In the new book Highways and Heartaches: How Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, and Children of the New South Saved the Soul of Country Music, author Michael Streissguth explores the artistic choices made by two Grammy-winning stars with deep bluegrass roots. Ricky Skaggs appeared on the Flatt and Scruggs television show when he was seven. Marty Stuart was on the road full-time at age 13 with Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass.
Streissguth is a Department of Communication and Film Studies professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY. The subjects of his previous books include Johnny Cash, Outlaw Country, Eddie Arnold, and Rosanne Cash.
The Bluegrass Standard spoke with Streissguth about Highways and Heartaches, which he says was inspired by David Hajdu's book, Positively Fourth Street, about Bob Dylan and Mimi Fariña and Richard Fariña and Joan Baez.
Streissguth: It was just a beautiful story that unfolded among four people. And I thought it would be interesting to try doing the same thing with two characters from bluegrass music and country music in the 1970s... Ricky and Marty are growing up in bluegrass music and then went on into the 1980s to influence mainstream country music. So, the goal became trying to tell a story about bluegrass music and bluegrass culture in the 1970s into the 1980s through the experiences of Ricky and Marty.
The Bluegrass Standard: While most guys their age were playing in garage bands and learning rock 'n roll, Ricky and Marty sat on buses with old guys learning older music. How have they embraced tradition and moved beyond it?
Streissguth: They grew up in settings that appreciated tradition, Ricky, in Eastern Kentucky with Hobert Skaggs, a father who was just a big bluegrass enthusiast, and a family that sang and was musical. And the same was true to some extent with Marty Stuart. He grew up in a music-rich area. There is music made by the family in the living room of the Stuart’s household in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Blues music is around Marty. There's country music television. Radio stations are playing all the great music of the era. And it just fortifies both. The contact with so many talented people inspires them and ultimately pulls them into the world of commercial bluegrass music.
One of the book's themes is that they're working in a tradition with some of the best exemplars of that tradition--Ralph Stanley for Ricky and Lester Flatt for Marty. But they also begin to innovate within that tradition. So, it's not surprising that Ricky Skaggs, in his band Boone Creek in the 1970s, would riff on pop songs of the day by the Eagles. And it's not surprising that Marty would have been drawn to the Byrds, notably guitarist Clarence White, and go on to incorporate those styles in his music right up to this day in his current album.
The Bluegrass Standard: Ricky was driven by his father, but Marty seems self-motivated. There was no stopping Marty. It appears he was going to be a performer, despite what his parents might have said. Is that right?
Streissguth: I think so. And I think also his parents understood that their son had a gift, and they understood that they needed to be involved in nurturing that gift and helping Marty find an outlet for it. And that meant taking him to shows all around the region. That meant driving up to the Bean Blossom Festival in the early 1970s, where he finally meets Lester Flatt and others. I tend to think of it also against the backdrop of the cloud that was over Philadelphia, Mississippi, in the wake of the murders of the three civil rights workers during that time. I think the family may have understood that to thrive, he would need to get out of Philadelphia and ply his talent elsewhere. Now, that said, Marty has never abandoned Philadelphia. He continues to have a major footprint there with his Congress of Country Music. He owns property there and spends significant time there each year. But I think the family understood that getting out of Philadelphia was important.
The Bluegrass Standard: They’ve become kind of elder statesmen for bluegrass and country music. Are they surprised by that, or is that something they cultivated?
Streissguth: I think Marty cultivated that by being a collector of many of the artifacts of country music and by never really refusing any opportunity to talk about country music. I think for a long time, Marty's own story has been obscured because of his dedication to talking about other people in country music. And I think that's illustrated in the Ken Burns PBS documentary, where he's just a wonderful spokesperson for country music. But it's not necessarily an avenue for learning more about Marty Stuart. Ricky perhaps hasn't pursued it in the way that Marty pursued it. For a period in the 80s, he was the face of not just traditional country music but the country music period. And I think he's developed his skills over the years as a spokesperson, as a commentator on country music, and finds himself in that position of being somebody to turn to when we think about tradition in country music.
The Bluegrass Standard: You've written several books about country music artists. What is it about country music that you find compelling?
Streissguth: It’s because the stories behind the music are really the stories of a nation growing up and evolving. I was a history major in college, and following the roots-based music in our country has just been a wonderful history lesson. And I continue to learn from this experience of following the music and then writing about the music …Somebody once said that writing is learning, and that's just what it is for me. And it's also great music. At the end of the day, it's great music.