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Revisit: Marty Stuart’s Way Out West: A Country Music Odyssey



For decades, the West has been a place of hope and transformation. From the Dust Bowl to the Depression, through the economic growth following World War II, to the striking cultural and political changes of the ‘60s, right up to the innovations created by the digital revolution, California lives on as a land of dreams.

In the Dust Bowl days, the Golden State represented a second chance, a place of opportunity and hope. Countless families migrated west and with them they brought an adventurous spirit and a willingness to work.  They also brought their music, which in those days was called hillbilly or Okie music.  It wasn’t grand or ornate, but it was music of the people and it told their life stories.

Marty Stuart’s Way Out West: A Country Music Odyssey tells the story of a transformation in country music through the lens of the American West. Here, the Maddox Brothers and Rose are celebrated as the first family of West Coast country music.  Mixing hillbilly and boogie woogie, they pioneered the sound of rock-a-billy music in America.  Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Wynn Stewart would plug in and electrify their music, with Fender Telecasters, bass, drums and steel guitars creating a hard-hitting, blue collar brand of country music, which was perfect for the honky-tonks of Bakersfield. Johnny Cash’s “At Folsom Prison” and “At San Quentin” offered release and respite to audiences both inside and outside those prison walls. These artists and others whom they inspired created a sound that ultimately stood apart from the country music coming from Nashville. A sound that would be changed again by the Byrds, Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Brothers and modern day artists such as Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakam, Jason Isbell, and Stuart himself.

Stuart maintains an abiding commitment to the world of country music by honoring the community of artists that created it and those who keep it moving forward.  From classic Nudie suits to handwritten lyrics, treasured instruments to concert posters and photographs, Stuart has devoted his life to preserving artifacts that document the music and the people who make it.  Most importantly, he and his band, The Fabulous Superlatives, serve as statesmen-like emissaries who provide a link to all that has come before while telegraphing a vision of what is yet to come in country music.

Cowboy Boots

Like the boldly beautiful and intricate suits of Nathan Turk, Nudie or Manuel, the intricately tooled leather and sharp Western heel of a cowboy boot is as much a part of country music history as the instruments played onstage and in the studio. Boots worn by legendary figures such as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Hank Snow, Marty Stuart, and the Maddox Brothers and Rose were displayed throughout the exhibit.  Works of art in and of themselves, custom-designed cowboy boots were a fashion mainstay for artists of every generation, and were worn as a way to express their individual style.

Marty Stuart and Lester Flatt

Marty Stuart is a five-time GRAMMY Award winner who has spent his life steeped in the music of his rural Southern upbringing. He began performing with the bluegrass group, the Sullivans. By age 13 he was on the road with Lester Flatt, followed by years in Johnny Cash’s band. He witnessed first-hand how great artists communicated and connected with an audience. He found his way to a successful solo career in Nashville, releasing the albums Hillbilly Rock and Tempted, both spawning hit singles that saw him forge a path as an artist in his own right. But he longed to get back to the true sound of country music. The sound passed down from the Maddox Brothers and Rose to Flatt, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash. In 1999, he released The Pilgrim, a concept album rooted in tradition, yet distinctly progressive in its approach. He formed the Fabulous Superlatives (Harry Stinson, Kenny Vaughan, Paul Martin, replaced by Chris Scruggs in 2016) and together, Stuart and the band have taken the best of the tradition – first-rate musicianship, stellar vocal harmonies, matching Western wear, energy and passion – and created a hillbilly band with a sound that always looks forward, wowing audiences around the country.  Stuart has served as President of the Country Music Foundation (1994-2001) and is currently making plans to build the Marty Stuart Center for Country Music in his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Lester Flatt and his banjo-playing partner Earl Scruggs were synonymous with the word “bluegrass” for more than 20 years. Flatt’s style of rhythm guitar fit perfectly with Scruggs’ more progressive banjo work. In fact, his “G-run” became a standard lick among guitarists in the bluegrass idiom. After playing with Charlie Monroe, Flatt joined Charlie’s brother, Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys. It was there where he met Scruggs and formed the Foggy Mountain Boys, wowing bluegrass fans around the country. Their song “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” famously appeared in the film Bonnie and Clyde and later earned a GRAMMY Award. Following the break-up of the group, Flatt went on to form the Nashville Grass. In 1972 Nashville Grass member Roland White invited a young Marty Stuart to perform with the band in Delaware. Following that performance, Stuart was invited to join the band and stayed with them until Flatt’s passing in 1979. Stuart consistently acknowledges Flatt’s mentorship as a key element in his growth as a musician and performer.

Childhood Boots and Guitar

The exhibit showcased a pair of Wrangler cowboy boots and Range Rhythm toy guitar from Stuart’s childhood.

Maddox Brothers and Rose

They called themselves “America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band.” The description fit both their style – matching Turk suits sparklingly spangled and embroidered, and their sound – honky-tonk ready, slap bass boogie that brought hillbilly music in close proximity with early rock & roll. Following their move from Alabama to California in 1933, the musical family (brothers Cal, Cliff, Don, Fred, Henry and sister, Rose) formed a band that would become a wellspring of inspiration between the ’30s and ’50s. Influenced by singers like Jimmie Rodgers and the early music of the Carter Family and the Sons of the Pioneers, they played a raucous, up-tempo, eight-to-the-bar music later called ”hillbilly boogie,” and not too far away in its energy and speed from rockabilly. (In the early years, they appeared on package shows with a young Elvis Presley.)  In 1937, they began performing on radio station KTRB in Modesto, California. Rose, just 11 years old at the time, possessed a voice that sounded as though it belonged to a grown woman. Later, in songs such as “(Pay Me) Alimony,” to “I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again,” Rose Maddox sang about independent women long before it would become acceptable, inspiring singers like Jean Shepherd, Dolly Parton and Janis Joplin. They were heard on XERB, a border station in Rosarita Beach, Mexico, its signal reaching much of the western United States. Following a move to Hollywood in 1951, they recorded 40 singles for Columbia Records and appeared both on the Louisiana Hayride and the Grand Ole Opry. The legacy and influence of the Maddox Brothers and Rose spans genres (country, rock, rockabilly), styles and eras.  Their career acknowledged the past and connected generations, blending old-time string band music with the sound of the West and the frenetic energy of rock & roll.

Johnny Cash and Buck Owens

Johnny Cash was born and raised in Arkansas and began writing songs by the time he was twelve years old.  Over the course of the next sixty years, he would become one of the most influential and imposing voices in American music.  Enlisting in the Air Force at the outbreak of the Korean War, he bought his first guitar and taught himself to play.  The spare style of his playing, coupled with his deep, resonant voice created a musical place somewhere between the earnestness of folk music, the energy of honky-tonk and the character of country, but a place all his own.  He became one of country music’s biggest stars of the ‘50s and ‘60s with well over 100 hit singles. Cash was also a committed crusader for human rights, particularly those of Native American peoples.  He faced censorship and backlash following the 1964 release of Bitter Tears – Ballads of the American Indian.  It really came down to a clear, basic mantra for Cash: If any group of people face injustice and are denied their rights, then there is no freedom or justice for any of us.  In 1968, he recorded and released his most successful album, Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison.  That album, along with At San Quentin created a connection between the artist, his audience and the songs in a way that cemented Cash as a powerful and independent voice within the country music community.  He also nurtured and defended artists (such as Bob Dylan) on the fringes of what was acceptable in country music even while serving as the country music establishment’s most visible symbol.  In later years, Cash collaborated with producer Rick Rubin on the acclaimed series of recordings for American Records.  Johnny Cash was the youngest inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980, and received the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999.

Buck Owens was one of the biggest stars in popular music in the mid-‘60s. His string of hits began with “Under Your Spell Again” and continued virtually unabated into the early ‘70s. Owens and his wife Bonnie moved from Texas to Bakersfield, California, in 1951 where he became a regular performer in a number of clubs around town. Those gigs led to session work for Capitol Records, with Owens playing guitar on tracks by Faron Young and Wanda Jackson. While hosting his own radio show on KTNT in Tacoma, Washington, he became acquainted with Don Rich. Rich would become Owens’ partner in the next decade and would have an immense influence over his music. Owens and Rich returned to Bakersfield and soon the pair traded acoustic guitars for the punchy twang of Fender Telecasters. The die had been cast. Owens rounded out his band with drums, pedal steel and bass. One of his first bassists was Merle Haggard, who named the group the Buckaroos. Soon, the Bakersfield sound would fill the airwaves with hits such as “Act Naturally,” “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” “My Heart Skips a Beat,” and “Together Again.” The songs were bright, with a 2/4 rhythm that was impossible to deny. Owens had brought the sounds of the honky-tonk to listeners everywhere, selling thousands of records and playing sold-out concerts across the country. Fans of rock & roll were not immune. The Beatles covered “Act Naturally” and Owens sold out two shows at the legendary Fillmore West in San Francisco. Ironically, Owens may be best known for his starring role on the      long-running TV show “Hee Haw.” But he never left Bakersfield, opening the Crystal Palace nightclub where he performed regularly until his death in 2006. Owens demonstrated that country music from California occupied an important place on the American musical landscape.

Glen Campbell, Roger McGuinn, and Wynn Stewart

Glen Campbell headed West at age 16, playing bars and roadhouses in Wyoming and performing on local radio and television stations in New Mexico. He arrived in Los Angeles in his early 20s and took a job as a songwriter at a small publishing house. A skilled guitarist, he became part of a loose-knit circle of session musicians known as the “Wrecking Crew,” playing on recordings by Jan and Dean, Sonny and Cher, The Mamas and Papas, The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, and many others. In 1967, he scored his first big hit with “Gentle On My Mind.”  He would round out the decade with even bigger hits, including “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman.” His TV show, “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” debuted in 1969 and became a No. 1 hit. He successfully bridged country and pop with a sound appealing to a wide audience. In his career, Campbell earned 10 GRAMMY Awards. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005 and received a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.

Roger McGuinn grew up in Chicago and was already an accomplished folk musician by the time he was a teenager. Moving to Los Angeles, he appeared on sessions for artists such as Hoyt Axton, Judy Collins and Tom & Jerry (soon to become Simon and Garfunkel). McGuinn and bandmates David Crosby, Chris Hillman, Gene Clark, and Michael Clarke formed the Byrds.  McGuinn’s twelve-string guitar work on their first single, “Mr. Tambourine Man” (the only member of the band to actually play on the recording), set the template for the folk-rock form. Picking up the mantle of great country artists, the Byrds released the ground-breaking album Sweetheart of the Rodeo in 1968. It became a touchstone and is widely acknowledged as a country-rock breakthrough.

Wynn Stewart was a driving force behind the sound of West Coast country music. His early singles “Wishful Thinking” and “Big, Big Love” provided inspiration and direction for contemporaries like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. In 1962 Haggard played bass in Stewart’s band and the Stewart-penned “Sing A Sad Song” became Haggard’s first hit. Stewart’s stripped-down approach, focusing on electric instruments and a driving beat, helped set the template that defined the Bakersfield Sound. Stewart’s sales never matched his reputation, but he has come to be widely revered and recognized as a progenitor of a style that helped define California’s place in country music.

Merle Travis, Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins

As a guitarist, Merle Travis was respected and prominent enough to have a style of playing named after him, “Travis Picking.” Born in Kentucky, he began his career in Cincinnati. He made his way to Los Angeles in 1944 and began appearing in Western movies while playing with Ray Whitley’s Western swing band. His original song, “Sixteen Tons,” became a crossover hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955. He was a musical figure who was consistently recognized by dozens of artists as an influence, both for his songwriting and instrumental prowess. Both Elvis Presley’s lead guitarist, Scotty Moore, and the great Chet Atkins acknowledge Travis’ radio performances as a source of inspiration.

A native son of Bakersfield, California, Merle Haggard gave voice to universal themes of love, loss, hard work, and heartbreak with a sound that spoke to his hardscrabble upbringing. Incarcerated numerous times as a young man, he turned to music and turned his life around by telling his story in songs like “Mama Tried,” “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down,” “Big City,” “Okie from Muskogee,” and “Working Man’s Blues,” all speaking from a personal perspective but holding a universal appeal. As a songwriter he had few peers, writing more No. 1 hits than Johnny Cash and Hank Williams combined. Throughout his career, he was a champion of the working man, having spent his early years digging ditches by day and singing in Bakersfield clubs at night. He found ways to draw from all forms of American music – country, jazz, blues, and folk ultimately forging a style all his own. Haggard’s band, The Strangers, provided a razor-sharp and edgy backdrop to his songs, further cementing the Bakersfield Sound as a counterpoint to the string-laden arrangements coming from Nashville. Not only have his recordings remained fresh, but each subsequent generation of country singers demonstrates their great debt to “the Hag.” He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994.

Marty Robbins grew up in Arizona and took his inspiration from Gene Autry, the original “Singing Cowboy.” He served in the Navy during World War II, teaching himself to play guitar in his free time.  He played bars and clubs around the Phoenix area and earned a place on local radio station KPHO. Robbins began his recording career in the early ’50s, and became a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry, where he remained one of its most popular artists for the next 30 years. His 1959 album, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, contained both “El Paso” and “Big Iron,” classics that firmly cemented Robbins’ place in country music history.

Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives, paintings by Jon Langford

Jon Langford is a musician and songwriter, as well as a prolific and respected visual artist best known for his striking portraits of country music icons including Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley. His multimedia music/spoken word/video performance, “The Executioner’s Last Songs,” premiered at Alverno College in 2005, and has been performed in several other cities. He illustrated the comic strip Great Pop Things under the pseudonym Chuck Death.

The Welsh-born Langford’s musical history dates back to 1977 when he formed the punk band The Mekons at the University of Leeds. Since the mid-1980s he has been one of the leaders in incorporating folk and country music into punk rock. He has released a number of solo recordings as well as songs with other bands outside of The Mekons, most notably the Waco Brothers, which he co-founded after moving to Chicago in the early 1990s. Langford created these portraits of Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives specifically for the Way Out West exhibit.

The Marty Stuart Show

“The Marty Stuart Show” was a weekly television series, airing on RFD-TV for six seasons beginning in 2009. Episodes featured Stuart’s wife, Connie Smith, herself a celebrated country singer, and a “who’s who” of legendary and contemporary artists, including the Fabulous Superlatives, Vince Gill, Sturgill Simpson, Martina McBride, Charley Pride, Merle Haggard, and many others. The music and humor harkened back to ’60s TV shows hosted by Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton.

The exhibit recreated the show’s stage set, complete with outfits and instruments from Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives.

Show Posters

Marty Stuart’s remarkable collection of memorabilia includes show posters from virtually every era in country music.  In the early days, these posters were the most direct link between the artist, the fans and upcoming shows.  Many were made on letterpress printing machines, perhaps most notably by the Hatch Show Print Company in Nashville.  In later years, the posters became more creative and design driven, in many ways becoming a representation of the artist’s visual imagination.