Country Treasures

This appeared in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette - August 17, 2008

Marty Stuart does more — much more — than the usual recording and touring musician. Known for his formerly flashy outfits and flamboyant hair, Stuart also collects music-related artifacts in part to pay his respects to his bluegrass and country heritage.

Those wanting proof need only wander down to the Old State House Museum and take a look at the exhibit upstairs: Sparkle & Twang: Marty Stuart’s American Musical Odyssey. Stuart and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, will come to the museum for an intimate performance Saturday night. Stuart, known as a whiz on guitar, mandolin and fiddle, will be accompanied by guitarist Kenny Vaughan, drummer Harry Stinson and new bassist Paul Martin, who recently replaced Brian Glenn.

Stuart has played and mastered not just bluegrass and country, but also hillbilly, country-rock, gospel, Southern rock, honkytonk, rock ’n’ roll and rockabilly.

A native of Philadelphia — not the city of brotherly love but the one in Arkansas’ neighboring state, Mississippi — Stuart had his career goals in mind at a much earlier age than most of us. He taught himself the guitar at age 6 and later learned the mandolin. By age 12 he was playing professionally, and at 14 he had left school and hit the road to play full time for Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass. When Flatt retired from the road in 1978, Stuart worked first with Vassar Clements, then with Doc Watson, and later moved on to stints in the bands of Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. He has also played with Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young and Billy Joel.

He had a lifelong dream of joining Johnny Cash’s band and did so for six years, until opting for a solo career in 1986. While a member of Cash’s band, Stuart released his first solo recording, Busy Bee Cafe, on the bluegrass-oriented label Sugar Hill Records. Cash and Doc Watson made guest appearances on the 1982 recording. Four years later, he followed that record with a self-titled, major label debut on Columbia Records, but despaired of life there and next jumped to MCA Records.

Three years later he registered his first hit album, Hillbilly Rock. Along the way, he married Cindy Cash, one of Johnny’s daughters, in 1983, and though the marriage broke up in 1988 he remained a close friend of Johnny Cash. When Cash died, Stuart decided to give up his once-colorful attire and take up the “man in black” persona that Cash had favored.

MCA released Stuart’s albums Tempted in 1991, This One’s Gonna Hurt You a year later, Love and Luck in 1994, The Marty Party Hit Pack in 1995, Honky Tonkin’s What I Do Best in 1996 and The Pilgrim in 1999. In the midst of his MCA years, Columbia decided to finally release Let There Be Country in 1992, which he had recorded in the mid-1980 s and watched as it was relegated to the shelf.

Out on the road, Stuart found success touring with Travis Tritt. They called what they did the “No Hats Tour,” as it was in the day when many a “hat act” became huge (if brief ) attractions in country music. The two had a hit first under Tritt’s name with “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’ ” in 1991, then had another hit with “This One’s Gonna Hurt You,” under Stuart’s name.

As his career continued, Stuart began to notice that the Nashville, Tennessee powers-that-be were quick to discard the things of years past and move on to something new. He was picking up discarded items, rescuing set lists, original lyric sheets and even wildly colorful classic stage outfits by famed designers Nudie and Manuel.

By 1996, his collection was impressive enough that he had won his first term as president of the Country Music Foundation, overseers of the Country Music Hall of Fame, a post he served in until 2002. His collection went on exhibit at the Tennessee State Museum in 2007.

When he married again, it was to country singer Connie Smith — 17 years his senior — in 1997; he was making good on a promise he once made his mother that he would one day marry her. At the time he was a young boy attending one of her shows. He helped produce her self-titled comeback album for Warner Bros. in 1998, also writing eight of the album’s 10 songs.

In 2000, he changed record labels again, moving to Sony, where his first album was under the name he now uses, Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives. After five years, he started a label, Superlatone Records, with the goal of releasing overlooked Southern gospel and roots music. His first two albums on the label were Souls' Chapel, a collection of gospel tunes, and Badlands, ballads of the Lakota Sioux.

A year ago, he produced a comeback album by Porter Wagoner, who died soon after its release on the punk rock-oriented label, Epitaph Records.

Stuart will turn 50 on September 30.

The exhibit of Stuart’s collected memorabilia went up April 10 and will remain open through October 5.

Here are a few “don’t miss” items from Marty Stuart’s Sparkle & Twang exhibit at the Old State House Museum. The side-by-side outfits once worn by Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton during their duo days.. A long, Western-type stage jacket worn by Bob Dylan in the 1980 s. Guitar fans will want to see a guitar once owned by the late Clarence White, who was the co-inventor of the B-Bender device for Fender Telecasters. (White was killed by a drunken driver as he loaded his equipment after a show ). Elvis Presley’s sweater. Patsy Cline’s makeup case. Nine pairs of colorful boots owned by Marty Stuart, some made by Bo Riddle, a former Arkansan now living in the Missouri Ozarks.

The museum is open from 1 to 5 p.m. today and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Admission is free. Guided tours are available seven days a week; call in advance for group tour reservations at (501 ) 324-9865.

By Jack W. Hill

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