As anyone who reads the newsweeklies knows, country music is cool again. Once the purview of hayseeds and hillbillies, country has in recent years become slick, chart-savvy and safe for suburbanites. It's the stuff of million-sellers now, and seems full-to-bursting with Stetson-topped superstars.
But that's not why Marty Stuart thinks this is the golden age of country music.
For Stuart, who will perform tomorrow at the Rocky Gap Music Festival at Flinstone in Allegany County, the best thing about country music today is that it's so wide open. "You can still go see Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Kitty Wells, Jimmy Dickens, Grandpa Jones," he says, speaking over the phone from a tour stop in Nebraska. "You can also, on the other hand, go see Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt, Dwight Yoakam, Marty Stuart, Trisha Yearwood, people like that. Never again will country music be this full."
Obviously, having such a range of choices is great for country fans. But it's especially good for Stuart, because the broader country music gets, the more he feels at home in it.
Stuart, after all, is not the sort of singer who easily fits into existing pigeonholes. An unabashed nonconformist, Stuart has no truck with the pop-style approach to country favored by the big-hat, pressed-jeans crowd. Instead, he speaks proudly of his "hillbilly hair" and the fact that he's "country to the bone."
"I know what real country music is because I'm a country historian by hobby," he says. "I've been a country fan since I was breathing. A lot of this stuff that they're passing off as number one records and number two and number three records that are selling 50 bajillion records, it ain't a bit country. But hey, if they want to call it country, if it looks good for our industry, I'm willing. Let's go."
Of course, Stuart isn't above tweaking the country pop crowd a bit. For instance, there was the "No Hats" tour he recently did with fellow renegade Travis Tritt.
"See, the industry started referring to acts as a hat-act or a non-hat act," he said, referring to the way Nashville bigwigs distinguished between the Garth Brooks-Clint Black-Alan Jackson clique, and redneck rabble like Stuart and Tritt. "That's when me and Travis got to talking.
"Travis says, 'Hell, we're a hair act. We can't get a hat over our hair.' So we had a whiskey, and started working it over. My manager suggested that we just should do a tour called 'The No Hats Tour,' because there wasn't anything out there like that."
Still, if some of that hat-act audience happens to spill his way, Stuart says he's ready for 'em. "My theory is, if some of our songs happen to catch their ear and they want to come see our concert, incredible. Come see us.
"But when you get here you'll get educated -- and entertained, too, I hope. You're going to hear 'Swinging Doors' and you're going to hear Johnny Cash songs. You're going to hear a Lefty Frizzell song. You're going to hear 'Buckaroo.'
"And you know, most kids think they're brand new songs. They like it, and they don't even know why. That's the beauty of it."
In case you hadn't guessed, Stuart is a big believer in the power of tradition. Having been brought up on the classics -- Hank Williams, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash, Flatt & Scruggs -- he knows the music that serves as modern country's foundations. More importantly, he understands just how that music remains today.
"The music we're making today is great," he says. "It's better, technically, and we're prettier than those guys are in a lot of cases. But those records still haven't been beaten. They're the blueprints, you know?"
Stuart pays tribute to his sense of tradition in "Me & Hank & Jumpin' Jack Flash," the opening track on his new album, "This One's Gonna Hurt You." In it, the singer dreams that he's gone up to hillbilly heaven, where he meets one of his idols, Hank Williams.
"I miss Hank," he says. "I really wish I could sit down and talk to him as a songwriter. It intrigues me that he wrote all those songs before he was 30 years old. I don't stand at the edge of the town beating the drum, expecting his Cadillac to pull up any minute now. That's over and done with. But Hank had a great spirit about him."
And Stuart does what he can to keep that spirit alive. As such, he sometimes comes across as a kind of country music evangelist.
"Some nights I think I'm Jimmy Swaggart," he admits. "I'm preaching. I truly feel like I'm converting people into country music. It's been a hard pull, and I've had to do a lot of selling, you know. But yes sir, sometimes I feel like the Wrong Reverend Marty."
HTCAH: Country sounds to fill Western Maryland air
Country sounds to fill Western Maryland air
p.m.: Donnie Gibson and Country Grass
5 p.m.: Lorrie Morgan
6:30 p.m.: George Jones
8 p.m.: Conway Twitty
11 a.m.: Del McCoury
12:30 p.m.: Nashville Bluegrass Band
2 p.m.: Alison Krauss
3:30 p.m.: Mark O'Connor with special guest Heidi Williams
5 p.m.: Marty Stuart
6:30 p.m.: Mary-Chapin Carpenter
8 p.m.: Vince Gill
a.m.: Ella and Midnite Majik
11 a.m.: Lonesome River Band
12:30 p.m.: Peter Rowan
2 p.m.: The Seldom Scene
3:30 p.m.: Asleep at the Wheel
5 p.m.: Restless Heart
6:30 p.m.: Alabama
Alcoholic beverages are permitted. Other activities include swimming, hiking and boating, and there will be 30 arts and craft vendors. Call (301) 724-2511.