In the early 1980s, Marty Stuart was rummaging through a Nashville antique shop when he came across an old makeup case. Stamped inside the case was a name and address: Patsy Cline, 3024 Hillhurst Drive, Madison, Tenn. Stunned, Stuart realized he was holding the case carried by Patsy Cline as she rose to fame as one of the most celebrated vocalists in history. He bought the case for $75, a bargain for a piece of history once owned by a legend.
Now that Stuart himself has reached legend status, he’s made it his mission to preserve forgotten or abandoned country music treasures. The Marty Stuart Center, a proposed museum and education center in Stuart’s hometown of Philadelphia, Miss., will house his collection of approximately 20,000 items he’s collected during his 40-year career.
The Young Man in Black
Stuart became obsessed with country music as a boy growing up in his small Mississippi town. It was a five-and-a-half hour drive to Nashville and Stuart planned to make the pilgrimage as soon as possible. At the age of 13, Stuart was living in the Music City and had a regular gig playing in Lester Flatt’s bluegrass band. Stuart began noticing that Flatt and his fellow band members tossed aside guitar picks, ties and set lists. Like any devoted fan, Stuart scooped up his heroes’ discards. He even went so far as to dig old set lists out of the trash after shows.
“All of a sudden, I was in the middle of Hillbilly Hollywood and all these things I’d watched on TV and that I had just enjoyed thinkin’ about… There I was in the middle of ’em,” Stuart said during the opening of his exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
Stuart’s collecting only intensified when he joined Johnny Cash’s backing band in 1980. By the late 80s and early 90s, Stuart found solo success with singles such as “Tempted” and “Burn Me Down.”
He soon became his own version of the Man in Black. Well, a man in black with rhinestones. By watching the legends, Stuart developed his signature perfectly coiffed and sparkly style. After all, Porter Wagoner never took the stage with a hair out of place or a rhinestone unset. Stuart credits Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours in particular for inspiring a lifelong devotion to being a sharp-dressed man. When a childhood Stuart watched Ernest Tubb stroll on stage in a tailor-made Western pinstripe suit, it was history in the making.
“I remember looking at the Troubadours in their costumes and thinking, ‘This may be the prettiest sight I’ve ever seen in my life.’ That’s when I fell in love with fancy cowboy clothes,” Stuart wrote in the foreword to Holly George-Warren’s How the West Was Worn: A History of Western Wear. “It’s been a lifelong love affair ever since.”
“Ark of the Hillbilly Covenant”
Stuart’s collection, previously housed in his Hendersonville, Tenn. warehouse, moved to a warehouse in Philadelphia last year. The lot includes photographs, letters, Merle Haggard’s handwritten lyrics to “Today I Started Loving You Again” and enough country couture to fill the world’s most enviable closet. Among the clothing is Johnny Cash’s first black suit and some of Hank Williams’ attire Stuart purchased from Hank’s sister, Irene.
Stuart said Irene gave him strict instructions to treat the items with respect and, as Stuart says, protect the “Ark of the Hillbilly Covenant.”
Development on the Marty Stuart Center is still in the works. However, the state of Mississippi has committed a $1 million grant to the project in 2013.
In a press release regarding the project, Stuart expressed his confidence that the Marty Stuart Center will soon become a reality.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the day will come when a ribbon will be cut and the doors of this center will be open to the world,” Stuart said. “I will count it a joy when Philadelphia takes its rightful place along side of the other Mississippi towns on the museum trail.”
Through his efforts to preserve country music history and develop a dream destination for country fans everywhere, Stuart remains the sultan of sparkle and the keeper of the Ark of the Hillbilly Covenant.