Who says you can’t go home again? Marty Stuart did just that, revisiting his musical roots as well as the studio where he recorded his very first session, on Ghost Train (The Studio B Sessions). The album reunites Stuart with Sugar Hill Records, which released his acclaimed 1982 solo debut album Busy Bee Café.
“They feel like old friends,” Stuart said of the songs on the new album. “These songs came at me and I said, ‘Whoa, you could have been here 40 years — but you’re here right now.”
Over the past decade, Stuart has paid homage to Delta gospel (Souls’ Chapel in 2005), tapped into Native American traditions (Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota, also in 2005), indulged his passion for bluegrass (Live at the Ryman, 2006) and celebrated the art of collaboration (Compadres: An Anthology of Duets, 2007).
That diversity reflected well on Stuart’s insights into multiple strains of American music, yet it also led him to feel that the time was nearing to bring it all back home. “I feel like I was an honored guest in everybody else’s world except I didn’t have anywhere to drive my sword in Country Music,” Stuart said.
Busy Bee Café became the target for that creative thrust. By any measure, it was a memorable debut, not only in the depth of its music but also in the caliber of the band, recruited by the young Stuart at the last minute. Immediately after being notified that the record label had green-lighted the album, Stuart remembered, “I hung up the phone and went, ‘I don’t have a band!’ So I called Doc and Merle Watson, Earl Scruggs and Johnny Cash and Carl Jackson — and that was my band.”
A number of other projects also encouraged Stuart to revisit his Country antecedents, including hosting “The Marty Stuart Show” on RFD-TV, opening his exhibit “Sparkle & Twang: Marty Stuart’s American Musical Odyssey” at the Tennessee State Museum, publishing his photo book Country Music: The Masters and producing two albums rich with tradition, Porter Wagoner’s Wagonmaster to honor Wagoner's 50th anniversary as a member of the Grand Ole Opry and Coal, featuring performances of old mining songs by Kathy Mattea.
“All of these things led up to this moment,” Stuart observed. “I had been writing on this record since 2003. This record is lived through and I needed a place to record it. Studio B seemed to be the place because it’s so much a part of Country Music’s legacy. I needed to go back there and take these songs and my band. It’s not about the past. It really isn’t. It’s about writing a brand new chapter for this millennium for traditional Country Music that’s authentic.”
RCA Studio B was the site of countless historic sessions by Eddy Arnold, Chet Atkins, Elvis Presley and many other giants. Because of that legacy, special considerations come into play for any artist who wants to track there. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the Curb Family Foundation administer the studio primarily for educational purposes, which include audio engineering courses offered by Belmont University as well as public programs. Stuart’s vision, though, more than qualified to earn him time on the session calendar.
“The project must have a historic connection to RCA Studio B,” explained Luke Gilfeather, Manager, Historic RCA Studio B. “For instance, the Elvis Christmas Duets project (released in 2008 by RCA Records Nashville) used tracks that were recorded here 50 years ago and used some of the original musicians. Marty’s connection was that his first recording sessions were done here and his (new) project contained performances by Connie Smith, who recorded many of her hits here.”
“I was scared to death,” Stuart said, recalling his first time in that studio at age 13, as mandolin player in Lester Flatt’s band. “He looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you handle the kickoff on this one (i.e., set the tempo with an opening lick)?’ I went to the engineer and said, ‘How do you handle a kickoff?’ I had no idea what he was telling me to do. But I was excited, and I knew I was at an important place with an important man, with an important band and with an important producer. I felt at home, but I felt a bit awestruck as well.”
There was also a practical reason to book Studio B for his 14th studio album, Ghost Train (The Studio B Sessions). “I just had this feeling that if we could get in there and throw one note of music at the wall, it would be like dropping a match on dry wood and it would take off,” Stuart said. “That’s exactly what happened. That room welcomed our music. It played its part and it inspired. It is a cathedral, and it’s a majestic place in my heart. To get to go back there and restage traditional Country Music really was beyond belief. It was wonderful.”
In creating an album that was classic in feel yet contemporary in sound and sensibilities, Stuart leaned heavily on engineer Mick Conley. “Someone that really needs to be applauded on this record is Mick Conley,” said Stuart. “Mick mixes our live concerts, and he records and mixes my television show. We made a couple of trips to Studio B to study the room. We listened to recordings to get kind of what we were up against, but at the same time we knew we had to balance. It had to be a contemporary sound. The main thing is, we had to be true to the song. We had to take some gear in there and some microphones, but we used the house stuff too. We found the best of both worlds. We found the best of what makes records today and the best of what made records sound the way Studio B sounded. So it was an educational project as well as just a recording project.”
Vintage instruments are the rule for Stuart and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives: guitarist and singer Kenny Vaughan, bassist and singer Paul Martin and drummer Harry Stinson. “Even though Paul uses a new Fender Bassman TV amp, it was designed to have that classic sound,” said Conley. “By using old instruments and recording equipment, you get closer to the sound we love on those great recordings from Studio B.”
Newer recording techniques sequester musicians into separate booths, but the good old days in Studio B were much different. “Recording everything in its own booth has its advantages if you need to fix something, but Studio B recordings were made with everyone in the same room,” said Conley. “If someone made a mistake you had to record the song again. That is the way we made Ghost Train. Marty and the Superlatives played each song two or three times and that was it. With players and singers of this level, it doesn't take long to get a great performance. As I see it, my job was to capture the energy of what was played and sung those few days at Studio B in a true and honest way.”
Eleven of the album’s 14 songs were written by Stuart, either on his own or with partners that include his wife Connie Smith, with whom he duets on the sentimental “Run to You” and Johnny Cash, with whom he finished the stark, fatalistic “Hangman” just four days before the Country Music Hall of Fame member’s death in 2003. Other highlights include a brief but sweetly swinging instrumental cover of Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms” featuring Ralph Mooney, who co-wrote the song with Charles Seals, on steel guitar, and a haunting, affectionate tribute written by Stuart, “Porter Wagoner’s Grave,” complete with allegorical lyric and recitation very much in the style and spirit of his late, great friend.
His plans were originally to issue Ghost Train (The Studio B Sessions) through his own Superlatone Records. In the end, though, he decided to tap Sugar Hill Records to handle the release. “I like the records they’ve made over the past decade,” he explained. “Integrity is their watchword. I like what they did with Dolly (Parton). There just seems to be a common vision there with what I’m up to at the moment, and it was kind of fun because one of the first records I ever did was with Sugar Hill,” referring to Busy Bee Café.
“To have Marty back at Sugar Hill feels like the most natural thing in the world,” said Gary Paczosa, VP of A&R, Sugar Hill Records. “After almost 30 years, Marty still represents everything that Sugar Hill stands for as a label — the highest-quality American roots music. When we first heard Ghost Train, we were floored. It’s everything that’s good about Country Music — lyrics, musicianship and a real Country soul.”
Though Stuart is happy to play an ongoing role in keeping traditional Country Music alive, he also respects and enjoys more contemporary trends. “I love what Keith Urban is doing,” he said. “I love what so many of these young ones are doing out there. We need that. It drives us into the mainstream of pop culture. But where that gets the heart and soul is at the other end of the dirt road. That’s all true Country Music. That’s where God gave us our birthright and empowered us. It’s the sustaining force of Country Music. That’s where I feel at home, and until further notice, that’s where I’m going to be.”
On the Web: www.MartyStuart.net