Marty Stuart Preserves Music's Golden Age In Song, Photos, Everyday Objects

This appeared in the San Antonio Express-News - June 12, 2007

Most artists would be satisfied to preserve their slice of country-music history with an anthology of duets with the greats.

But not Marty Stuart, a man of many passions.

One is for taking photographs; another, collecting artifacts.

They all fused last week with the launch of Stuart's three-pronged homage to the golden age of country:

• "Sparkle & Twang: Marty Stuart's American Musical Odyssey," an exhibit covering almost 10,000 square feet featuring items he began collecting as a teenager, opened at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville. Included are thousands of items, from Jimmie Rodgers' briefcase and Hank Williams' handwritten lyrics for "Your Cheatin' Heart" to Bob Wills' boots and Johnny Cash's black suit.

• "Country Music: The Masters," a 355-page book of photos, is Stuart's through-the-lens view of tours as a band member with Lester Flatt, Cash and his own group. Included are the last photo of Cash and candid views of George Jones, Dolly Parton and Earl Scruggs.

• "Compadres: An Anthology of Duets," features 14 tracks of Stuart with others, from playing mandolin at age 15 with Flatt and singing with Cash, Jones, Merle Haggard and Connie Smith to more recent work with Mavis Staples and a new recording with Loretta Lynn.

He's taking the musical show on the road, too, kicking off a tour last week with his group, Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, which will stop Friday night at Rio Cibolo Ranch, the second concert in the venue's premiere music series. The Gougers will open.

Stuart, 48, a native of Philadelphia, Mississippi, played guitar and mandolin as a preteen before joining bluegrass legend Flatt and Cash and founding his solo career. Along the way, he began collecting items, including Flatt's discarded drivers' license.

On tour in London with Cash in the early 1980s, he was inspired by how the fledgling Hard Rock Café preserved mementos of rock royalty.

"Back in America, it struck me that the Urban Cowboy movement was beginning to take over and the old world of country music was drifting away — the suits, the hats, boots, guitars," Stuart said. "Outside the Country Music Hall of Fame, which is doing a great job, I didn't see anybody paying attention to that strand of American culture.

"I simply followed my heart and went after those things."

The treasure hunt took him through thrift stores, vintage stores, yard sales and closets.

"Things kept divinely falling into my lap, and the collection became a self-imposed responsibility," Stuart said.

While portions were shown at such places as the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, nothing matches the scope of the exhibit at the Tennessee State Museum.

"The collection started in my bedroom in my mom and dad's house with five or six of Porter Wagoner's band members' costumes," Stuart said. "I just saw those things as a very important part of American culture. They were beautiful, wearable art."

Stuart also carried a camera.

His first book, Pilgrims: Sinners, Saints, and Prophets, was published in 1999.

Country Music: The Masters focuses on its golden age.

He likens his work to that of frontier photographer Edward S. Curtis.

"I see the same things in the old country-music world that he saw in 19th-century Native Americans," Stuart said. "He called them the beautiful vanishing race, and that's what old country music looks like to me."

The title for the anthology of duets, Compadres, goes back to when Stuart was 14 or 15, on tour with Flatt in California. He tried on a Nudie suit before finding out one cost $2,500. Telling him someday he would buy one, tailor Manuel Cuevas gave him an embroidered shirt, saying Stuart was his compadre.

The shirt is in the museum exhibit, and the CD named for friendship takes listeners on Stuart's four-decade odyssey through bluegrass, country, country rock and gospel.

"I started choosing songs by name-dropping on a yellow legal pad," he said. "By the time I was through, I went whoa — that's pretty good. I've really been blessed. Working with and knowing all these people gave me a feeling of a deeper responsibility to share their stories."

Their common thread is that they were products of a different time, before everything was homogenized, he said.

"Those people came from an America where authenticity counted, where your own individuality was your ticket to the gate," Stuart said. "You didn't get in if you were like somebody else; you had to be unique. Uniqueness is kind of discouraged these days."

Another of those authentic artists is Porter Wagoner, 79, who released the album Wagonmaster on June 6, the same day as Compadres.

Stuart produced it, too.

"I fell back in love again with Porter's music not too long ago," he said. "I put him back in touch with his sound, right back to the textbook of (his band) the Wagonmasters. They had just as much of a sound of their own as the Count Basie Orchestra or the Rolling Stones."

Looking at the past of country music, Stuart sees a bright future with mainstream country fueling the bank account while roots country artists feed its heart and soul.

He cited songwriter Harlan Howard's quote about country music being just three chords and the truth.

"I promise you that if you live long enough, a country song that is written right and performed by the right songbird is going to find its way into your heart — it will speak the truth into your life," he said.

And if that songbird sheds a feather, Stuart will be there to preserve it.

By John Goodspeed

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