Highways and Heartaches—How Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, and the Children of The New South Saved the Soul of Country Music
Hachette Books, 2023
Most avid bluegrass music fans are familiar with the similar trajectories of the careers of Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart. Both Skaggs and Stuart started performing at a young age with first generation bluegrass legends—Skaggs with Ralph Stanley, Stuart with Lester Flatt. They then both entered the journeyman phase of their careers with other established performers—Skaggs with J.D. Crowe, the Country Gentlemen and Emmylou Harris. Stuart with Johnny Cash. Later, they both mastered their craft and stood on their own to became country music stars, infusing their traditional roots music DNA into that genre. Later still, they both turned back towards their roots and continue to ride those roads today—Skaggs with Kentucky Thunder, Stuart with his Fabulous Superlatives. Readers of this magazine will be familiar with these career paths and will have identified their similarities.
In his new book, Highways and Heartaches, author Michael Streissguth takes a deep dive into both artists careers, providing details that may not be known to the average bluegrass or country music fan. The telling of these two fascinating stories is laid out chronologically by roughly alternating chapters—one about Skaggs, the next about Stuart—closely following their nearly tandem career paths. We learn about their families, their influences, their collaborators and those that they themselves influenced.
However, beyond being a simple biographical telling of the personal stories of these two artists, this book addresses the impact that the social and political environment of the era had on the music and these musicians. Additionally, it brings to light the impact both Skaggs and Stuart—coming from strong acoustic rural roots—had on “the soul of country music.” So, in addition to being a story about two musicians, this book also tells the broader and more over-reaching story about the shifting tides of roots, bluegrass and country music during a particular era in American history and how these two musicians, and their musical collaborators, influenced those movements.
If you are a fan of either Ricky Skaggs or Marty Stuart this is a must read book. The book will also be of interest to anyone who is a fan of any of Skaggs’ or Stuart’s influences or collaborators, such as Ralph Stanley, Keith Whitley, Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Carl Jackson, J. D. Crowe, Jerry Douglas, the Country Gentlemen, Boone Creek, Tony Rice, Doc Watson, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash and more. In other words, most any bluegrass music fan is going to enjoy reading this book.
Beyond that, this book will also be a captivating read for anyone who is interested in examining how post-WWII southern Appalachian culture, politics, and religion influenced American music in general, and these two artists in particular, and how that influence produced the “new traditionalism” in the country music of the 1980s and led to defining the roots-oriented sounds of the Americana music genre. Highly recommended!