“Highways and Heartaches: How Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, and Children of the New South Saved the Soul of Country Music” by Michael Streissguth, Hachette Books, 304 pages
The title of Streissguth’s 10th book on country music is the same as that of Ricky Skaggs’ 1982 album, a platinum-selling album, paying homage to the mandolin player and singer who promised Bill Monroe that bluegrass would never die . Monroe is revered by fans as the father of this mountain music genre that developed in the Appalachian Mountains in the 1940s.
Although Skaggs and Stuart are given equal consideration in the detailed comparison of their musical growth and development, the title gives a clue to the author’s assessment of which star did the most to save the soul of country music. Skaggs never strayed too far from his early bluegrass identity, which he forged while playing with the Stanley Brothers, and is considered the face of bluegrass for the last few decades.
However, Stuart played a significant role in preserving bluegrass. The musicians of the 1980s and 1990s with whom he frequently collaborated helped him combine traditional country music with rockabilly and blues. This prevented the capitulation to rock that record companies had insisted on in order to appeal to younger audiences and record buyers.
Likewise, his collaboration with Travis Tritt and association with Johnny Cash’s band allowed him to maintain his bluegrass identity and introduce him and the music to a larger audience.
Also of significant importance was Stuart’s successful crusade to save the Grand Ole Opry’s original home, the Ryman Auditorium, when it was threatened with demolition. After moving to accommodations in Opryland that are more spacious, modern and comfortable than the original Opry Theater in a former church building, the owners saw no advantage in retaining the old building. Stuart was among the most vocal and active preservationists who protested and pushed for the rescue.
Skaggs and Stuart’s early musical experiences have many similarities, as Streissuth explains. Both came from musical families, where both parents played country music and played multiple instruments. Skaggs was precocious in his mastery of the instruments important to country music and was so proficient on the mandolin that he was able to play and sing on stage with Monroe when he was only 6 years old. Stuart mastered the guitar and mandolin at an early age and, like Skaggs, played with his family’s band, which performed at church and community events.
Stuart’s professional career began at the age of 14 when he was invited to join Lester Flatt’s touring band. Although his parents urged him to finish school first, they reluctantly gave their permission when they realized that music was of utmost importance in his life. Skaggs joined Ralph Stanley’s band in 1970 at the age of 20.
Streissguth’s extensive research describes in detail the years that passed with the respective bands and other groups until they started their solo careers.
Long before Skaggs and Stuart came onto the scene, bluegrass’s survival was threatened. With the emergence of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and other early rockers in the 1950s, Nashville and country music experienced a crisis that seriously challenged the livelihoods of traditional artists and the viability of country labels. Over the following decades, producers introduced a number of subgenres of country music, including The Nashville Sound and Countrypolitan, to sell records and develop new stars.
While the Opry continued to broadcast the older music to its loyal WSM audience, many of its artists were older. Therefore, the crucial question was to find younger musicians who could captivate an audience that appreciated the talent and vitality that had always been associated with bluegrass. Here Skaggs and Stuart found their role as “saviors” around which Streissguth built his book.
Although the focus is on Skaggs and Stuart, the reader will find in this 304-page book extensive forays into the social, political and cultural life of the period about which he writes. It gives a look at the music industry over the last few decades and talks about the other “children of the south” to which its subtitle refers.
An interesting aside delves into the family dynamics that produced two beloved Country Music Hall of Fame members – Skaggs and Stuart.