It was that rarest of Nashville nights: a Friday at The Franklin Theatre, where Marty Stuart, fresh from taping the sixth season of his eponymous roots-music cable television series, was holding court with his Fabulous Superlatives in tow and no agenda.
"I always go by the old rule that says, 'Play the hometown sparingly,'" said the veteran country artist, who performs Friday at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort. "This past Friday night, we had nothing to promote, we had nothing to sell and we had nothing to do except go, 'Boy, we've got 26 episodes of the TV show behind us.' It was just the band. No guests. We just walked out there and knocked the back out of the place."
There are no plans to let the momentum slip. As completed tapings of The Marty Stuart Show roll out Saturdays on the rural America-focused cable network RFD-TV, Stuart will oversee continued roadwork with the Superlatives; the publication of two photography books; multiple museum exhibits centered on his massive collection of vintage country music artifacts; and the release of a "Saturday night, Sunday morning project," a recording that covers staunchly traditional country and old-school country gospel.
It's enough to make you view Stuart as a full-blown country entrepreneur. The singer, however, views the workload as essential for a longstanding stylist who increasingly has removed himself from the Nashville mainstream.
"In this day and age, you can't depend on one thing anymore," he said. "Not that I ever have. I never had that luxury.
"When I first stepped up to the microphone on my own, I thought, 'Man, I just want to put my guitar around my neck, stand there and sing songs. And I saw right away that that would never work for me. I found out this was going to take everything I had."
Stuart, 55, cut his musical teeth as a teen alongside such bluegrass and roots-music giants as Lester Flatt, Vassar Clements and Doc Watson before joining Johnny Cash's band in the early '80s. For much of the two decades that followed, Stuart's own mix of traditional country and rockabilly made him a fixture on country charts and radio.
But it was with the 2001 formation of the Superlatives — Winchester-born multi-instrumentalist Paul Martin, guitarist Kenny Vaughan and drummer Harry Stinson — that brought Stuart to the crossroads of his commercial country popularity and his traditional country heritage.
"We made a record called Country Music (in 2003) that had some really cool songs on it," he said. "But I think I was guilty of trying to walk those waters one more time. You know ... 'Please love me, radio.' We were going to try to make a legitimate record on one side and reach out for commercial success on the other. So, half the record was really good. The other half was misguided. I thought, 'You have to make up your mind here, Marty Stuart. What are you going to do for real?'
"That's when I knew radio wasn't really an option for me. With that option off the table, the job got a whole lot easier.
"But when the very culture for which we stand, which was traditional country music, started disappearing, it became important for us to take care of what was left of that culture, provide some new life for it and perhaps write a new chapter for it. That was the idea.
"The road is where those ideas come together. When the audience is into it, when there are butts in the seats and the band is on, there is no feeling like it in the world. Time just disappears. That is the beauty of a live performance. That, to me, is a beautiful night."