Marty Stuart Has Lived, Collected Country Music History

This appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal - February 27, 2015

Marty Stuart doesn’t look like your average historian, yet that’s just what the country music superstar is.
Along with Grammys and gold records, Stuart — who will perform a sold-out show at the Stoughton Opera House on Saturday — has acquired a substantial slice of country music’s history through items he has collected and photographs he has shot.

His latest release, too, reflects a bit of history. Saturday Night / Sunday Morning dips into the realm of what makes country music what it is, minus the current affection for pickup trucks and girls in tight jeans. The double album serves up a bit of outlaw and honky tonk for Saturday, then some spirituality with the gospel of a Sunday morning.

A double concept album is something few artists are doing in any genre, much less country, but Stuart didn’t care. He’s spent the past decade or more following his creative muse, and it hasn’t been easy.

“As an artist you have to follow your heart, wherever it leads you,” he said, “at any cost.”

Saturday Night / Sunday Morning came about over the course of nine years. Stuart had the songs and had the right band, the Fabulous Superlatives, but waited it out until it came together.

“The first song we recorded nine years ago was ‘Uncloudy Day’ with Mavis Staples,” Stuart said of the song that leads off the second disc. “We had no reason to record it other than she was in town and she had given me her dad’s guitar, and that’s what I used.

“Once we recorded it I thought, ‘Boy, that was really special.’ I thought if we put it off to the side, we’d find a place for it one day.”

The time finally came, and there was a public willing to embrace it. That was unlike 1999, when Stuart released another concept album, The Pilgrim. That record was based on the true story of a man from Stuart’s hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi, and featured a slew of country music stars such as Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Earl Scruggs and George Jones.

It was a critical success but a commercial bust.

“With The Pilgrim, I paid the cost,” he said. “They didn’t know what to do with it at my record company. But the thing that I found out this time with this record, the acceptance was so much bigger. I found myself on late-night TV, I found myself getting a half a page in the New York Times. I think things have changed, and it’s been good.”

Stuart, 56, has been a witness to many of the changes in country music. At age 13, he was playing the mandolin in legendary Lester Flatt’s band. From there, he was in Johnny Cash’s band until pursuing a solo career in the 1980s.

Big-time success followed. Three albums — Hillbilly Rock (1989), Tempted (1991) and This One’s Going to Hurt You (1992) — earned gold records, marking sales of 500,000 copies. It wasn’t enough, Stuart said.

He knows the country music culture well and has done much to keep it alive. When Stuart was just starting out in the business, he took a cue from his mother, who loved to shoot photos. Beginning with a Kodak Instamatic and graduating to better cameras, he caught candid moments of some of country music’s legends behind the scenes.

Stuart had his camera with him when he visited his neighbor, Johnny Cash, one day in 2003, and the haunting photo Stuart shot turned out to be the last the legend sat for — he died four days later.

“I knew when not to aim the camera but I knew that when I did, it was fine with them,” he said. “I took the kind of photographs that if you could get them in focus, you knew you had a good picture because it was like shooting at Mount Rushmore.”

Last year, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts presented American Ballads: The Photographs of Marty Stuart and published a companion book.

“Whether it’s writing songs, designing a house, playing the guitar or mandolin or doing a show, taking a pictures, being a curator, it all boils down to being creative,” he said. “When I take a good picture, I play the guitar better and vice versa.”

Stuart also connects to country’s past with the artifacts he has acquired over the years. It started as a rescue mission, seeing things such as dazzling suits and lyric sheets showing up in thrift shops, pawn shops or guitar shops. Then it turned into a cultural mission, inspired by seeing rock artifacts in the Hard Rock Cafe in London.
“It seemed like an injustice to me for the family jewels to be squandered,” he said of country music artifacts. “It seemed like a segment of American culture that hadn’t seen its deserving light.”

His collection includes the first black suit worn by Cash, Minnie Pearl’s hat, a Hank Williams guitar and Patsy Cline’s makeup kit. There also are flashy suits worn by the likes of Porter Wagoner or Roy Rogers, many of them legendary outfits that are called “Nudie Suits” after the man who made them, Nudie Cohn.

“I know those things were regarded as clown suits at one point, but they seemed to me to be wearable art,” said Stuart, who likes wearing such flashy suits even today. “They were an important piece of American culture, one of the most original fashion statements American culture has made.”

He has acquired more than 20,000 artifacts that are being kept with museum-like care in a warehouse in Tennessee. Eventually, they’ll be part of the Marty Stuart Center and Congress of Country Music Hall in his Mississippi hometown.

“It’s so wonderful to have a broad palette of interests instead of just one thing,” Stuart said. “I originally saw myself as a star, being on stage with a guitar and singing like Hank Williams. It just didn’t work out that way for me, I had to dig harder.”

By Jane Burns

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