Marty Stuart - High Priest of Hillbilly Fashion

This article appeared in Country America - October 1990

Marty Stuart remembers fondly when country music singers really looked the part. "Ernest Tubb would come into town and there'd be this big green bus," says Marty. "And then all the musicians would step off wearing matching outfits..." He smiles, "Man, that was something to see!"

Sight and sound have a unique union in country music, and Marty is working to preserve their previous fusion. His collection of nearly 200 vintage country music outfits, the most extensive anywhere, recalls the glory days of hillbilly glitter.

Throughout the Fifties and Sixties, country music became closely associated with its own trademark style of flamboyant stage wear. In those days, rhinestone-studded outfits and other flashy, custom-made spotlight suits were de rigueur dress for most country entertainers.

But then, during the anything-goes Seventies, country music's dress code took a nose dive. Entertainers let slouch creep into their style, save for a select few. "Porter Wagoner, Little Jimmy Dickens and Hank Snow were really the only people who stuck to their guns, clotheswise," says Marty.

High fashion is staging a comeback in country music these days, thanks in part to Marty's efforts. "In 1985, when I got a record deal with CBS, I started looking around for a way to get the 'image' back into country music," he says. "I started wearing the decorated, bolero-style jackets with bluejeans instead of matching pants--everybody else had been wearing complete suits. I wanted to have fun with it. Shortly after that, Dwight Yoakam also started doing it, then Chris Hillman of the Desert Rose Band picked up on it again. Soon everybody was getting back into it."

Along with clothes that have been made especially for him, Marty has also acquired outfits from other sources. He's particularly proud of the jackets, skirts and pants that originally belonged to the California-based Maddox family, a group that consisted of lead singer Rose Maddox and her brothers. In the years after World War II, the Maddoxes were the epitome of glittery West Coast country style. "They were billed as 'the world's most colorful hillbilly band'," says Marty. Rose Maddox turned the collection over to him several years ago.

Marty started his rhinestone roundup with the telephone. "I called everyone who ever wore rhinestones. I pretty well knew who they were. A lot of them sold their outfits to me. Some wanted to keep them, others loaned them to me to wear for a while."

In addition to the clothes, Marty's collection also includes such furnishings as hand-tooled leather boots, belts, gloves and pistol holsters. He also has custom-made cowboy hats and an array of shiny silver conchos decorated with colorful beadwork. A true connoisseur, he knows the history of each particular item. He can also tell, at a glance, who made it. "I can look at the toe of a boot or the stitching on a shirt and tell who did it. It's like music. You can drop a needle on a record and instantly know who's singing. All the designers have their own little signature touches.

"A lot of these fellows and ladies who make this stuff are getting older and someday won't be around anymore," he says. "I just wanted to get my hands on as much of it as I could while it's still around. It's going to get really rare. On a street-market level, they'd be considered used clothes. But to me, they're something special."

Marty senses a near-mystical power in his fancy stage clothes. "They're uniforms," he says. "They transform you. In my case, they turn me into a hillbilly singer. When I get on my bus and put on these clothes, I can almost feel something coming together."

He uses the term "hillbilly" with respect--earned from first-person association with some of the finest so-called hillbilly singers in country music. When he was 13, Marty joined the band of bluegrass master Lester Flatt, distinguishing himself as a lightning-fast guitarist and mandolin picker. He later went on to a place of prominence in the musical entourage of Johnny Cash. "I worked with the masters," Marty says proudly.

Hillbilly, he says, doesn't mean hick. "I was watching reruns of old country music shows from the Sixties the other day," he says. "The set in the TV studio had a front porch, fake flowers, hay bales, wagon wheels and a singer. That's what a lot of people still think Nashville is.

"I got news for you," Marty says, pausing for emphasis. "We're as hip down here as you can get."

Article written by Neil Pond

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