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Marty Stuart heads ‘West’ with latest release

Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives perform during Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival on September 24, 2017 in Franklin, Tennessee. | Mickey Bernal/Getty Images

More than anyone in country music today, Marty Stuart is the keeper of the flame. From the way he dresses (flashy Nudie suits) to his vast collection of vintage music memorabilia (20,000 pieces strong) to his original classic-tinged songbook (18 studio albums), he has absorbed the tenets of country that go back to Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline on up to Johnny Cash, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.

Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 16
Where: Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln
Tickets: Sold out
Info: oldtownschool.org

When it comes to songwriting, Stuart has walked the line between preserving country’s musical legacy while also creating new material that doesn’t simply live in the past. It’s a mission he continues with each new batch of songs including those on his latest album “Way Out West.”

“Country music’s past is such a wonderful foundation,” Stuart says. “It’s a strong boulder to stand on but if you handle it wrong it could be like a jail. I use it as inspiration to come up with new ways to move the legacy forward. It’s not only about the past; it’s about the past, present and future.”

Keeping with this goal, “Way Out West” is his tribute to the American West, a region that he’s felt a connection to since his early years as a young music fan and player (he was a 12-year-old mandolin prodigy) growing up in Philadelphia, Miss.

“I remember being captivated by the Johnny Cash song ‘Lost on the Desert’,” Stuart reminisces. “It’s western imagery stuck with me and the first time I toured out West with Lester Flatt’s band, I saw the song’s images in person. It was mesmerizing.”

Marty Stuart (front) and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives (guitarist Kenny Vaughan, drummer Harry Stinson and bassist Chris Scruggs). | Provided Photo

The idea for the album began to gel one day on Stuart’s tour bus as he and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives (guitarist Kenny Vaughan, drummer Harry Stinson and bassist Chris Scruggs), sat around talking about things from the West they found inspiring — the music, the television shows, the cars, the desert. “The more we talked, the more we thought why not take this journey and create a love letter to the American West,” Stuart says.

Yet “Way Out West” is not simply another Bakersfield or cowboy record. Instead it’s a tribute to California’s broad influence on country music. Its wide range of songs takes inspiration from the Bakersfield sound, surf music, Beach Boys influenced pop, The Byrds folk-rock jangle, spaghetti Western soundtracks and trippy cosmic psychedelia.

Tom Petty band member Mike Campbell serves as the album’s producer. Stuart first met Campbell in 1995 during the recording of Johnny Cash’s “Unchained” album. Petty’s band served as Cash’s backing band with Stuart and Campbell sharing lead guitar duties.

Stuart knew from that experience that Campbell was “a guy who knows what to do with songs.”

“I think between us there’s a lot of common ground, a lot of common inspiration,” Stuart says. “I needed somebody to push the band, to take us to a place we hadn’t been before. To stretch us beyond our comfort zone.”

The album was recorded at Campbell’s Southern California studio and at legendary Capitol Studios in Hollywood.

“For me there’s Capitol and then there’s everywhere else,” Stuart emphasizes. “It’s the high cathedral of American sound. It just welcomes creativity.”

While Nashville has been his longtime home (he just celebrated his 25th anniversary as a member of the Grand Ole Opry), Stuart recalls that “for a brief moment” he did consider leaving Nashville for California.

“When Lester Flatt passed away in 1979, I was looking for a gig and thinking about heading out there for a job with Bob Dylan but I didn’t really want to leave everything and everyone I knew in the South,” Stuart recalls.

Instead, he ended up in Johnny Cash’s band.

“I’m glad I didn’t leave Nashville,” he says, adding with a laugh, “I figure it would have been a pretty wild life; it probably would have killed me. Now it’s a treat to head out there. It never gets old.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.