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Marty Stuart of the Fabulous Superlatives on their new album 'Altitude'


For millions, Marty Stuart is the very image of country music - splendid jackets, big hair, musical mastery and his respect for country's traditions and a good jolt of humor, often at his own expense.


MARTY STUART: (Singing) I was raised by alligators in the pearl river swamp. Started out dancing on a boogie woogie stump. Stump fell in, went to the bottom. Fish said boys, smoke em' if you got em'. Ain't that strange? It's a mystery.

SIMON: That's Marty Stuart. He started his career at the age of 12. Now, five decades later, Marty Stuart has won Grammys. He's in the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame.


STUART: (Singing) All I need is a motor in my car. Crank it up, hit the road, be a country star.

SIMON: He and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, have just released "Altitude." It's their first new album in six years. Marty Stuart joins us. Thank you so much for being with us. So great to have you.

STUART: My pleasure, Scott Simon.

SIMON: I got to clarify something for the NPR audience. You actually were not raised by alligators in the pearl river swamp, right?

STUART: (Laughter) well, maybe that might be a stretch.

SIMON: How did you begin to perform at the age of 12?

STUART: I think I was a natural-born ham. I wanted on a stage. Just anything to do with a bright light and a stage, I wanted to be a part of it. I started my first band when I was 9. And what was happening in that part of the country is that the music I was hearing was mostly music of the British invasion, you know, by local pickers and local bands. But nobody seemed to be playing country music. And me and my little neighborhood band - we took off and started playing country music. And that was, I felt like, the noble thing to do. And it felt good to my heart.

SIMON: Yeah. How did Lester Flatts come into your life?

STUART: The first two records I ever owned in my life was "The Fabulous Johnny Cash" and "Flatt & Scruggs' Greatest Hits." And oddly enough, the only two jobs I ever had as a working musician was with Johnny Cash and Lester Flatt.

SIMON: (Laughter).

STUART: Lester I met when I was 12 years old on the bluegrass festival circuit, just as a fan. And he had a fellow that played in his band named Roland White, who invited me to come and just ride along with the band for a weekend, which I did - begged my parents to let me go do.


STUART: Labor Day weekend 1972. Over the course of the weekend, Lester heard me play and offered me a job in his band.


STUART: (Singing) Sparkles like a diamond when the sun goes down. Nighttime is the right time in this desert town. Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, Vegas.

SIMON: Judging by the lyrics on this album and maybe some others, you seem to write a lot on the road. I wonder if being on the road helps you look back at other places with a special kind of understanding.

STUART: The road is my office. And riding through America, one of the greatest analogies I ever heard came from Pete Seeger. I met Pete Seeger at Jazz Fest in New Orleans probably in 1978 or '79. Had a wonderful conversation with him, and I was determined not to bug him about Woody Guthrie. But I had to ask one question. And I asked him about Woody, and Pete gave me the most beautiful answer. He said Woody was like a traveling correspondent that rode on a boxcar through the world and looking to the right and looking to the left and reporting on the human condition. I thought that was a very eloquent answer. A nice way to live a musical life is to report on what you see. That's a troubadour's job.


STUART: (Singing) Two hundred miles of blacktop, a thousand high-line poles. In a dusty old ranchero, yeah, I'm on a roll.

SIMON: Do you think country music gives voice to people - well, of all kinds - but particularly people whose stories need to be heard?

STUART: When it does its job properly. There's a lot of different denominations of country music. There's a lot of different tributaries of country music. It was kind of designed all the way back at the very beginning of the downbeat of the commercial country industry, back in, you know, July of 1927, when Ralph Peer discovered and recorded the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers and Pop Stoneman. They're called the Bristol Sessions, the Big Bang as it was called. The country music industry took flight right there. And country music was designed for gospel songs and bluegrass songs and pop songs and honky-tonk songs, just songs of life. But as time has gone on, country music is a big pop star now. It's a global entity. But down at the heart and soul, you'll find songs that speak the stories. And that is my favorite kind of country music, the songs that tell the stories.


STUART: (Singing) Do you get tired of being told the facts when you know they're not real? Do you get a little mad when somebody you don't know tells you how you're supposed to feel? Do you know about the world wearing you down, and you still get left behind? If you know what I'm talking about, you're a friend of mine.

SIMON: Tell us about the song, "Friend Of Mine." I got to tell you, that song really hit me in the solar plexus because one thing I worry about in the job we do here in broadcast journalism was your lyric, do you get a little mad when somebody you don't know tells you how you're supposed to feel?

STUART: I think in such an age of social media, everybody has an opinion. And it's confusing to know where, you know, the center of the line is sometimes. But "A Friend Of Mine" goes back to what you just said previously about telling everybody's stories. I read a beautiful quote by Aretha Franklin one time. She said, when I sing a new song, I close my eyes and stick out my hand and hope somebody takes it. And I think "Friend Of Mine" is the series of questions to the audience. Do you relate to this? Do you understand what I'm saying here? Well, if you do, you know, we're on the same page here. It's basic humanity.


SIMON: I understand you are a devoted collector of country music memorabilia.

STUART: Oh, and have the insurance bill to prove it.

SIMON: (Laughter). Well, what have you got, may I ask?

STUART: There's about 20,000 pieces in the collection. Right off the top of my head, Johnny Cash's first black performance suit, the boots Patsy Cline was wearing when she lost her life, on and on and on.

SIMON: Is there anything you really hanker to get hold of but haven't been able to find?

STUART: Honestly, the last thing I was looking for was an autographed 8x10 picture of Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music. And it eluded me for years and years and years. And last year, a friend of mine bought a Jimmie Rodgers fan scrapbook, and it had two 8x10 autographed pictures of Jimmie Rodgers, along with his business card, personal photographs from the family. So I got my wish, and I couldn't believe it. But I was proud to get that.


SIMON: Tell us about your song "Altitude."

STUART: I went around running my mouth that the most outlaw thing you can do in Nashville, Tenn., these days is to play country music.

SIMON: (Laughter).

STUART: And so "Altitude" came along. And I thought, well, this is a job for a steel guitar and twin fiddles and put it back in the framework of the classic country sound. And so I kind of did that just to back up my smart mouth.


STUART: (Singing) Altitude. Altitude. Ten million miles high, light years off the ground.

SIMON: Is it good to be back on the road?

STUART: I can tell you, Scott, when we finally got to go back to work and I walked out there at soundcheck and the bleachers then, you know, was empty, but the crew was there and everybody was just kind of tiptoeing back into the water - and I remember looking at those bleachers going, I will never take this for granted again as long as I live. And I haven't. I haven't.


STUART: (Singing) I waited a lifetime to get to go and see.

SIMON: The great Marty Stuart. His new album with the Fabulous Superlatives is "Altitude." Thank you so much for being with us.

STUART: My honor. Thank you for having me on your show.


STUART: (Singing) The land beyond the sun known as altitude. Altitude. You get to go and stay, must give all your love away. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.