There’s only two people in the music world that Marty Stuart will never, ever give up on: Bob Dylan and … Johnny Cash.
The rising country star treasures Dylan for his lyrical poetry. And Cash – well, he’s timeless.
Stuart would know. After eight years as Lester Flatt’s mandolin player, a stint that began when he was only 13, he joined Cash’s band and performed alongside his longtime idol. He even married one of his daughters, Cindy. They divorced in 1987, but that didn’t alter his affinity for the Man in Black.
“The current wave of country music, as popular, as hot and as trendy as we are, there was one that came before us,” Stuart says, “and that was Johnny Cash. He was the first person to pull Bob Dylan, the Mamas & the Papas, Louis Armstrong, so many different people together on his old TV show.
“Johnny Cash, when he’s right, he’s the best arbitrator to the human spirit and the voice of the common man that I know. He’s not some clay statue that pigeons light on at this point. He’s very much alive and has a great point of view.”
That ring of sincerity would make even Cash blush.
Perhaps the most enduring figure in country music history, Cash returns April 26 with a stripped-to-the-bones acoustic album titled “American Recordings,” named after his new label. It was produced by label head Rick Rubin and features versions of songs by Kris Kristofferson, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Nick Lowe, Loudon Wainwright III and – oddly enough – Glenn Danzig.
“This is like a new life for me,” Cash says with a new gleam in his eye. “I’m very fortunate to have this experience. I wish every artist could experience what I’ve done.
“If the album sells only one or two copies, it doesn’t matter. This is a new lease on life.”
Cash singles out Rubin for allowing him a rare form of artistic freedom. It conjures up memories of his days with Sun Records in the ’50s, when he would weave his trademark stories around simple songs in uncompromising fashion.
“It’s the same kind of freedom I got from Sam Phil lips at Sun,” Cash says. “I would play him my songs and he’d say, ‘What else you got?’ I would come in with 70 songs and he’d inspire me to write more.
“I always dreamed of recording those simple songs again. Now I’m rediscovering a world of music that was my roots: black blues.”
Like Cash, Stuart is the toast of Music Row. He has a hit album, “Love and Luck” (MCA), and a hit single and video, “Kiss Me, I’m Gone.” He’s making the rounds of state-fair appearances. He’s a member of the Grand Ole Opry and is Nashville’s international ambassador of tourism.
His fan club is 7,000-members strong, and yet he’s not inside of America’s mind as deep as he wants to be.
“Believe me, there’s a whole new level out there and we’re just at the front door,” Stuart says, “but as you know, it’s been a hard sell through the years. Only just now is it beginning to pay off.”
Nashville’s a traditional town, he says, and after he left Cash’s band in the early ’80s, Stuart says he was destined to do something bold and brash: combining bluegrass with rock ‘n’ roll.
It took several years to get noticed by the media and eventually the fans, but now the Grammy winner is so swamped with work, his head is spinning.
“I try to take at least one day a week and give myself 30 minutes worth of quality time for me,” Stuart says, with a sheepish laugh. “I guess I’m one of those people who runs as hard as they can and hits the wall, melts and takes three or four days off and does it again. I try to pace myself, but I don’t think I’ve ever really learned that.”
Stuart’s idea of peaceful bliss is basic as his down-home music.
“Unplugging the phone, first off,” he says. “I live on a river bank, so sitting on the backporch with my feet in the air and petting my dog are the simple pleasures in life.”
BWF (before we forget): “American Recordings” charted for several months in the summer of 1994, Cash’s first chart appearance since his 1990 collaboration with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson on “Highwayman 2.” … Doctors told Cash in 1997 that he had Parkinson’s disease. It forced him to stop touring in October.