Country stars Merle Haggard and Marty Stuart stopped in at William Faulkner's home, Rowan Oak, in Oxford recently to announce an effort to bring the music back to its roots and away from the mega-glitz of Nashville, Los Angeles and New York City. Stuart—a native of Philadelphia, Miss., who went on the road with Lester Flatt when he was 13, played guitar for Johnny Cash in his 20s and then found his own fame as a bandleader in the early 1990s—dreamed up the "Electric Barnyard Tour," which will kick off July 6 in Sierra Vista, Ariz.
The tour will be a musical circus of sorts, with a portable venue and, for those paying close attention, a lineup that tells the history of traditional country music. Artists the Nashville mainstream largely ignores, like the neo-traditionalist string band Old Crow Medicine Show, honky-tonk revivalists BR549, bluegrass queen Rhonda Vincent and Stuart's wife, Connie Smith, whose songs filled the charts in the 1960s and '70s, will join Stuart and Haggard on the road.
All the Electric Barnyard acts performed at the June 2 press conference, and Haggard and Stuart and their bands had played the University of Mississippi's new Gertrude Ford Center for the Performing Arts the day before. But the weekend's highlight was Stuart and Haggard's duo performance at the press conference of "No Hard Times," originally recorded by Meridian native Jimmie Rodgers, widely considered the father of country music.
"I think it's real, it's a real offering, it comes from the right place," Stuart said in an interview about the tour. "There's a lot of integrity in this backdrop. There's a lot of integrity about dropping into Oxford; it just simply turns the wheel, gets it away from such a crass atmosphere."
Haggard himself has eschewed the mainstream, recently recording several CDs on the punk label Anti. Haggard described the tour as "going back to remember the forgotten ones" in communities the music establishment generally ignores. Grand Ole Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs said the tour will present substantive music with integrity as opposed to the "forced-fed" music coming out of Nashville.
The tour may have an anti-establishment tone, but Stuart's label, Columbia, as well as Country Music Television and the Waffle House chain are sponsors. Stuart recognizes the irony in this, but says such commercial support is a pragmatic necessity to this tour; and points out that unlike jam bands such as Phish, he can't simply rely on word-of-mouth.
"Unfortunately in this case here, you still need to get the word out to country people, to country fans. And it helps to have corporate dollars to do that with; that's just the business of it. And I wish I had Phish's mailing list, but I don't, so we have the Waffle House instead," he said.
While Stuart says he appreciates the renewed attention paid to traditional country music in the wake of the "O Brother Where Art Thou" roots phenomenon, he emphasizes that he is not riding the recent trendy alt-country wave.
"I've never tried to pander to that, or go chase that at all. I go back to when I was with Lester Flatt; I was doing that when I was 13. I was playing with Johnny Cash when I was 21. And to me [that's] still mainstream country music," he said.
Although no official date has been set, Stuart hinted that the last stop of the tour would be in Oxford in early September. Earlier tour dates are listed on Stuart's Web site at http://www.martyparty.com.