When I was newly out of college, I met a man named Don Light, one of Nashville’s first country music power brokers, who became a friend and mentor.
I always called him “Don Light.” Many people did.
Don Light had discovered a magazine writer who wanted to be a fulltime singer and, after three years of rejections, finally found a label to sign Jimmy Buffett. As an unintentional reward, Don Light was the first person to hear “Margaritaville” within an hour of its completion.
People in the music industry agreed that Don Light, once a drummer on the Grand Ole Opry, had an uncanny eye for talent. He believed terrifically in a phenomenal traditional country singer named Keith Whitley who broke Don’s heart because he preferred drinking over singing. Then Whitley broke everyone’s heart by dying from too much drink at the age of 33.
“I just signed to manage Marty Stuart,” he said one day when he called. Don Light had a habit of going through his personal phone book daily to see who he hadn’t called in a while then touching base. “I believe he’s the best all-around singer, musician, songwriter, entertainer that I’ve ever seen.”
What I didn’t know then and would not know until Don Light’s funeral when Marty told the story was that Don had known Marty since he was a 14-year-old wonder kid playing mandolin for bluegrass legend Lester Flatt. Don Light, Marty told the mourners, had come up with the novel idea of booking Lester Flatt’s group into colleges, which revitalized Flatt’s image and made him very hip.
Once, around 1987 or so, Don Light brought Marty Stuart to the race track during the Daytona 500 week. I rounded the corner of a shed that held several race cars to see a sight I’ll never forget: Don Light in a sports jacket and dress slacks sitting on the back of Dale Earnhardt’s hauler. The hauler was sponsored then by Wrangler so it was painted in bright blue and yellow colors, and beside him was Marty in a hot pink stage suit covered in rhinestones.
This says everything you need to know to love Marty Stuart: He is an individual who follows his instincts and holds tightly to his unique creativity. Though to some, he might have looked out of place in the midst of the gritty, dirty garage, hoisted on the back end of the No. 3 truck, he is completely at home with himself. Wherever that is.
I am convinced that this common man’s poet who hails from Philadelphia, Miss., is one of the modern era’s most captivating storytellers. He mixes down home language with pretty words and creates enchanting sentences that roll so quickly off his tongue that you want to press pause so you can linger over the beauty of the phrases he strings together.
A couple of years ago, I requested an interview through his P.R. man who responded initially then did not return calls or emails again. That’s OK. I learned a long time ago that a man, good or bad, is not the sum of his P.R. people. I admire Marty terrifically and I hope that one day, he will fill volumes of books with the stories he knows, he’s lived and he’s shared (he’s married to Grand Ole Opry legend Connie Smith and he was once the son-in-law of Johnny Cash).
Strongly proud of his Mississippi roots, he once explained that when he needs to center himself and find his true creativity that “I always go back to the dirt roads of Mississippi.”
We saw a show of his recently. He sang, he entertained, he played the guitar and mandolin then he harmonized with his group – the Fabulous Superlatives—a capella on the gospel song, “Unseen Hand.” With the rest of the audience, we leapt to our feet and applauded long and hard.
Don Light, now with Jesus, was right. He always was.