, and nothing is different today than it was when I was nine years old.

MH: What is it about country music that is so special and inspirational to you? Can you put it into words?

MS: Well, I think it’s the stories and the instrumental sounds that go with it. My wife Connie Smith calls country music, ‘the cry of the heart.’ And I think that’s something we all relate to somewhere along the way.

MH:What was it like playing with Johnny Cash in his band? That must have been a special experience.

MS: It’s probably like the equivalent of going to Harvard or Yale or one of those Ivy League schools. It was the Ivy League version of Country Music University. And there was just such a wisdom there, such a ‘been there, done that’ profound quality to him.

MH: Can you talk about the Congress of Country Music project that you’re developing in Philadelphia, Miss., your hometown?

MS: I call it my Hillbilly Presidential Library. In the state of Mississippi, when you drive across the state line, it says birthplace of America’s music, and it can be backed up. The spiritual home of rock ‘n’ roll in the state of Mississippi is represented at the Elvis Presley birthplace in Tupelo. I would say the spiritual home of the blues is at the BB King Delta Museum over in Indianola, Miss. Jimmy Rogers has got a mom and pop museum that has been there for many, many years. And my place is going to be called the Congress of Country Music, and it will be the spiritual home of country music in Mississippi. There will be entertainment, because we have the old movie theater, which is being renovated as we speak. There will be a gathering hall along side, plus an exhibit and educational space. It’s a life sentence, but it’s a beautiful project.

MH: I’m curious to know which artists you wanted to see in concert but didn’t get the chance?

MS: Well, I would have loved to have seen Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. It would have been great to have seen the Beatles, and I would have loved to have seen Jimi Hendrix play one time.

MH: What inspired you to go back to your 1999 album “The Pilgrim,” and bring it into the present tense?

MS: “The Pilgrim” was a record that meant a lot to me, because in the ’90s, country music, the industry, experienced an unprecedented growth. We all started putting more buses on the road, more trucks. We kept playing louder. And the sincere form of country music just started getting lost. And then one day, we’re doing this concert, and I looked around, and I went, ‘Man, I don’t like the way I sound. I don’t like how this music makes me feel. It’s just product. It’s not soulful anymore.’ And so I drew a line in the dirt and made this record. And I knew if it didn’t work, I’d probably lose my record deal and my band and my manager and all those things, which I did. When the record came out, it was a critical success, a grand slam, critical victory, and it was a spiritual success. But the record company just let it fall away and didn’t do anything with it. But I always knew this record would have its day in the sun once again. So I watched it and thought, ‘Twenty years down the line, we’re going to put this back out and see how it does.’ And so we added nine extra tracks, and there’s a book written around it. And I couldn’t be happier. I just feel like ‘The Pilgrim’ is getting a fair shake for the first time. It’s almost like a new record.