Marty Stuart invested his heart and soul in country music when he was a child growing up in the ’60s in Philadelphia, Miss. Years later, he began investing his money in country music memorabilia and has amassed one of the largest and most significant collections this side of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. Items from his holdings have been previously displayed at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the Louvre in Paris.
Part of the collection is featured in Sparkle & Twang: Marty Stuart’s American Musical Odyssey, an exhibit opening Wednesday (June 6) at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville. Representing more than 50 years of musical history, the display ranges from custom-made suits worn by the likes of Johnny Cash and Elton John to Hank Williams’ handwritten lyrics to “Your Cheatin’ Heart and a Fender Jazzmaster guitar owned by the late Roebuck “Pops” Staples of the Staple Singers. The exhibit, which features rhinestone suits created by Nudie the Hollywood Tailor, will run through Nov. 11 before traveling to other museums throughout the U.S.
With the CMA Music Festival bringing thousands of country music fans to Nashville this week, Stuart will host his annual Late Night Jam on Wednesday (June 6) at the Ryman Auditorium. A benefit for MusiCares, a nonprofit organization providing health and human services to those in the music industry, the concert will feature performances by John Rich of Big & Rich, Neko Case, Pam Tillis and two Country Music Hall of Fame members — Charley Pride and Porter Wagoner.
Stuart talked about his passion as a collector during a recent interview with CMT.com.
The recent fire at Johnny Cash’s former home house was a reminder that even immoveable objects can be lost in the blink of an eye.
Stuart: I was walking through my orchard watching that burn. I mean, it was really a piece of me. I think what it burned out of me was a little bit more of the truth. I thought I had it settled that even though he wasn’t there, the house was. I can kind of pretend that he wasn’t gone … we’re on the road or something. I mean, what you said is exactly right. In the blink of an eye, it’s gone. There’s nothing you can do about it. Some things you can never get back.
There’s so much in the way of country music memorabilia that has gotten lost along the way because it has been sold, donated or just thrown away.
That brings us to why I got into this. First of all, I just loved it. It followed my heart, and it was just stuff I just grew up loving. The first time I ever went to the Hard Rock Cafe [in London] was in the early ’80s when I was on the tour over there with John [Cash] and his band. I ran into [Hard Rock founder and Tennessee native] Isaac Tigrett on the street. He’s a Southern guy, and we got to talking to him and he said, “Come on down. See what I’m doing.” So he took me to the first Hard Rock, and on the wall was all this stuff from the Beatles and the Stones and Jimi Hendrix that I thought that was really cool. Even though it was a hamburger joint, they treated it with a certain amount of respect. All the way home I was thinking, “You know, country music is really changing. I don’t see new rhinestone suits coming. They’re just kind of being washed away. Like they’re cut off, and that branch is fading.”
Urban Cowboy was bubbling, and I was in line to be a part of that energy, that new changing of the guard. That was great to me. But I didn’t see any reason to breach our history and our culture and our heritage just to get another audience and ring the cash registers. So I really came home and seriously went scouring yard sales and guitar shops and antique shops and thrift shops around Nashville. I got the [musician’s] union book and went through people’s names that I know that used to wear those clothes. I bought them, begged them, borrowed them … just to get them treasures back in line. Outside of the Hall of Fame, I didn’t see anybody doing that at the time.
But a lot of people don’t recognize what the treasures are until it’s too late.
Well, sure. So many people who wore those costumes, I’d say, “You still got your suit?” And they’d say, “Nah, I gave that old thing away years ago.”
They were just tools they used in their careers.
Yeah, and back then they didn’t cost 7,500 bucks. They were like 250, 300 bucks. Ray Price probably paid 450 bucks for those suits — 500 maybe — for what now would cost you $12,000. It was just something in the tool box.
I assume you started collecting autographs back when you were in Philadelphia, Miss.
That yellow piece of paper right there was the first autograph I ever had. Minnie Pearl came through Philadelphia, Miss., on a whistle-stop tour. There was a guy named Jimmy Swan running for governor, and they’d go from courthouse to courthouse, county to county, three or four a day. My mom worked at the bank across the street from the courthouse, so Minnie came in to get change. It must have ’62 or ’63 … ’64 maybe. Mama, knowing my love of country stuff, had Minnie sign that for me, and it was my first autograph.
I came up here [to Nashville], got my job with Lester Flatt when I was 13, and I lived at Lester’s house. I wasn’t old enough to drive, so if I wanted to go anywhere … I had to ride with Lester. Well, my poker pals and my fishing buddies were Ernest Tubb and Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe and Grandpa Jones and Stringbean. And any time those guys would get together just like this or on stage or on a bus, it looked historical to me. It looked important to me. So I got a camera and started taking pictures. And when Lester would write out a set list or a Martha White show and he didn’t care, he’d wad it up and throw it away in a trash can. I’d take it out because I had an inkling it meant something.
Lester Flatt’s Martin guitar, the one he played for most of his career, was one of your first major acquisitions.
It was. That guitar was a part of me. Way before I ever got up here, I watched those TV shows like Porter Wagoner’s show and Wilburn Brothers’. I knew everybody’s instruments. I knew the costumes they wore. I knew who was on their shows. I knew their songs. So when I got up here, I moved out to Lester’s house in a spare room at the corner of the house. I walked in, and there was a Martin guitar face to the wall. I turned it over and it was that guitar. No strings on it. And I adopted it, and he let me take it and play it, so I eventually wound up buying it.
As things progressed, people started seeking you out, right?
The first major one was Hank Williams’ sister Irene … by way of Gary Walker at the Great Escape [a used record store in Nashville]. She sought me out, and at the end of the day, what it really meant is that she was looking for somebody to take the things that she had of her brother’s. The bottom line was that she wanted me to get a message to Bocephus [Hank Williams Jr.], which I did. … But there were some problems there, and they never got around to [getting together]. I could tell that it was urgent in her mind to get Hank Williams’ things to hands that she thought maybe she could rely on to do the right thing with. That’s how all of that came about. And, you know, it was the most money I’ve ever spent on stuff.
I don’t want to pry into your financial situation, but you couldn’t have been making a lot of money at the time with your musical career.
In the ’80s, no. But by the time the ’90s kicked in, I had money. It was like, “Do I buy stocks and bonds or ’Your Cheatin’ Heart’?” I think I’ll take ’Your Cheatin’ Heart’ because I don’t give a shit about stocks and bonds. And I do understand Johnny Cash’s guitar and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and a Hank Williams’ Nudie suit. I get that.
How often have you dealt with private collectors as opposed to family members?
Off and on. Not a lot. A lot of Cash’s stuff came from within the family, and most of it came from him — the source. When you can buy something absolutely direct with no bad feelings around it, it’s the main thing — that there’s no strings.
In collecting these items, do you ever get a bad vibe from family members?
If there is, I don’t touch it. It ain’t worth having. If there is leftover feelings amongst the family — or for whatever reason — it ain’t worth having. Because it always comes back to bite you. I couldn’t see it. I can’t see doing it. It’s sad, but people get tired of messing with stuff. After grandpa dies, 15 years down the road, somebody invariably wants to get out, needs money and says, “Let’s get rid of it.” And that’s the way it was for a long time, and nobody, once again, paid much attention.
And then things like Maybelle Carter’s guitar sells for a million bucks. Bill Monroe’s mandolin sells for a million bucks. A Cash auction in New York — $4 million plus. All of a sudden people start paying attention, and the rules changed, but they were changing all along. The first Nudie suits I bought were two hundred bucks. Now, 35, 45, 55 … 75 hundred bucks is what they are asking for them.
Were you surprised that things like Maybelle Carter’s guitar sold for that much?
No, I saw it coming. Because rock ’n’ roll artifacts were bringing in that kind of money. You know, Clapton’s Strat that he cut “Layla” on — crazy money. Those kind of things. I saw it coming. I knew it was just a matter of time. It took the right figure to unlock it. Johnny Cash is a global figure, so I thought that the Sotheby’s thing in New York was going to do it, and it did.
As a final question, were you aware of the rumor had been going around that a large part of your collection was going to be housed at the University of Mississippi?
It was not a rumor. It was reality. We were in negotiation. Once upon a time, we had talked about the Center for the Study of Southern Culture housing this. And it just never quite got down the rails far enough to go to the ultimate level of conversation. Well, I know my part. Put it back in my warehouse, and we’ll go again. So, no, that has not happened.