New Country Music Museum Well-Stocked by Collector

This appeared in the Los Angeles Times - May 10, 2001

"When I dropped by to visit Lester Flatt, his old guitar was propped against the wall in a corner," country music performer and inveterate collector Marty Stuart said. "It didn't even have any strings, but when they had a sale after his death, I bought it."

Stuart bought more than just a guitar. As he put it, "I bought a heritage." Flatt's guitar was the start of Stuart's collection of memorabilia totaling 2,000 items and valued at as much as $3 million. Some of the collection will be among roughly 1 million exhibits to be on display at the new $37 million Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which opens its doors on May 17.

Unlike its modest single-story predecessor on Music Row in Nashville, the sweeping, three-story glass and gray-stone 130,000-square-foot building boasts a conservatory, a theater and two huge galleries for exhibits.

People in this country music capital hope the new museum will lure tourists despite a sag in country music sales.

A musical prodigy, Stuart, now 42, spent most of his childhood on stage with future Country Music Hall of Fame members Flatt and Johnny Cash, while developing his appetite for collecting.

"Collecting these things was my hobby," Stuart said at a recent get-together at the soon-to-open Hall of Fame.

"I remember when I was sitting in on songwriting sessions with Cash and he would crumple up something he'd written and toss it in the wastebasket. I'd go forage after it and smooth it out and take it home."

Stuart was just 13 when he joined Flatt's "Nashville Grass," playing mandolin and guitar. After Flatt's death in 1979, Stuart played bluegrass music in a fusion style with fiddler Vassar Clements and acoustic guitar virtuoso Doc Watson. He also toured and recorded with Cash for six years.


"That's when I kept up collecting," Stuart recalled. "When I had only $30 a week for living expenses, I spent part of it on items that caught my fancy."

Once he was browsing through an old shop in Nashville when he stumbled across a travel case bearing the name "Patsy Cline" and a street address. This was shortly after the death of the country music star in a 1963 plane crash.

"I couldn't believe this was really hers so I called Patsy's husband and asked him if he could remember the address of the home in which the two had lived. Sure enough, the address was the same. So I thanked him and hung up and rushed back and bought the travel case," he said. "It cost me $75."

As his collection grew, Stuart added a pair of Jerry Lee Lewis' shiny black boots and bought an assortment of souvenirs from the Dallas relatives of the late, great Hank Williams.

"Hank's relatives didn't really know the historical value of these things. They sold a number of items for a pittance before I arrived on the scene. Of course, back then people didn't recognize that these would all be treasures from the past," Stuart said.

"I guess I got carried away collecting all these years. My accountants kept telling me I had to stop somewhere along the line. It became an out-of-control hobby. So I'm glad I've got this wonderful place to put it all on display for people to enjoy."

Did Stuart realize how valuable his collection would become? "Sure," he said. "I knew the prices would be rising. But that's not the main reason I collected. I loved it."

As one example of the value of some of these items, Stuart cited the recent sale of bluegrass master Bill Monroe's mandolin, which Monroe bought for $150 in 1943, to the newly endowed Bill Monroe Foundation for more than $1 million.

The foundation, headquartered in his birthplace in tiny Rosine, Kentucky, outbid the Smithsonian Institution for the battered old relic, earning Monroe's son James a tidy profit.

The Gibson mandolin shows the scars of tribulations endured by some of country music's early stars. It had to be pieced back together after being smashed by vandals in 1985, and it survived being run over by a car and getting drenched by rain.

By Reuters

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