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Stars Are Keeping It Country

By Richard Harrington
Friday, March 17, 2006

If country music has a public face, it doesn't hurt that it's Vince Gill's .

He's a four-time president of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and hosted the Country Music Awards for a dozen years. (His 18 CMAs, the most for any artist, sit alongside 17 Grammys.) He also has served as unofficial ambassador for the Grand Ole Opry since legendary King of Country Music Roy Acuff inducted him in 1991.

Oh, yeah: Gill is also a triple threat as singer, songwriter and picker.

He'll do all three as he co-headlines the March 31 concert with Lee Ann Womack and Wynonna (which raises the possibility of a Judds reunion since mom Naomi is also on the bill) and heads up an all-star Nashville house band that will back Country Music Hall of Famers Ray Price and Kris Kristofferson .

"You look at the music of all those people, and it's pretty diverse," says Gill, noting that "the real beauty of this music is its willingness to be collaborative. To me, it's the magical thing about it."

Plus, he adds, "as time goes on, country music becomes more and more eloquent in its storytelling. It's a place where you can still go to get a story told in a song, where you can still have a melody played for you."

Expect a lot of socializing around Gill's dressing room backstage at the Concert Hall. At the Opry, he's usually assigned the most prestigious dressing room, No. 1, for decades occupied by the legendary Acuff.

"I don't ever request it, never one time," Gill says. "But they always give it to me, and I think it's only because of one thing: I never close the door. I paid attention to that when I was an up-and-comer going out there for the first few times -- Roy Acuff's dressing room door was always open, and people were always welcome. There were jam sessions in there, people would come by to get a picture, just the fact that the door was open. That made an amazing impact on me."

Marty Stuart -- he of the flashy vintage country suits and, at 47, the now-salt-and-pepper pompadour -- first made his mark at age 12 as a guitar and mandolin prodigy touring Southern Pentecostal churches with the Sullivan Family Gospel Singers. At 13, he moved to Nashville and made his first appearance on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry as a member of Lester Flatt's band. In the late '70s, Stuart became part of Johnny Cash's band and, by the mid-'80s, a headliner in his own right, thanks to a repertoire mixing traditional country, honky-tonk, bluegrass and what Stuart dubbed "hillbilly rock."

When the Mississippi native reached that plateau, he began traveling in Ernest Tubb's old tour bus. That's because along the way, Stuart's archivist impulses led him to amass one of the most important collections of country music artifacts and memorabilia around. Estimated at 20,000 items, it includes Hank Williams's handwritten lyrics, Jimmie Rodgers's railroad lantern, Patsy Cline's make-up case and Tubb's bus.

Stuart's appearance on the Grand Ole Opry's 80th anniversary road show with Travis Tritt and the Del McCoury Band is fitting: He's an Opry regular and spearheaded the drive to save the historic 1,200-seat Ryman Auditorium from the wrecking ball. The Opry's original home and the mother church of country music, the Ryman closed in 1974 when the Opry moved into a new $15 million theater (the largest broadcasting studio in the world, with a seating capacity of 4,400), but many country artists prefer the Ryman. Stuart's most recent album, "Live at the Ryman," is a bluegrass collection recorded there with his band, the Fabulous Superlatives. (Stuart and Superlative guitarist Kenny Vaughan will offer a guitar master class Thursday -- see schedule.)

Of the Kennedy Center's Opry lineup, Stuart says, "It's pretty hard-hitting, hard-driving kind of music. It's bringing a bunch of fun and the essence of Saturday night at the Grand Ole Opry."

Stuart, who served six terms as president of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, has been particularly prolific of late: The Ryman album was one of three released in recent months on his new Superlatone label (the others being the gospel "Souls' Chapel" and "Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota," a concept album about South Dakota's Oglala Lakota tribe). Four more albums are in the pipeline this year, as well as five photo books, including "The Marty Stuart Collection," which will draw on his huge historical holdings. Turns out Stuart has been a photographer almost as long as he has been a professional musician. Stuart says that his mother was a shutterbug and that he became one at 14 "so I could go home and show my mom and dad my new life on the road. And I saw history everywhere I looked that was basically being undocumented."

Two pioneering figures in bluegrass history are part of the festival: banjoist Earl Scruggs, Tuesday on the Millennium Stage, and Virginia's Ralph Stanley, who'll talk with Country Music Hall of Fame senior historian John Rumble at Monday's "Roots of Country Music" discussion in the Rehearsal Room.

One of the genre's current stars, Del McCoury, will be part of the March 26 Grand Ole Opry concert in the Concert Hall. Last month, McCoury won his first Grammy for "The Company We Keep," and that award will certainly have plenty of company. Since 1992, the Del McCoury Band has been the most acclaimed group in bluegrass, its 40 awards including a record eight "entertainer of the year" honors from the International Bluegrass Music Association. (McCoury won one by himself as well.)

It's easy to understand how the 67-year-old McCoury earned those awards. With his thick, steel-gray hair combed back neatly and high on his head, McCoury looks every inch the bluegrass patriarch, and with his high, lonesome tenor, he sounds like one, too. Stanley was a major vocal influence on McCoury, and McCoury's band plays in the hard-driving traditional style of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys and Lester Flatt and Scruggs with the Foggy Mountain Boys. But the Del McCoury Band's repertoire of bluegrass chestnuts and nontraditional fare makes it as popular on the jam-band circuit as at bluegrass festivals.

It's fitting that McCoury be a part of the Grand Ole Opry concert, and not just because he became a cast member three years ago. He became a bluegrasser for life in 1948 after tuning in to an Opry broadcast and hearing Scruggs (still with Monroe at the time) deliver a rollicking "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms."

"Earl was the first man I heard when I was a kid that excited me about any kind of music," McCoury says of his transformative experience at age 11. "When I heard Earl, it just knocked me over. It's why I'm playing music today."

In the early '60s, Monroe hired McCoury to play rhythm guitar and sing leads for his Blue Grass Boys, and a few years later, he was fronting his first band, Del McCoury and the Dixie Pals.

You see more reverence for Monroe-era tradition in the way McCoury's band performs onstage, from the natty suits and ties they wear to the way they cluster around a single microphone. Most groups use multiple mikes; the Del McCoury Band shares one, nimbly stepping in and out for instrumental solos and lead vocals, coming together for the harmonies and ensemble flourishes.

McCoury's sons, who've played in his band since the '80s, have done pretty well by the IBMA also: Ronnie McCoury, who started playing with his dad in 1981 at 13, has been named top mandolinist eight times, Rob McCoury top banjoist twice. (Bandmate Jason Carter has been named top fiddler three times.)

"When they were growing up, my boys were influenced by Southern rock bands, but still they liked bluegrass and realized that some of the early rock 'n' roll came from this music," McCoury says. "It was their first love to start with, and I guess you can't get away from that."

-- Richard Harrington

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