Stuart Became A Picker Before It Was Popular

This appeared on - June 23, 2011

Marty Stuart epitomizes classic country music. Not only did he come up the old-fashioned way, playing alongside bluegrass greats such as Lester Flatt as a teenager, he paid his dues as a musician, songwriter and performer.

He seemed to understand instinctively, as he stood on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry at age 13, playing the mandolin, that it would take a lot of work to get to the top.

Stuart, Saturday's Summer Festival of the Arts headliner at Liberty Park, was also smart enough to make many important friends on his way up.

At a fundraiser two weeks ago at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, he told the crowd an old friend might be joining him. A minute later, Dolly Parton came strolling across the stage. In Nashville, nobody's bigger than Dolly, and the crowd responded enthusiastically.

When Stuart, 52, jokingly asked, "Didn't we used to be married?" Parton said: "Nah, you know that'd never work out. We'd be constantly fighting over the hair spray."

Stuart does have quite a mop, but it's part of his persona -- like Porter Wagoner's rhinestone suits or Conway Twitty's pompadour.

Though not a megastar in the universe of, say, Tim McGraw, Stuart knows his way around Nashville and is respected as a gifted picker and a talented singer and songwriter.

"I learned from the best," Stuart likes to say. Growing up in Philadelphia, Mississippi, he started playing in a bluegrass band when he was 12. Roland White, a member of Lester Flatt's band, spotted him and invited him to play with the group at a Labor Day gig in Delaware.

Flatt was so taken with the kid's skills that he invited him to join the band, which Stuart did. "I stayed for the next six years, until Lester became ill and the band broke up," he said.

Stuart immediately found work with fiddler Vassar Clements and guitarist Doc Watson, two of Nashville's all-time great musicians. Inspired by what he was hearing and learning, Stuart cut two albums in the early '80s that had a decidedly bluegrass flavor.

Though praised by critics, the albums didn't sell that well, as the new, pop-flavored country music was in favor. I believe had Stuart released those albums two decades later, after traditional country came back in vogue, they'd have been hits.

No matter, Stuart simply continued his country education. He joined Johnny Cash's band and also fell in love with Cindy Cash, Johnny's daughter. They wed in 1983, but the marriage lasted only five years. Still, Stuart remained close to Johnny Cash.

You sense that Cash's songwriting skills rubbed off on Stuart, who released his first hit album, Hillbilly Rock, in 1990. He also wrote a couple of hit songs for Travis Tritt.

Throughout his career, Stuart always appreciated every aspect of his business. When he played with Flatt, for instance, and the playlist would be thrown into the wastebasket at the end of the night, Stuart always dug it out and saved it.

Soon he began frequenting shops to add to his collection, becoming a "picker" in more ways than one. In the early '80s, as Stuart browsed a shop in Nashville, he spotted a makeup case with the name "Patsy Cline" stamped on it.

Stuart said he went outside and phoned Charlie Dick, Cline's widower, to check on the authenticity of the case. Dick verified that it had belonged to Patsy, who perished in a 1963 plane crash. He bought it for $75.

Some items in his collection weren't so cheap -- he paid $2,500 for Marilyn Monroe's autograph, for example. In all, Stuart estimates that his collection contains more than 20,000 items and is stored in a climate-controlled room the size of a six-car garage.

Stuart said the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame often call to borrow items.

In 1997, Stuart married country singer Connie Smith, who is 17 years his senior. He recalls the first time he showed Smith his collection, and he slipped a jacket over her shoulders in the cool room. It had belonged to the immortal Hank Williams.

Stuart has always had an appreciation for the good stuff, as his Erie fans will discover at his 8 p.m. concert.

By Kevin Cuneo

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