From Chicken Soup for the Country Soul

In the Footsteps of a Good Man

If you’re dedicated, if it’s something that lives and breathes in your heart, then you’ve simply got to go ahead and do it.

Rodney Crowell

I always knew I was the different one in my family. They all seemed normal. Whereas, from the day I picked up a guitar, I was obsessed. Before I was ten years old, I began to eat, sleep and dream bluegrass and country music. I had every album and I could play along. My hero of heroes was Lester Flatt. By the time I was eleven, I knew I wanted to be just like him.

When I was twelve years old, in 1971, I got a friend to take me to Bill Monroe’s festival in Bean Blossom, Indiana. The whole thing was magic, but nothing mattered as much as the fact that Lester Flatt would be playing in person. I had the concert schedule memorized, and before it was time for Lester Flatt to play, I found his bus. It was a vision in diesel. It looked like a rolling billboard, painted with “Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass Sponsored by Martha White Flour.”

When Lester Flatt came out, the speech I’d planned for about seven years got lost inside of me. It was all I could do to ask for an autograph. As I followed him on the long walk to the stage, I noticed the way he cocked his hat on his head—and the effect he had on the campers. As he walked through, they sort of stood straighter. It was like the effect of a preacher walking through a poker game.

I followed in his wake, knowing I was walking in the footsteps of a good man.

I left the festival even more on fire with the thrill of music. That summer I spent as much time as I could around local musician Carl Jackson. Carl’s daddy was a musician, too, and he spent lots of hours working with me on the mandolin. Carl had gone on the road with several musicians, and the next year, he joined the Sullivan Family, a popular bluegrass gospel group. When the Sullivan Family was slated to play at a church near my home, I persuaded Enoch Sullivan, the patriarch, to let me play on a couple of songs. Oh, it was wonderful!

I was totally hooked. I begged and pleaded with Carl until he asked Enoch if I could go on the road with them that summer, and Enoch agreed. I felt my life had begun.

We played mostly Pentecostal churches on the back roads of the Deep South. People loved the Sullivan Family and welcomed us everywhere we went. When we played a festival at Lavonia, Georgia, I ran into Roland White. Roland played with Lester Flatt, and I’d met him the year before at Bean Blossom. We hung out some—at a bluegrass festival, hanging out means sitting around playing music.

Can you imagine the ecstasy of a twelve-year-old boy jamming with Roland White? What could make it more perfect?

I’ll tell you what—when the festival was over, Roland gave me his phone number and said if I could get permission from my parents to go on the road with them one weekend, to give him a call.

After a summer with the Sullivan Family, I knew that “the road” is a powerful thing. It has a way of changing and claiming you. Some people just aren’t cut out for it, but I loved it from the beginning. Mostly, to me, the road meant freedom. That’s what I had to give up when it was time to go back to school.

Not surprisingly, after spending the summer in my dream world I was a poor excuse for a student. The final straw came one day when a teacher came up behind me when I was supposed to be reading history and I had a Country Music Round up inside my history book. She busted me.

“Marty,” she said, “You could make something out of yourself if you’d get your mind off music and get it on history.”

“Ma’am,” I replied, “I’m more into making history than learning about it.”

On the strength of that remark—and something about my attitude and haircut—I was excused from school.

My poor parents. I’m sure they expected me to be sad and sorry about my situation. Instead, of course, I was formulating a plan. I suddenly had a few unexpected days free.

As soon as I got home, I called Roland to see if his invitation was still open. He got an okay from Lester. Before my parents even had a chance to discuss “my situation” with me, I met them crying, begging and pleading to join Roland White for the weekend. My parents knew full well who Lester Flatt was. They also knew that this was an extraordinary opportunity. So instead of spending the weekend grounded, as I’m sure my teacher intended, I was on a bus to Nashville!

The old bus station in Nashville was across the street from the Ryman Auditorium. When I got off the bus, I paused, purposely thinking of where I’d come from. Then I took a look at the Opry to see where I wanted to go.

Within a couple of hours, I was on that bus I’d dreamed about, heading off with the guys toward Delaware for the weekend. As we traveled, Roland and I got out the mandolin and guitar and started playing some tunes. Lester came back to go to bed and stopped for a minute to listen. I guess he liked what he heard, ’cause he laughed and said, “Why don’t you do a couple of songs on the show tomorrow?”

That pretty much made my year.

Lester let me play all four shows the band did over the next two days. He was generous and gracious, building me up and giving me recognition during the shows.

When the weekend was over, I figured my life was downhill from there. How on earth would I ever pay attention to history when I’d played with Lester Flatt? I’d reached my dream; I’d grabbed the brass ring. Everything else would certainly seem drab and gray in comparison.

On Sunday, when the band was packing, I thanked Lester for letting me play with them. As I did, I could see the wheels turning in his head: old act, new blood, this might work. Also, in the space of a couple of days we had a routine of gags between us. The chemistry was there, and we had the beginnings of a friendship.

Lester suggested that if we could work out something about school, he would talk to my parents about joining him full-time.

I used most of the pay phones between Delaware and Tennessee begging my parents for a little more time. I had a lot to tell them—Lester had invited me to play the Friday night Opry, Roland had a hat I could use, I had money left over, and, oh, yes—Lester had offered me a job.

“A job? Marty, you’re in junior high school! You’re thirteen years old!”

“Don’t say yes or no now, Dad, please! One week—just give me one more week. Let me play the Opry.”

Tuesday at WSM radio was just business for Lester and the guys after so many years. But just last week, I’d been listening to this show at home, dreaming, just dreaming. And now . . .

Announcer Grant Turner read his Martha White script and added, “along with special guests Mac Wiseman and Marty Stuart.”

Dear God, I hoped my history teacher listened to that show!

I remember thinking and praying a lot that week. I was definitely happy, kind of lonesome and kind of amazed at how fast everything had happened. I not only prayed for guidance for myself, I prayed for my mom and dad—especially Mom. I asked God to comfort her and let her know I was all right.

And I thought realistically about my future. There was no family business to go into. I didn’t think I had a future as a cotton farmer, and I couldn’t see myself at a factory; two occupations chosen by many kids in my school.

So what did I want out of life?

I wanted to go places, see things, meet all sorts of people.

Most of all, I wanted to live in the world of country music. That Friday night, one week after I’d gotten off the bus and set my sights on the Opry, I was playing there. Roy Acuff, Tex Ritter, Brother Oswald . . . the number of greats performing that night went on and on. And then there was . . . Marty Stuart.

Yes, this was my world. This was where I wanted to be.

But was the timing wrong? Would I lose it all because I’d made it across the street in one week instead of in ten years?

I know that letting your thirteen-year-old go out into the world must have been a heavy decision. And, to tell you the truth, I don’t think my folks would have let me do it with anyone but Lester.

Lester arranged to meet with my folks in person. He assured them that I’d be well looked after, that I’d keep a little spending money and send the rest of my earnings to the bank. He was already talking to Lance Leroy, our manager, (our manager!) about the details of how to finish my education.

To this day, I’m sure that the thing that made the difference was that Lester Flatt promised to personally assume responsibility for me. Even in that short of a time, my parents could see that Lester was a man of integrity, a man of his word.

My parents agreed to give it a try. I told my mom and dad and sister good-bye and climbed onto the bus. As their cars faded from sight in the Alabama dust, I had to fight back tears. But I knew that beyond that cloud of dust there was a big world waiting, and I wanted to see it— every bit.

Marty Stuart

Copyright ©1992 Country Music Magazine. Used by permission.

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