Hillbilly Heaven

Photographs by Marty Stuart

This appeared in the Oxford American - July/August 2000

The Pilgrim, a "concept" album by Marty Stuart that you could, with equanimity, call the country music version of Sgt. Pepper, rode into the pantheon last year. It has depth, range, and passion; you couldn't shake it if you wanted to, and that is not a solo observation. Bob Dylan spoke to Stuart about The Pilgrim and said: "You've finally done a grown-up album, man." Dylan then broke into an a cappella version of one of the album's songs, "The Observations of a Crow." When Dylan came to the part, "He's a protected witness from a Detroit job/Turned his best friend in, his name is Bob," he made a slight alteration and sang "--his name is.....ME!" [Shown right is Lefty Frizzel's right boot.]

It is revealing to know Dylan and Stuart's whereabouts when this took place. They were visiting one of Stuart's Nashville warehouses, where he keeps his massive trove of country music memorabilia. Stuart started collecting in 1972, when he was thirteen-year-old mandolin player in Lester Flatt's band. He'd save thirty dollars of what Mr. Flatt paid him "to buy records, 8x10 glossies--anything to do with country music." From these humble beginnings, the collection grew to include such treasures as the boots Patsy Cline was wearing when she died, an old railroad lantern Jimmie Rodgers once owned that Hank Snow gave to Stuart (and which Stuart placed, lit, beside the casket at Snow's memorial service), a pistol owned by Hank Williams (among many other Williams items), a guitar played by Johnny Cash in the early days of his career, and much, much more. Every time Stuart visits one of this warehouses, he says, "It's hard not to be affected. It's hard to walk out in the daylight and feel like a civilian and go to Kroger." The Country Music Hall of Fame is currently negotiating to acquire The Marty Stuart Collection so that it can permanently reside in new Hall of Fame that opens next spring in downtown Nashville. [Shown left is Minnie Pearl's hat.]

Marty Stuart is also a photographer. A book of his photographs, Pilgrims: Sinners, Saints and Prophets, came out last year from Rutledge Hill Press. It is a firm testament to his skill and sensitivity with the camera. We couldn't resist asking Stuart to combine two of his passions.

Marty Stuart's Jesus Coat Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs's Ties
Hank Snow's Nudie Suit Johnny Cash's Guitar
Minnie Pearl's Shoes Patsy Cline's Outfit

Text by Marc Smirnoff
Photographs by Marty Stuart

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