The major label phase of Marty Stuart’s career is considered to have begun in earnest with the release of 1989’s Hillbilly Rock, following a brief and somewhat inauspicious stint with Columbia. Now signed to MCA, Marty finally began to enjoy some commercial success, primarily thanks to the album’s catchy but lyrically light Paul Kennerley-penned title track, which would become his first Top 10 hit.
Produced by Richard Bennett and Tony Brown, Hillbilly Rock, as its title suggests, has got a distinct rockabilly flavor and the influence of Marty’s mentor Johnny Cash is readily apparent. In fact, Marty’s first single release for MCA was a cover of Cash’s 1955 hit “Cry! Cry! Cry!” It was an odd choice to launch the career of a relatively unknown artist, especially since it occurred during a period when Johnny Cash was decidedly out of vogue in Nashville. Not surprisingly, Marty’s faithful-to-the-original version was not a huge hit, though it did crack the Top 40, making it his highest charting single (at #32) since 1985’s “Arlene”, which was his only Top 20 hit up to that time. The next single, “Don’t Leave Her Lonely Too Long”, is my favorite track on the album. It was written by Marty and Kostas and sounds a lot like the music The Mavericks were doing around that time. Unfortunately, it was met by a big yawn at country radio and it stalled at #42. The tune was revived by Gary Allan almost a decade later when he included it on his It Would Be You album.
Marty’s commercial fortunes began to change with the release of the album’s title track as the third single. Fueled by a video that was in heavy rotation on TNN and CMT, “Hillbilly Rock” allowed Marty to crack the Top 10 for the first time. Peaking at #8, it was not a smash hit, but it was a significant and hard fought milestone for an artist who had enjoyed a fair share of critical acclaim but seemed to be in danger of failing to catch on in the marketplace.
Mainstream country music in the early 1990s was obsessed with “hat acts”. Marty didn’t fit the mold and that may have made his music more difficult to market, though he eventually turned this to his advantage a few years later when he teamed up with Travis Tritt for the highly successful “No Hats” tour. It became apparent that he still faced an uphill climb at country radio when Hillbilly Rock’s fourth and final single, “Western Girls” disappointingly peaked at #20, though it deserved to chart much higher.
I was somewhat surprised at the time to learn of Marty’s bluegrass background and his vast knowledge and devotion to traditional country music because his music that was getting radio airplay at the time was anything but traditional. But after looking past the radio hits and delving more deeply into the album cuts, another side of his musical personality can be heard. “When The Sun Goes Down” is the album’s most traditional cut, sounding a lot like the Merle Haggard classic “The Bottle Let Me Down”, and the beautiful and understated closing track “Since I Don’t Have You” would be right at home on Ghost Train or Marty’s most recent album. Both tunes were written by Marty and Mark Collie.
Although Hillbilly Rock was only moderately successful, it earned a lot of critical acclaim and introduced Marty Stuart to mainstream audiences. It also stands as an example of how much more diversity was on country radio twenty years ago, before things became too homogenized, as it is quite different from most of the music on the charts at the time. It was a particular favorite of then-President George H.W. Bush, who requested and received a copy of Hillbilly Rock to listen to on Air Force One. It is still easy to find and is worth seeking out.