Marty Stuart: A Life in the Country

This appeared in the Washington Post - January 25, 2002

The first records Marty Stuart recalls arrived at the family home in Philadelphia, Mississippi, courtesy of the Columbia record club: Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" and Flatt and Scruggs's "At Carnegie Hall." Stuart was just a 5-year-old then, but country music grabbed him hard. By 13, he'd become a mandolin prodigy and moved to Nashville to join Lester Flatt's band. A decade later, Stuart became part of Cash's band (and family via a brief marriage to one of his daughters). When he began touring as a headliner in the mid-'80s, Stuart did so in Ernest Tubb's old bus.

As he made the transition from adoring fan to fellow performer, Stuart became an archivist extraordinaire, amassing one of the world's largest collections of country music artifacts and memorabilia, more than 2,000 items worth $3 million. Stuart once joked that should Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum be cleaned out by robbers, he could restock it in a day.

Perhaps that's why he's been president of the Country Music Foundation for the last six years.

Truth is, Stuart is the walking embodiment of country music, blessed with a deep knowledge and abiding love for the music, as well as an intense work ethic learned from Flatt: keep it slow, keep it steady, build the foundation.

Now Stuart is touring after a hiatus of almost two years. "I'd been doing it for 28 years and there was a need after 'The Pilgrim' record to call time out, cool down and do something else," he says. "We'd had a great decade and achieved more than I'd ever hoped to or expected to, though in other ways, we didn't quite get it all."

The '90s had been good to Stuart, a brash young country traditionalist who'd helped fuel the music's resurgence with his meld of classic honky-tonk, bluegrass and what he dubbed "hillbilly rock." "The Pilgrim," an ambitious and complex concept album about a doomed-then-redeemed love triangle with an all-star cast that included Cash, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs, may well be Stuart's crowning achievement, but it also marked the end of his decade-long association with MCA Records.

"It was time for a change and I'm sure they felt the same way," Stuart says. "I've been poking around, checking everybody's camp, seeing what everybody's up to, seeing where the real heart and soul of country music was going to land and try to work out from there. In the meantime, I'm waiting for divine inspiration."

Not that Stuart has been waiting idly: he produced albums for Jerry and Tammy Sullivan, the bluegrass gospel act that gave him his first job at age 12, and for actor-director Billy Bob Thornton, two of whose films he scored: "All the Pretty Horses" (for which Stuart received a Golden Globe nomination) and "Daddy and Them," finally scheduled for release this winter. Stuart, who also scored Jordan Brady's upcoming "Waking Up in Reno," starring Thornton and Charlize Theron, actually produced two Thornton albums.

"Billy Bob wanted to keep cutting, so we did a '60s cover record," Stuart says. "I don't know if it will ever see the light of day, or if he wants it to, but we made a cool record."

There's also Stuart's advocacy on behalf of the Country Music Foundation and his various archival pursuits.

Blame it on the Columbia record club and Hamill's Drug Store, which Stuart used to hustle to after elementary school.

"It was the only place in Philadelphia that carried Country Song Roundup," he recalls fondly. "I would take the magazine off the stand and go through it and study what kind of guitars people played, what kind of suits they wore, as well as the words to the songs -- it started that innocently."

Then came the Sullivans.

"They played a little Pentecostal church a mile from my house and they let me get up and play with them and I caught the fever," says Stuart, who spent the summer of 1960 with the Sullivans on the Pentecostal church and bluegrass festival circuit. "When that was over and it was time to cut my hair, suit up and go back to school, it just didn't work for me anymore. School didn't last very long -- I got kicked out" for reading country music magazines inside his textbooks.

With the wary blessings of his parents, Stuart went to Nashville at age 13 and took the mandolin slot in Flatt's band, soon graduating to guitar and lead vocals. Living at Flatt's house would inspire another passion.

"Lester's peers were Roy Acuff, Tubb and Bill Monroe -- that's who he hung out with," Stuart says. "One day the four of them were just sitting there talking and I thought, 'God, it's like Mount Rushmore and nobody's got a camera!' It struck me that every move these guys make means something, so I started carrying a camera along."

Everywhere, as it turned out. Like the fabled jazz bassist-photographer Milt Hinton (who became a major inspiration), Stuart shot from the inside and proved as much an artist with a camera as he was with a stringed instrument: his 1999 "Pilgrims, Sinners, Saints and Prophets" (Rutledge Hill Press), collecting 25 years of his photographs, is already in its third printing.

As for the hardcore collecting, Stuart dates it to an early '80s tour overseas with Cash that included a visit to London's Hard Rock Cafe. "I walked in and saw all these artifacts on the wall, but I knew where there was stuff just as cool. So I came back home and went after musicians' costumes. In the '70s, Nashville had become ashamed of them: they weren't in style and very few people still wore them -- you could find them in thrift shops. I started buying them from anybody who'd sell them to me or who'd outgrown them or were ashamed of them." Now, many are on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles.

And when Stuart noticed "our culture and heritage flying out the window -- a lot of instruments that belonged to famous country singers were getting bought up by overseas guitar collectors -- I threw myself in front of it. It was a hobby that turned into a campaign."

On "The Pilgrim," Stuart listed not only the great musicians, but the great instruments that were featured, including the 1955 Fender Esquire that Luther Perkins played on the early Cash hits for Sun.

"It has the same strings on it as when Luther died [in 1967]," Stuart says reverentially. "When I plug it into the amplifier and set the volume and tone pretty close to where I think Luther played it and play 'I Walk the Line,' it sounds exactly like the record and it really goes in deep and touches my heart."

Even more touching are the manuscripts he has acquired.

"When you hold the words to 'I Saw the Light' in your hand that Hank Williams wrote with a pencil on notebook paper and see the three verses that he crossed off because he didn't think they were good enough -- you feel this divine lightning hitting and, bam, there it is. . . . To hold that or 'Cold, Cold Heart' or 'Your Cheating Heart' or the original lyrics to 'Blue Suede Shoes,' there's something about song manuscripts that's special."

Of course, there's nothing like working with the living, breathing architects of country and bluegrass, even when it goes to extremes. Stuart has joked that Connie Smith is the most valuable thing in his collection. Smith was Nashville's top female vocalist between Patsy Cline in the early '60s and the mid-'70s troika of Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton, but after recording 50 albums, she retired to raise five kids. Stuart first met Smith as a 12-year-old fan asking for an autograph; a quarter of a century later, he produced her comeback record . . . and subsequently married her.

Having worked on Scruggs's first album in 17 years, Stuart's now putting the finishing touches on a Cash tribute record featuring such artists as Keb' Mo', Little Richard, Travis Tritt, Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sheryl Crow and Steve Earle.

"And then it's really time to find a microphone and shut the door behind me in the studio and don't come out till it's there," Stuart says of his next album. "I was emptied out and I'm filling back up. I'm pretty full now."

By Richard Harrington

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