It began when a neighbour gave him an old cowboy guitar.
By Grade 3 country music icon Marty Stuart was practising signing autographs and devising a plan to start his own band.
His first band didn’t have a name, but he was only nine.
Sponsored by insurance company, Woodmen of the World, Stuart’s second band formed when he was 11 and was called The Musical Rangers.
“I can never remember a time when I wasn’t moved by music,” says the singer/songwriter/guitarist and mandolin player, his drawl flavoured by the Deep South. “Grandpa Stuart was an old-time Mississippi fiddle player, my dad loved gospel, bluegrass and string band and my mother loved southern gospel and contemporary country of the ‘60s.”
Born in Louisiana, Stuart describes the local radio station of the day as “1,000 watts of pure pleasure,” with farm reports and country music in the morning, an hour of gospel at noon, followed by rock ‘n’ roll and top 40. Late afternoon was soul before ending the day with easy listening.
He calls the blend a reflection of how Mississippi is and while traditional country captured his soul, all other genres are relevant to him.
The easy marriage between country and gospel is something he attributes to the fact most country singers start their public singing and playing in church.
As well, he says both genres reflect the values of the South of old, with gospel and traditional country attracting the same audience.
Stuart was 12 when he began performing with a bluegrass group called The Sullivan Family and just 14 when a member of Lester Flatt’s band invited him to play in a Labour Day gig.
Stuart became a permanent member of the band, remaining with it for six years until Flatt broke it up in 1978 due to failing health.
He remembers with deep affection the days of playing at festivals that were primarily bluegrass. It was a time, he says, when Woodstock type festivals had garnered a bad name and serious music lovers turned to bluegrass.
“We played lots of festivals and I loved it; you never knew who were gonna see, who you were gonna play with,” he says, recalling the easy camaraderie and fellowship. “When people got off the stage, they became parking lot pickers and I learned a lot. It was almost a masters thesis class.”
Stuart has toured with Johnny Cash and played with other legends such as Bill Monroe, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.
The five-time Grammy-winner faced his share of career challenges but persevered with dogged determination.
“I have a deep belief this is what I am supposed to be doing and I would think, ‘no we don’t have it now, but we will,’” he says, referring to the Nashville saying that “it all begins with a song.” “The written word is a powerful thing and it keeps me going back to the well.”
By the late 1980s, Stuart was a fast-rising star, playing to full houses, producing platinum recordings and winning Grammys.
But for Stuart, the magic was gone, notes his official biography. So he vowed to “get back to the music I’ve always loved the most, and let my heart be the chart.”
Stuart’s heart took him to the recording of The Pilgrim, despite a caution from Johnny Cash that he was “stepping up for rejection.”
The album won critical acclaim and gave Stuart back a large piece of his heart.
Ready to share the new musical road with others, Stuart recruited Kenny Vaughan, Harry Stinson and Paul Martin and began performing as Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives.
“They’re the best band going – they live up to the name,” says Stuart, who is considered to be a keeper of country music’s cowboy couture. “They are truly masterful musicians, but they’re masterful human beings too.”
Along with his deep music creds, Stuart is a photographer and historian, who sees magic everywhere – from books, music, photography, architecture – all things that preserve culture.
“I feel like a kid who’s been given a great big box of crayons,” he says.
Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives close the Roots and Blues Main Stage Saturday night.
*** BRING ON THE HEAT***
The legendary sizzle remains and so do their views on the establishment and environment.
One of the hottest protest bands of the 1960s, Canned Heat is Going up the Country to the Roots and Blues Festival. And they’re bringing their fiery brand of boogie blues with them.
Led from the back by iconic drummer and guardian-of-the-flame, Adolfo “Fito” de La Parra, the rhythm section is given further pedigree by ‘60s bassist Larry “The Mole” Taylor. On lead vocals and harp, it’s New Orleans legend Dale Spalding, while John “JP” Paulus covers guitar duties for Woodstock-era band member Harvey “The Snake” Mandel (as he recovers from recent health issues).
The band scored three worldwide hits with On the Road Again, Let’s Work Together and Going up the Country, tunes that became rock anthems and were later adopted as the unofficial theme song for Woodstock, the film.
“We’re getting great reactions, which is amazing because I never thought I’d still be playing at this age,” says de la Parra whose book Living the Blues is a no-holds-barred chronicle of the band’s wild days – and ways.
Old jazz blues and country fans, Alan Wilson and Bob Hite started Canned Heat in 1965, taking the name from Canned Heat Blues, a 1928 song referring to Sterno and its jellied alcohol that burns in its own small can and was used for cooking on camping trips.
“During prohibition, when booze was illegal, many poor southern blacks bought the cheap canned fuel, dumped the jelly in a sock and wrung the alcohol from it,” writes de la Parra in his book. “The alcohol was mixed with pop and the poisonous concoction could ‘put the drinker away’ for hours, make them go blind or kill them.
“That was a risk they often knew they were taking, making it the drink of the desperate,” writes de la Parra. “If you had to turn to canned heat for relief, you were deep in the blues.”
Being a voice for the poor and disenfranchised has always been at the heart of the band.
De la Parra says the band, which played to 400,000 young people in 1969, in the three days of “peace and music” that was Woodstock, has always been pro-justice, keeping all the ideals expressed in the anti-war, anti-establishment 1960s – often landing Canned Heat into hot water.
“A lot of people betrayed those ideals and became even more conservative than their parents,” he says, pointing out Canned Heat’s new CD, Revolution, as a compilation of the anti-establishment songs the band has recorded throughout the past 50 years.
De la Parra maintains Canned Heat was the first to join the environmental movement, before Greenpeace and other groups became popular.
“That’s what (1970 album) Future Blues was about,” says de la Parra, noting the album cover shows men on the moon, holding an upside-down American flag, signifying how the earth was already becoming polluted at the hands of powerful corporations. “When we were doing it, a lone blues band, being an environmentalist was akin to being a communist.”
The only signs the boogie blues band is slowing down is in the nightmare that travel has become, laughs de la Parra, noting it is one of the reasons the world-wide travellers like to come to Canada.
“As a rule, whenever I come to Canada, I find it more peaceful, more relaxed,” he says.
On-stage, the energy has never flagged.
“We play for free, but what we charge for is to get there,” he says. “The best part of being on the road is the hour on stage when we are in communion with people, making them feel good. It’s a wonderful experience.”
De la Parra has a theory that, unlike athletes who reach an age when they can no longer compete, musicians, like fine wine, just keep getting better. And while pop culture sells youth and good looks, roots and blues musicians become more interesting.
Grateful for the large audiences the band commands, de la Parra is also thrilled that many young Canned Heat fans are enjoying the vibe.
“I shake a lot of hands under 30 years old; many have older sisters and brothers who know us,” he says, amazed that in many audiences, some 30 to 40 per cent were not even alive when the band was born.
Catch the hot boogie blues when Canned Heat performs Saturday at 6 p.m. on the main stage, Sunday at 2:45 and 4:15 on the Blues Stage and 8 p.m. at the Boogie Bar’N.
Tickets for Roots and Blues are available at www.rootsandblues.ca, by calling 250-833-4096 or in person at 490 Fifth Ave. SW. Salmon Arm.
– Barb Brouwer is a reporter at the Salmon Arm Observer