Marty Stuart's Pack Rat Habit Pays Off

This appeared on - July 12, 2007

Depending on how you look at it, Marty Stuart is either a genius for saving all those cowboy boots, rhinestone suits and flashy string ties, or he's a pack rat with a taste for garish clothes.

His collection of country music memorabilia reflects not only Stuart's own remarkable life -- from child prodigy in Philadelphia, Mississippi, to sideman with Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash, mainstream hitmaker and rootsy revisionist _ but also his obsession with country music and its colorful past.

There are Cash's guitars, Emmylou Harris' hat, Hank Williams' report card, Carl Perkins' stage jacket, Jimmie Rodgers' railroad lantern, Maybelle Carter's handwritten lyrics, Patsy Cline's makeup case, Buck Owens' boots. The list seems endless.

He's accumulated enough to fill several warehouses (more than 20,000 items at last count) and loans it to places like the country and rock halls of fame.

The highlights of his collection are now on display at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville through November 11 in a show called Sparkle & Twang: Marty Stuart's American Musical Odyssey.

While every item has been appraised, Stuart won't divulge what it's worth except to wag his head and allow, "Crazy money. Crazy, crazy money."

"Most country artists from that golden era ... you'd ask them what happened to that suit, and they'd say, 'Ah, I gave it away. I didn't think anything about it.' They didn't see the eternal value of it. It was just taken for granted _ a tool to work with. Now that history has gone on and the world has turned a little more, this stuff means more than it ever has."

At 48, Stuart is no longer the young rebel out to shake up Nashville or the country hitmaker of the early '90s ("Hillbilly Rock," "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'"), though he still has that pile of spiky hair, like a rooster caught in the rain.

He's been on a creative roll recently, releasing four albums and a book of photography since 2005. His records touch on gospel, bluegrass, blues, rockabilly, even Native American music. His latest, Compadres, is an anthology of duets with the likes of Cash, B.B. King, Merle Haggard, the Staple Singers, Loretta Lynn and Steve Earle.

As he browsed the exhibit one afternoon, he'd latch onto an artifact and launch into another story.

"I still get wide-eyed when I see this stuff," Stuart said. "These are people I grew up watching on TV in Mississippi. I knew their guitars and suits long before I got here. It was hillbilly Hollywood. That's what drew me to Nashville."

Stuart has always had extraordinary access to extraordinary people. His candid black-and-white photos look like vintage Rolling Stone covers: B.B King, John Lee Hooker, Haggard, Cash, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Little Richard, Bill Monroe, Dolly Parton.

"The first time I went to New York City I was 14 years old," he begins, "and I went into this bookstore in Greenwich Village and they had (jazz bass player/photographer) Milt Hinton's photos along the wall. He took his camera everywhere he took his bass, and he had unprecedented access to all these folks. I thought, 'I do too, except in country.'"

His passion for collecting started when he was 4 or 5 and his mom got him Minnie Pearl's autograph. Things really took off in the early '80s when he was in London with Cash and saw the memorabilia at the original Hard Rock Cafe.

"Outside of the Country Music Hall of Fame, I didn't see anyone attending to country music stuff," he said. "On the way back home on the airplane I was thinking the whole way."

He began scouring yard sales and thrift stores. People gave him things, others bartered or traded with him. He'd verify the authenticity by studying old photographs, talking to friends and relatives or, when possible, to the artists themselves.

He hesitates when asked his most prized possession because he has some whoppers, like the handwritten lyrics to Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart" and "Your Cheatin' Heart," Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and Bob Dylan and Cash's "Wanted Man." And no telling how many rhinestone suits he owns by the late cowboy couturier, Nudie Cohen, and his disciple, Manuel.

There's also a photo of Stuart as a teenager with country star Connie Smith. It was taken at a fair in Mississippi, and, as the story goes, Stuart told his mom on the way home that he would one day marry the pretty blond singer several years his senior. Twenty-five years later, in 1997, he did just that.

Less than 10 percent of Stuart's collection made it into the museum. There just wasn't enough room for all of it.

Renee White, who as curator of Sparkle & Twang had to sift through everything and arrange it in a way that made sense, wanted to tell Stuart's story while capturing the flavor of country music's past.

"It was a beautiful time for music and a beautiful time for fashion," White said. "All of these guys were friends, and they were friendly everywhere they went. There were no racial boundaries in the music."

Grand Ole Opry announcer and historian Eddie Stubbs said Stuart had great foresight to preserve these items because few others were at the time. In particular, his large number of Hank Williams artifacts, which Stuart acquired from Williams' sister, Irene, are vital to the history of American music, Stubbs said.

"When he started collecting seriously in the '80s, country music was shunning the rhinestone image," Stubbs said. "If Marty hadn't have been there, this stuff might have really gone by the wayside. I hate to think what might have happened to it."

Stuart calls the exhibit a "victory lap," a chance to take stock of his collection and ponder its future. He'd like to show it in museums across the country and eventually find it a permanent home.

For him it represents a childhood dream fulfilled. As he gazes at a picture of a rhinestone-clad Cohen, he muses, "There's something to be said about the spirit of America when you go to work looking like that every day."

"Beautiful," he mumbles to himself.

By John Gerome

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