THE RETURN OF MARTY STUART

Back after a DUI and a period of self-imposed introspection, country's most passionate hillbilly is born again - and spreading the honky-tonk gospel

This place ought to do," Marty Stuart says as he pulls his SUV into an untested roadside diner in Santa Ana, Calif.

The restaurant's sound system plays Julie Andrews and light orchestral fare, not what you expect to hear while chatting with a hillbilly singer. But Marty gets a plate of chicken and vegetables, and that's country enough. Especially for a guy who salutes Waffle House in the liner notes of his upcoming album, simply titled Country Music.

Country is what Marty is all about. He's married to fellow Grand Ole Opry star Connie Smith; he's got a whole collection of memorabilia that was owned by the likes of Hank Snow, Jimmie Rodgers and Johnny Cash; and in July, he starts a tour of the U.S. with Merle Haggard that he's describing as "a cross between Roy Acuff's old tent show and Cirque du Soleil comin' to town."

All of this activity ends a four-year period of semi-hibernation from public view, one in which Marty stretched himself creatively, reconsidered life in the fast lane and rededicated himself to his home.

"Get ready for my 21st century comin' out party," he beams. "It's almost like walkin' out of the Old Testament and crossin' a new covenant into a new land."

It may not appear that way on the outside. He's still one of the most tasteful all-around musicians in Nashville, still sports the trademark tousled hair and a boyish gait, and still has boundless good-timing energy on a concert stage.

But the last four years marked the first time in his life that Marty has had a chance to slow down and think about what he does - and why he does it. His time of introspection started in 1999. His last album, The Pilgrim, got rave reviews and two Grammy nominations, but it sold poorly and got little attention from his record company.

"I felt like we had a pretty good decade," he declares. "I accomplished a lot of things I wanted to accomplish, missed a few things. But after 27 years, it was just time to go play with some different crayons."

He did that in a big way. Marty took about a year off entirely, and he and Connie sold their home, then redecorated a new one. The two had been married for two years already, but, with Marty's heavy tour schedule, they had not spent as much time together as they would have liked.

"The most awesome thing is to be at the other end of the house and to hear her sing when she's doin' whatever it is she's doin'," admits Marty. "She sings all the time. And she is so unaware. I can tell you from the bottom of my heart, she is so unaware.

"I've asked her point-blank. I said, 'Doll, don't skirt this issue. Give me a yes or a no. Do you have any idea how great you are?' 'What are you talkin' about? George Jones is great. Judy Garland is great.' 'So are you.' 'Naaaaah - let's talk about the grandkids.' That's her, right there."

From the outside, it is not a typical marriage. She's 61, he's 44. In fact, he was only 12 years old when he first met her. She was singing at the Choctaw Indian Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., and Marty predicted to his mother that day that he would marry Connie. Sure enough, he began producing an album for her in the mid-'90s, and all those old feelings started bubbling up when they tried to write songs together.

"It just looked so ridiculous on paper," he laughs. "The age difference, both of us have had severe relationships, you know, careers. I'm just sayin', 'You're out of your mind, heart. The last thing I wanna do is get involved with Connie Smith and mess up.' But the more we wrote the more my heart spoke and it just went haywire."

Nearly six years after they married, in a surprise ceremony in South Dakota, Marty still gushes about his wife. "It took a lot of guts to do it, but it's the greatest thing I ever did," he says. "Everything else I've ever done pales in comparison to Connie."

That's saying a lot. Just in the four years since the last album, Marty's expanded his role in the world quite impressively. He served on the board of the Country Music Hall of Fame when it opened its new building in 2001. He wrote the musical scores to three movies, including All the Pretty Horses, which brought him a 2000 Golden Globe nomination. And he produced a Johnny Cash tribute album, Kindred Spirits, featuring Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Dwight Yoakam and Mary Chapin Carpenter. If that's not enough, he also penned two songs on the Dixie Chicks' new Home album.

In fact, even when he messed up, Marty turned a major gaffe into a major step forward. He was stopped outside of Nashville in April 2002 and charged with driving under the influence. He refused a field sobriety test, which automatically meant that his license was restricted. The charge was eventually dismissed, though he's the first to admit that he should not have been driving that night.

Alcohol and chemicals have had a huge presence in his life. He started playing professionally with Lester Flatt's band when he was a teenager, and he never really learned moderation.

"When you're 13 years old and on tour with the Texas Troubadours and Gram Parsons ... Name it! - it was just the thing," he explains, discussing the case publicly for the first time. "Everybody did it, so I jumped right in."

But the morning after his DUI arrest last year, Marty was angry for letting alcohol get the better of him. "Standin' there at 44 years old, goin', 'You blew it. You made the same mistake you made when you were 20 years old' - that's unacceptable. It's truly unacceptable."

Fortunately, Marty got help and dealt with the issue.

He also got support.

"Connie was unwavering," he says. "My family was unwavering. The first phone call that came to me was Johnny Cash. The second phone call that came to me was George Jones. And the third phone call was Merle Haggard, and Charlie Daniels and the governor [of Tennessee] called, all of them sayin', 'Get up and go on.' "

That's just what Marty Stuart is doing. The new album and the new tour represent his rededication to his music.

"My past and my pedigree from childhood and early adulthood kinda lays out there as something that I admire for what it was," he observes. "But I don't depend on any of that right now. I'm not relyin' on anything that I used to be."

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