Don't be fooled by appearances. Yes, Marty Stuart is the one with the signature big hair, looking like an inflatable coiffure. And despite his assortment of spangly-meets-down-home attire, Stuart comes to the stage as the Real McCoy.
Stuart, who hits the Ventura Theatre on Friday after playing the House of Blues tonight, is no overnight sensation riding the wave of the nouveau country-western craze--the same craze that empowered the blow-up doll, Billy Ray what's-his-name. Stuart is a fine picker and singer who has paid the proper dues, dating to his debut at the Grand Ole Opry as a 13-year-old mandolin prodigy backing Lester Flatt.
That was in 1972. He continued polishing his pedigree, working with Doc Watson, Vassar Clements and as Johnny Cash's guitarist for a six-year stint. Artists such as Emmylou Harris, Neil Young and Willie Nelson called on his picking skills in the studio.
Stuart looks back to one concert he played as a teen-ager as a turning point. He played with Flatt but on the same bill were the Eagles and the duet of Graham Parsons and Emmylou Harris.
"That was the first show I had been a part of that was that eclectic," Stuart said in a phone interview after getting off the plane from Japan, where he played the annual Country Gold Festival. "It basically revolved around the heart and soul of country music, with bluegrass edges and folk edges and rock edges, but it all had a country base.
"I went on the bus with my eyes wide open. I remember telling Lester, 'That's the kind of thing I want to be a part of, what I want to see happening.' He said 'Oh, that ain't never gonna' happen.' I knew it was a long ways down the road, but that's where I started aiming my sights. I really believe in that trail. It's something to be dealt with."
Two Stuart solo albums in the '80s failed to ignite major sparks, but all the pieces came together beginning with his 1989 debut on MCA. Circa 1995, Stuart is one of the bona fide country kingpins, having racked up enough hits to warrant a greatest hits package, "The Marty Party Hit Pack." Hearing "If I Ain't Got You," "Tempted," "Little Things" trigger depth charges of pleasant memories.
But, beyond the hits, the album also includes tracks that hint at Stuart's extra-Nashville interests. He does up the Band song "The Weight," with the Staple Singers, from the black-meets-white concept album "Rhythm, Country & Blues," and the Don Was-produced "Don't Be Cruel" from the album "It's Now or Never--The Tribute to Elvis."
"I didn't want to call it a 'greatest hits' record," Stuart explained, "because I've yet to have that song that just completely lights up the world. That's what I'm in search of. But I'm very proud of this collection of songs. I kinda feel like it's my Sun Records collection, before we move on," he said laughing. "It's that first body of work that brought you to town and got you a job out here."
In 1992, the same year he became an official member of the Grand Ole Opry, Stuart went on the self-dubbed "No Hats" tour with Travis Tritt. The hatless ones, who scored such hits as "The Whiskey Ain't Workin"' and "This One's Gonna Hurt You (For a Long, Long Time)," projected a new country attitude, which takes into account the traditional values of bluegrass and the lessons of swamp rock and country rock.
Few of Stuart's non-purist diversions have diluted his rep in Nashville, where he is currently the "Official Nashville Tourism spokesperson." And the front man glitz hasn't taken away from his focus on playing well.
Even in his guitar collection, Stuart carries pieces of his heroes' influence, playing Clarence White's 1954 Fender Telecaster, and acoustic guitars once owned by Hank Williams Sr. and Flatt.
"More than anything else, I consider myself a picker. I ain't the world's greatest singer, and I'm coming up on songwriting pretty good, but when the day is done and there's nothing else to do, I'm usually in the back of the bus with a mandolin or a guitar."
Somehow, Stuart seems to get away with it all, bowing toward the traditions of country and bluegrass legends while also roping in elements of rock 'n' roll. Still, there's no hat in sight.
"Sometimes," he said, "I wish I could go by the mall and get a cowboy hat and a Takamine guitar and be a straight-ahead singer. But there seems to be so much more that interests me."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
* WHAT: Marty Stuart.
* WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday.
* WHERE: Ventura Theatre, 26 S. Chestnut St., Ventura.
* HOW MUCH: $26.50.
* PHONE: 648-1888.
* FYI: Jimmy Adams opens the show.