Country Curator

Renaissance man Marty Stuart unveils his private collection of country music memorabilia

This appeared in the Nashville Scene - May 31, 2007

For Marty Stuart, country music encompasses living culture, musical practice and historical awareness. During a nearly 40-year career, the Mississippi native has worked with Lester Flatt, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and The Staple Singers, and he honors country’s evolution with his production of Porter Wagoner’s new Wagonmaster, which smartly sums up Wagoner’s career. The collaborations and his distinguished solo recordings assert country’s vitality, but Stuart is just as well known for preserving some of the music’s emblematic artifacts.

The fruits of Stuart’s collecting debut this week at the Tennessee State Museum. “Sparkle & Twang: Marty Stuart’s American Musical Odyssey” displays guitars, stage suits, handwritten lyrics and other memorabilia—nearly 1,000 pieces in all—that give a sense of both the outsized and quotidian aspects of country music history. Organized chronologically and with newly commissioned artwork by Mekons frontman Jon Langford, “Sparkle & Twang” is pointed and richly textured, and doesn’t shy away from country’s less wholesome side.

“I’ve always been historically minded,” Stuart says. “In the early ’80s, I was on tour with [Johnny] Cash, and I came back to Nashville, and thought, ‘I have to go see about this stuff.’ Nashville—the music business—had just basically walked away from that earlier era, for the most part.” Inspired by the example of Hard Rock Café founder Isaac Tigrett, he began scouring out-of-the-way places for remnants of country’s storied past.

“These are the greats who formed our modern country music culture,” says “Sparkle & Twang” curator Renée White. “All these artifacts have been falling by the wayside. People have always considered country as the stepchild of music. Patsy Cline’s road case was found in a little store on Eighth Avenue.”

White, who had already acquired a Loretta Lynn dress and other items for the museum’s permanent collection, began planning an exhibit with Stuart that would in some ways parallel his career, beginning with his early experiences. The result only skims the surface of Stuart’s collection, which totals around 20,000 pieces. Among the treasures are Carl Perkins’ handwritten “Blue Suede Shoes” lyrics, A.P. Carter’s driver’s license, and Clarence White’s blue leather pants and vest. And there are great oddities, such as a 1992 letter from Johnny Cash to Stuart that reveals Cash’s sense of humor. “Well, so long,” Cash writes. “I’ll see you at the next Boxcar Willie show in Carnegie Hall.”

Other items on display are Hank Williams Sr.’s dice and lighter and one of his coats, which former Williams sideman Don Helms gave to Stuart. The elaborately turned-out stage suits by Nudie, Manuel, Turk and Jaime are highlights. Porter Wagoner’s suits for his band The Wagonmasters, with their combination of red, purple, white, pink and black, go beyond gaudiness into something approaching the sublime.

“Sparkle & Twang” is history through Stuart’s eyes. “When I was a kid in Philadelphia, Mississippi, Porter’s show, The Wilburn Brothers’ Show, the Flatt and Scruggs show, they were kind of our backdrop,” Stuart says. “Saturday afternoon was our time to hang out, and what we had in common was those country music TV shows.”

Stuart’s Saturday afternoons in Mississippi show up here, and can be viewed at video stations that are part of the exhibit. “There is some footage here that has not been seen before, like personal footage of Johnny Cash, late in life, at his home and singing with Marty,” White says. “And there is footage from The Porter Wagoner Show, of Porter’s red boots walking down the hall. We have those red boots. Also, we have Lester Flatt doing a jig onstage with a very young Marty.”

The exhibition also features footage of Civil Rights-era Freedom Marches, and addresses the racial tension Stuart felt growing up in the Mississippi of that era. “Around 1964, all of a sudden people would go to church, and take ball bats and guns,” Stuart says. “It was because of the church bombings. There was just so much paranoia and frenzy and fear in the air. But when those shows would come on—Flatt and Scruggs’ and Porter’s, especially—the air was like it used to be.”

If Wagoner’s music helped a fractured community heal itself, Stuart’s production on Wagonmaster takes as its starting point the strange combination of naturalistic detail, piety and detachment that characterizes classic late-’60s and early-’70s recordings such as “The Rubber Room,” “The Cold Hard Facts of Life” and “The Carroll County Accident.” Although Wagoner sometimes betrays his age, Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives ground every nuance with a walking bass or a drawn-up-tight guitar lick.

“I called Porter,” Stuart says, “and invited him to come out and sing a song on the Opry, and started hanging out with him. And the next thing I know, I found out it’s his 50th anniversary at the Opry—he’s 79 years old and nobody’s doing anything about it. And the more I hung out, the more these songs started coming. I eventually got 12 or 14 songs together, went around Nashville, and everybody passed on the project. We wound up on a punk-rock label.”

In fact, Wagoner’s half-century at the Opry was celebrated on May 19 with a show that featured Stuart and his band, along with electric banjo player Buck Trent and Dolly Parton, who sang “I Will Always Love You” to a frail but game Wagoner. He deserves the accolades, but there’s nothing particularly nostalgic about Wagonmaster.

“It’s a hardcore country record,” Stuart says. “I took him to New York City and played Joe’s Pub, and it’s the kids who respond to him. He’s a legitimate star, the real article. So those kids out there hearing him sing ‘The Rubber Room’ and ‘Committed to Parkview,’ that’s the thing.”

Written by Cash, “Committed to Parkview” could stand as an anti-museum of country’s aspirations. When Wagoner sings, “There’s a girl in 203 / Who stops by to visit me / And she talks about her songs / And the star that she should be / There’s a lot of real fine talent / Staying or passing through,” it’s as creepy and disquieting as pondering the contents of Patsy Cline’s road case.

Wagonmaster works as a series of sharp, mostly unsentimental portraits of larger-than-life characters. “Albert Erving” tells the story of a man who “used cardboard boxes to stop the cracks up,” while “Hotwired” conjures up a resourceful woman who, in effect, hot-wires the entire world, including Ernest Tubb and the “doggoned Rolling Stones.”

Stuart’s attention to detail and the fleet playing of his band make Wagonmaster a revisionist country record with a reason to exist.

His devotion to the form is something that can never be completely represented by a museum exhibit, but we still need tangible evidence that giants like Porter Wagoner and Johnny Cash have walked the earth. The items on display, as always, would be nothing without the people who used them.

By Edd Hurt

Return To Articles Return To Home Page