Stuart Salutes Country Music's Lengthy Past

This appeared in the Pasadena Star-News- April 11, 2009

Every music genre has its bad boys and in country, Marty Stuart had the reputation for being one of the worst. Tired of being arrested and consistently self-sabotaging any of the good things he was a part of, Stuart is now walking the straight and narrow.

"I knew I had a problem to hit squarely and deal with and I finally got the courage to do that," Stuart said. "It put me into the arena of my destiny, I can go get it now."

Part of Stuart's future includes reflecting on his past via selections from his massive collection of country music memorabilia that have been worked into the exhibit, Sparkle and Twang: Marty Stuart's American Musical Odyssey.

It has been on display at the Tennessee State Museum, the Statehouse Museum in Arkansas and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and is now coming to the Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles.

The show features costumes, lyrics, letters, instruments and photographs of icons such as Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. There is also a dressing room, an interactive stage, listening stations, videos and more. One section is devoted to Johnny Cash and another showcases country music pioneers and their gifts of musical legacy.

"I'm really honored to bring this portion of my collection back to California," said Stuart, who is also a patron of the Autry. "So much of this collection emanates from California."

Stuart grew up in Mississippi and started his first band at age 9 and by ninth grade, he was working with Lester Flatt at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. He stayed with Flatt until his band broke up in 1978.

Stuart was a part of Johnny Cash's backing band from 1980-1985, when he left to pursue a solo career. He has worked with many of the artists in the industry and is a former president of the Country Music Foundation.

Today, Stuart is a born-again Christian, married to country singer Connie Smith and living in Hendersonville, Tennessee. The couple often put time aside to write together as well as separately.

"(Recently) we booked time for ourselves to just do nothing except be around the house and write and the result was four wonderful songs," Stuart said. "It's like a gift from heaven when songs come down."

He stays true to his roots by inking traditional tunes, but isn't afraid to step things up with a contemporary twist when it feels right.

"I think you have to be true to the song," he said. "Songs come and it's like a painting or a kid even, everybody is different, everything is different and when a song comes that I know is specifically a traditional country song, it's wrong to try to drape it in some kind of rock and roll fantasy."

The exhibit, Sparkle and Twang, also shows the reverence that Stuart has for the history of his genre. In the early `80s, country music artists were selling off their traditionally flamboyant attire and changing their image in hopes of capturing a younger demographic pop audience.

"These people in traditional country music and their belongings, those are the people that raised me and those are the sights and the sounds that affected me and I didn't want to see it get thrown away," Stuart said.

"It just seemed a sin to me that all these wonderful things were being thrown away just for the sake of a bigger audience. I thought the entire story of country music should move forward, so I became a missionary going out to collect all I could."

Stuart now has more than 20,000 artifacts in his collection which he keeps in warehouses around Nashville. He hopes to eventually find permanent homes for the items in museums around the world. For now, you can see "a corner" of his memorabilia in Sparkle and Twang.

"They're all hand-picked treasures," he said. "There's some powerful pieces in this exhibit whether it's the original hand-written lyrics of Hank Williams' `Your Cheating Heart' or Johnny Cash's first black suit, the boots Patsy Cline was wearing when she lost her life, it's a profound exhibit, a lot of history."

Stuart is gearing up for his next tour and has six albums ready to take into the studio. Three of them are Connie Smith's, and the rest are country, gospel and instrumental. He is continuing production on his television show, The Marty Stuart Show, which airs Saturday evenings on the RFD Network.

Stuart is also completing work on two books, one, called Badlands, is his photographic journey through the Pine Ridge, South Dakota badlands. His previous work, Country Music: The Masters, features photos he took of the various people he has crossed passed with in the industry. Some of his photos are on display in the exhibit and the book will be available for purchase in the museum's gift shop.

"If you've never been to the Autry, it is a must-see and this exhibit just carries on the must-see," Stuart said. "It's an added attraction, but just the Autry itself is a wonderful place."

By Michelle Mills

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