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Why Marty Stuart Is the Heart and Soul of True Country Music

(Image credit: Erika Goldring/Getty Images)

Country music legend Marty Stuart will release his 18th studio album, Way Out West, on March 10. The disc was recorded in California and produced by Stuart and longtime Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell.

Its cover artwork and promotional materials show Stuart and his Nudie-suit-clad band, the Fabulous Superlatives, standing amid Joshua trees in the California high desert—just as Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman and the rest of the Flying Burrito Brothers did in early 1969.

But if anyone is qualified to make the reference, it's Stuart.

Although he's only 58, he's as valuable to the country music world as the 80-year-old Buddy Guy is to blues or the 73-year-old Keith Richards is to rock and roll.

He's a walking, talking link to country music's upstart past—not only in terms of his vintage-country cred, which is impressive, but because he's one of a handful of major artists that are working hard to keep country music sounding like, well, country music. In Stuart's rootsy, gritty brand of country, the roots aren't just showing on the surface; they go down for miles and miles, tapping into a rarified, secret spring.

Stuart has recorded, performed or worked with—in some professional capacity—Johnny Cash, Lester Flatt, Doc Watson, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Porter Wagoner, Ralph Mooney, Roland White, Emmylou Harris, Duane Eddy, Vassar Clements, Roger McGuinn, Herb Pedersen, Carl Perkins and many others. His TV show, The Marty Stuart Show, is a thriving throwback to The Porter Wagoner Show that spotlights traditional country music, performers and aesthetics.

Stuart, who performed with the Hee-Haw band as a teenager in the early days of the show, also is a collector of pretty much anything to do with country music's bygone past—especially guitars.

“The old-timers were kind of disregarded and put out to pasture,” Stuart told Guitar Aficionado in 2014. “Their costumes, manuscripts, instruments and all things pertaining to the old world of country music were being forgotten. The guitars at the time were either going to George Gruhn’s [guitar shop in Nashville] or they’d get traded in pawnshops around town. Japanese collectors would come to Nashville and buy up country culture. It seemed like the family jewels were getting away.”

One of his most prized possessions is Clarence White's sunburst 1954 Fender Telecaster—the same guitar White played on his groundbreaking recordings with the Byrds in the late Sixties and early Seventies (not to mention recordings by Arlo Guthrie, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Everly Brothers and a host of other artists). The guitar is equipped with one of the earliest Parsons/White B-string benders, which was installed by White and his Byrds bandmate Gene Parsons, who designed and built it.

But Stuart doesn't just own the guitar; he plays the hell out of it, truly doing justice to the legendary instrument. He brings a sound—a sound that could've perished along with White in 1973—roaring into 2017. You can hear it, in all its wiry, bendy glory, on Way Out West. Just check out "Whole Lotta Highway (With a Million Miles to Go)" below. You hear it in the song's intro, but it (and Stuart) really shines at 1:21, when the guitar solo kicks in.

“It’s an indescribable guitar,” Stuart said. “You could put a hundred Telecasters in a row, and when you plug this guitar in, it just has a voice all its own. It is absolutely one of the most magical guitars I've ever played.”

White's widow essentially gave the guitar to Stuart several decades ago (the price was so low, she did indeed practically "give it away"). It's as if she donated a part of White—just as a grieving family would donate a heart or another precious organ—to someone who could make the best possible use of it. As a result, Clarence White's "heart" still beats loud and clear today.

Be sure to check out "Whole Lotta Highway" (above) and the album's title track (at the bottom of this story)—and stay tuned for more information about Way Out West, which promises to be one hell of a guitar album (Let us not forget that Telecaster master Kenny Vaughan is a key member of the Fabulous Superlatives).

Since we're on the topic, check out this "reunion" of sorts. It's a recent performance of Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Going Nowhere" by Stuart, the Fabulous Superlatives and Roger McGuinn, who sang the Byrds' version of the song on 1968's Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

Although White didn't play on the original studio recording (that was Lloyd Green on pedal steel guitar), he performed the song with the Byrds countless times before his departure from the band in late 1972. This clip, which shows McGuinn on the same stage as White's guitar for the first time in years, is from an episode of The Marty Stuart Show. Enjoy!

Way Out West
Track List:

1. "Desert Prayer - Part 1"
2. "Mojave"
3. "Lost on the Desert"
4. "Way Out West"
5. "El Fantasma del Toro"
6. "Old Mexico"
7. "Time Don't Wait"
8. "Quicksand"
9. "Air Mail Special"
10. "Torpedo"
11. "Please Don't Say Goodbye"
12. "Whole Lotta Highway (With a Million Miles to Go)"
13. "Desert Prayer - Part 2"
14. "Wait for the Morning"
15. "Way Out West (Reprise)"

Damian Fanelli is the online managing editor at Guitar World. His New York-based band, the Blue Meanies, has toured the world and elsewhere. He writes's The Next Bend column, which is dedicated to B-bender guitars and guitarists. His latest liner notes can be found in Sony/Legacy's Stevie Ray Vaughan: The Complete Epic Recordings Collection. Follow him on Facebook,Twitter and/or Instagram.

Damian Fanelli

Damian is editor-in-chief of Guitar World magazine. From 1998 to 2014, he was one third of Mister Neutron, an instrumental rock act that toured the universe and elsewhere and released three albums via Austin-based Deep Eddy Records. These days he performs with several New York City-area bands and can often be spotted with one of his many, many, many B-bender-equipped guitars. In past lives he was GW’s managing editor and online managing editor – and he still can’t believe he got to write the liner notes for the latest SRV box set.