Stars Are Keeping It Country

This appeared in the Washington Post - March 17, 2006

Marty Stuart -- he of the flashy vintage country suits and, at 47, the now-salt-and-pepper pompadour -- first made his mark at age 12 as a guitar and mandolin prodigy touring Southern Pentecostal churches with the Sullivan Family Gospel Singers. At 13, he moved to Nashville and made his first appearance on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry as a member of Lester Flatt's band. In the late '70s, Stuart became part of Johnny Cash's band and, by the mid-'80s, a headliner in his own right, thanks to a repertoire mixing traditional country, honky-tonk, bluegrass and what Stuart dubbed "hillbilly rock."

When the Mississippi native reached that plateau, he began traveling in Ernest Tubb's old tour bus. That's because along the way, Stuart's archivist impulses led him to amass one of the most important collections of country music artifacts and memorabilia around. Estimated at 20,000 items, it includes Hank Williams's handwritten lyrics, Jimmie Rodgers's railroad lantern, Patsy Cline's make-up case and Tubb's bus.

Stuart's appearance on the Grand Ole Opry's 80th anniversary road show with Travis Tritt and the Del McCoury Band is fitting: He's an Opry regular and spearheaded the drive to save the historic 1,200-seat Ryman Auditorium from the wrecking ball. The Opry's original home and the mother church of country music, the Ryman closed in 1974 when the Opry moved into a new $15 million theater (the largest broadcasting studio in the world, with a seating capacity of 4,400), but many country artists prefer the Ryman. Stuart's most recent album, Live at the Ryman, is a bluegrass collection recorded there with his band, the Fabulous Superlatives.

Of the Kennedy Center's Opry lineup, Stuart says, "It's pretty hard-hitting, hard-driving kind of music. It's bringing a bunch of fun and the essence of Saturday night at the Grand Ole Opry."

Stuart, who served six terms as president of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, has been particularly prolific of late: The Ryman album was one of three released in recent months on his new Superlatone label (the others being the gospel Souls' Chapel and Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota, a concept album about South Dakota's Oglala Lakota tribe). Four more albums are in the pipeline this year, as well as five photo books, including The Marty Stuart Collection, which will draw on his huge historical holdings. Turns out Stuart has been a photographer almost as long as he has been a professional musician. Stuart says that his mother was a shutterbug and that he became one at 14 "so I could go home and show my mom and dad my new life on the road. And I saw history everywhere I looked that was basically being undocumented."

By Richard Harrington

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