Special Exhibit On Marty Stuart Planned At Historical Museum

This appeared in The Neshoba Democrat - August 1, 2007

Costumes worn by Marty Stuart along with some of his guitars and maybe even a mandolin might soon be on display in the historical museum as a tribute to the Philadelphia native and the music which molded his career.

Pat Alford and William Hamill of the museum council told Rotarians about the upcoming exhibit and their recent trip to Nashville where they toured the Sparkle and Twang: Marty Stuart's American Musical Odyssey exhibit in the Tennessee State Museum.

The two spoke with Stuart about the upcoming exhibit in his honor at the museum here and said he was enthusiastic about it, offering several items from his vast collection to be showcased.

The Marty Stuart exhibit here will not only follow his life and career, but will also encompass the music and artists that influenced him and those whose roots are found in Neshoba County such as Foots Baxstrum and Otis Rush.

The display at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville highlights memorabilia that Stuart has collected over the years.

The Sparkle and Twang exhibit features items such as Hank Williams' report card, Johnny Cash's guitars, and Buck Owens' boots.

Other notable items in Stuart's collection include handwritten lyrics to Williams's "Your Cheatin' Heart", Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and many rhinestone cowboy suits from the late cowboy couturier Nudie Cohen.

The exhibit shows the impact of music and fashion on American popular culture as well as the personal experiences of Stuart's musical career.

Alford said Stuart was truly an ambassador of Philadelphia and Neshoba County, and was proud of his roots.

He told Rotarians about a recent article on Stuart in "North Mississippi Christian Family" and quoted the opening lines:

"It all began in a little house in Philadelphia, Mississippi, with a dream and the gift of his first guitar in 1960. From that moment life changed."

Alford said that Stuart was really enthused about the exhibit in his hometown and offered everything he had to make the display.

Museum Council member Alice Rowe said that some items that could possibly be included in the display are costumes, guitars, or even a mandolin from Stuart's mass collection.

Though nothing is definite, Rowe said Stuart plans to attend the grand opening once the exhibit here is completed.

"The goal of the museum is to make it educational, but we also want to make it interesting, something that when you bring a visitor, something that we as a city and county can be proud of," Rowe said.

The Sparkle and Twang exhibit will remain open through November 11 at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville.

While every item has been appraised, Stuart won't divulge what it's worth except to wag his head and allow, "Crazy money. Crazy, crazy money."

"Most country artists from that golden era ... you'd ask them what happened to that suit, and they'd say, 'Ah, I gave it away. I didn't think anything about it.' They didn't see the eternal value of it. It was just taken for granted - a tool to work with. Now that history has gone on and the world has turned a little more, this stuff means more than it ever has."

At 48, Stuart is no longer the young rebel out to shake up Nashville or the country hitmaker of the early '90s ("Hillbilly Rock," "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'"), though he still has that pile of spiky hair, like a rooster caught in the rain.

He's been on a creative roll recently, releasing four albums and a book of photography since 2005. His records touch on gospel, bluegrass, blues, rockabilly, even Native American music. His latest, "Compadres," is an anthology of duets with the likes of Cash, B.B. King, Merle Haggard, the Staple Singers, Loretta Lynn and Steve Earle.

As he browsed the Tennessee exhibit one afternoon, he'd latch onto an artifact and launch into another story.

"I still get wide-eyed when I see this stuff," Stuart said.

"These are people I grew up watching on TV in Mississippi. I knew their guitars and suits long before I got here. It was hillbilly Hollywood. That's what drew me to Nashville."

Stuart has always had extraordinary access to extraordinary people. His candid black-and-white photos look like vintage Rolling Stone covers: B.B King, John Lee Hooker, Haggard, Cash, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Little Richard, Bill Monroe, Dolly Parton.

"The first time I went to New York City I was 14 years old," he begins, "and I went into this bookstore in Greenwich Village and they had (jazz bass player/photographer) Milt Hinton's photos along the wall. He took his camera everywhere he took his bass, and he had unprecedented access to all these folks. I thought, 'I do too, except in country.'"

His passion for collecting started when he was 4 or 5 and his mom got him Minnie Pearl's autograph. Things really took off in the early '80s when he was in London with Cash and saw the memorabilia at the original Hard Rock Cafe.

"Outside of the Country Music Hall of Fame, I didn't see anyone attending to country music stuff," he said. "On the way back home on the airplane I was thinking the whole way."

He began scouring yard sales and thrift stores. People gave him things, others bartered or traded with him. He'd verify the authenticity by studying old photographs, talking to friends and relatives or, when possible, to the artists themselves.

He hesitates when asked his most prized possession because he has some whoppers, like the handwritten lyrics to Hank Williams'

"Cold, Cold Heart" and "Your Cheatin' Heart," Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and Bob Dylan and Cash's "Wanted Man." And no telling how many rhinestone suits he owns by the late cowboy couturier, Nudie Cohen, and his disciple, Manuel.

There's also a photo of Stuart as a teenager with country star Connie Smith. It was taken at the Fair, and, as the story goes, Stuart told his mom on the way home that he would one day marry the pretty blond singer several years his senior.

Twenty-five years later, in 1997, he did just that.

Less than 10 percent of Stuart's collection made it into the museum. There just wasn't enough room for all of it.

Renee White, who as curator of Sparkle & Twang had to sift through everything and arrange it in a way that made sense, wanted to tell Stuart's story while capturing the flavor of country music's past.

"It was a beautiful time for music and a beautiful time for fashion," White said. "All of these guys were friends, and they were friendly everywhere they went. There were no racial boundaries in the music."

Grand Ole Opry announcer and historian Eddie Stubbs said Stuart had great foresight to preserve these items because few others were at the time. In particular, his large number of Hank Williams artifacts, which Stuart acquired from Williams' sister, Irene, are vital to the history of American music, Stubbs said.

"When he started collecting seriously in the '80s, country music was shunning the rhinestone image," Stubbs said. "If Marty hadn't have been there, this stuff might have really gone by the wayside. I hate to think what might have happened to it."

Stuart calls the exhibit a "victory lap," a chance to take stock of his collection and ponder its future. He'd like to show it in museums across the country and eventually find it a permanent home.

For him it represents a childhood dream fulfilled. As he gazes at a picture of a rhinestone-clad Cohen, he muses, 'There's something to be said about the spirit of America when you go to work looking like that every day."

"Beautiful," he mumbles to himself.

By Luther Johnson

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