Not just anyone could've gotten Hank III — stubborn individualist of a famous bloodline — to perform a Hank Sr. recitation, first for a television show, then an album. But Marty Stuart did. Their duet version of "Pictures From Life's Other Side" is the final track on his new album, Nashville, Volume 1: Tear the Woodpile Down.
"Shelton is a brilliant man," says Stuart, using the third-generation Williams' given name. "I knew that that side of him is one that has been, you know, pressed upon him: 'You go down grandpa alley.' And I didn't want to be one of the guilty ones for that. But I simply asked him if he would even consider coming to do a Hank song on [The Marty Stuart Show]. He was in the mood to do it. So he came out to the warehouse to rehearse with me, and I showed him one of his grandpa's old suits. ... He just peeled off in the middle of the office and put it on, and it fit! He showed up on that TV show and came around the corner, and everybody just lost their breath.
"When the record came around, I said, 'Shelton, that was so good. As a personal favor to me, would you mind doing it again?' And he graciously showed up and did it again. I know he don't do it much. He probably doesn't even like to do it much. But he did it for me, and I love it."
The warehouse of which Stuart speaks is home to an impressive collection of country music memorabilia he's been amassing his entire music-making life — artifacts of such historical value he's loaned them to museums. Then there's his photography — decades of country and bluegrass portraits taken behind the scenes where only an insider could go, a selection of them published in his book Country Music: The Masters a few years back.
The remarkable thing is, Stuart strikes an outsider stance even as he conserves the genre's past; he's about the best, smartest and most stylish there is at lacing reverence with rebellion. Today, the Mississippi native's mainstream success with hard-partying country is too distant for him to get airplay, but still too recent for albums like 1989's Hillbilly Rock to be lifted up as venerable documents, as tends to happen when country hits get a little dust on them. In 2003, Stuart capped his commercial run with one final attempt — an album simply titled Country Music — and he's really never looked back. "I like the record," he says, "but at the same time I thought, 'You've gotta be one thing or another here, because radio is done with you until further notice.' "
Since then, Stuart's blazed an alternative trail for 21st century traditional country by reviving long-discarded institutions like barn dances (his small town-centric Electric Barnyard Tour with Merle Haggard) all-night sing-alongs (his annual Late Night Jam) and down-home variety shows (his Saturday night slot on RFD-TV). Most importantly, he's done all that and more with Nashville's most envied country band, The Fabulous Superlatives, by his side. So far, they've been together for a decade. "That's 30 years in real-people time," says Stuart.
There's no end to the praise Stuart has for guitarist-with-a-punk-past Kenny Vaughan, drummer Harry Stinson and bassist Paul Martin, all of whom can sing lead and harmonize. "The thing is," says the frontman of his band's collective talents, "you can aim it 40 other directions, from AC/DC to deep jazz or to world music, and they can go down those trails and never bat an eye."
Stuart's latest — which arrives precisely 40 years after his first visit to Nashville, and 30 years after his initial album for Sugar Hill, his label home once again — showcases the personalities of the players, an anomaly in current star-vehicle country recording. Plus, the tracks sound spiky and vivid, rather than compressed into sleek, dense, three-minute blocks, and the taut, twangy licks bring no shortage of freewheeling energy to the proceedings.
There's the subject matter, too. Amid the heartbroken honky-tonk blues numbers, Stuart keeps an eye out for the sort of disenfranchised souls Johnny Cash used to sing about — on this occasion, one of them being a long-haul truck driver. In another forward-to-the-past twist, the Connie who makes an appearance in "Truck Drivers' Blues" — and to whom he's married — is none other than Connie Smith, member of the Country Music Hall of Fame's Class of 2012.
Stuart the institutional historian and DIY showman has settled on his mission statement, and he repeats it at the close of Woodpile's liner notes: "Today the most outlaw thing you can possibly do in Nashville, Tenn., is play country music." This comes several pages after the black-and-white cover image of him, in his dark Western suit, simultaneously raising a guitar and toying with a tiger cub, with a cross, a flag and a hay bale for a backdrop.
And so, seeing as how he's something of an outlaw, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Stuart can also appreciate the hillbilly-thrash side of Hank III. "They can bring Assjack next time," he laughs.