Marty Stuart’s been on a country music pilgrimage since he left Mississippi at the age of 14 to tour with bluegrass icon Lester Flatt. He worked as a sideman for Johnny Cash and some of the biggest names in country music before launching a solo career in the 1980’s. In addition to leading his aptly named band, the Fabulous Superlatives, Stuart’s become the living embodiment of honky tonk history, amassing an enormous collection of artifacts.
This Saturday he’s sharing some of that history when Graceland cuts the ribbon on Hillbilly Rock, a new exhibit assembled from Stuart’s collection. Later that evening he’ll share his talent with a concert at Graceland’s Guest House.
Memphis Flyer: So how are you doing?
Marty Stuart: I'm home — I feel great!
MS: I still live around Nashville but I came back to my grandpa's farm in Mississippi. Connie and I built the cabin down here a few years ago. It looks like a state park and it's a retreat. We come here every chance we get. The dust of the world can cover you up very fast.
MF:It can, which is why I’m always amazed by your enthusiasm. I mean, you’re a great player with a great band but, end of the day I think I’m as much of a fan of how much of a fan you are. How do you hold on to that when you’re out chasing hits and the dust of the world is covering you up?
MS: I think at all costs. And it's always a struggle. To stay in tune with the very thing that you fell in love with. Or that I fell in love with in the first place. It was just a sound of music music.
My first memory on this Earth is being in my mother's arms crying. I know what the fabric on her dress felt like. I couldn't remember why I was crying, but I later found out it was the church bells. They were coming across the breeze in Philadelphia, Mississippi, from the Methodist church across town.
The second time I can remember feeling that way as a little boy was standing on the corner watching a parade go by. Some tired little circus came through Philadelphia. The high school band announced their arrival. I was standing on the corner just bawling my eyes out at the power of music.
That's my first memory on Earth. And nothing has changed. The right piece of music can reduce me to a puddle of tears in a heartbeat. Or get the Goosebumps on me. I fell in love with it. It was a natural wonder to me, even through all the ups and downs and victories and defeats. After 40-something years of doing this, I still feel like a nine-year-old kid when I hear songs that made me fall in love with music. That's a long-winded answer but that's about it.
MF: I’d say it took exactly as much wind as required.
MS: You know there’s two ways I can get down here. You can go through Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, which is shorter. Or I can come by way of Memphis and cut through the woods down 55. Sometimes I drive by Memphis just to go visit Sun Studios. It's a touchstone. A spiritual hotspot. I'm reminded when I look in that little room and imagine what happened in there. I can almost tangibly feel it. Those are just things that keep me alive.
MF: You had a lot of opportunity to get to know the folks who made records in that room working on Class of ‘55 at American. You also met one of my favorite folks who doesn’t seem to get the recognition he deserves, Cowboy Jack Clement.
MS: I met Cowboy Jack and Johnny Cash on the same day.
MF: Really? Somehow I had it in my head that you met him first and he introduced you to Johnny Cash. Is that not what happened?
MS: No. It happened there was a buddy of mine who made the introduction. See, Lester Flatt had passed away and I didn't have a job. I worked for just a few months goofing around with Doc and Merle Watson. That came to an end. So this buddy of mine named Danny Ferrington was working in Nashville at the time building this really fancy black guitar. I asked, “Who's that for?” And he said, “Johnny Cash.” and I told him I wanted to go with him when he delivered it. And I kept up with the progress of that guitar. And the day he delivered it to Cash it was in Jack Clement’s office. So the door swung open and Cowboy was dancing in the room with a martini on his head and Cash was singing the “Wabash Cannonball.” And there was two of my best friends that I got with a swing of one door.
MF: Wow. He’s an amazing character and talent who somehow gets lost in Sam Phillips’ shadow in Memphis, I think.
MS: The thing about Cowboy I love and he was such a great songwriter…
MS: And a good guitar player too. And everybody knows he's a great engineer. But, dude, he was a magician, and he was a star-maker. He was a star-maker the way Cecil B. DeMille was a star-maker. And his track record bears that out. They're aren’t any of those people left. Cowboy was the last of his breed in Nashville
MF: We haven’t even talked about your solo career because you start playing with some pretty serious folks as a teenager — and obviously learned from them all. But I’m curious —who taught you to be a bandleader? Who mentored you as a musician? Who kicked down the great life lessons?
MS: I was a sponge.
MF: You’re kidding me.
MS: I've always learned. Maybe from a 12-year-old kid playing his guitar in a parking lot. I can learn something from him and hope I give something back. Of my own mentors, Lester Flatt primarily. Lester had a third-grade education but was one of the wisest human beings I've ever known. He was a great man. When it came down to the basic rules of life and the basic rules of show business, I had all that by the time I was 15-years-old because of Lester Flatt.
Johnny Cash was my lifetime chief and mentor. Another was Sam Phillips. Whenever I had outlandish or dreamy ideas, I’d come to Memphis and talk to him. Cowboy was another one. I was blessed with so much wisdom and experience in my path as a young artist. That comes with a responsibility these days to make sure it gets passed on to the next generation of musicians.
MF: There’s a handful of folks who really take that responsibility seriously. Folks like you and Dale Watson. It’s not about being stuck in the past so much as just knowing where you came from. But making that commitment seems to come at some cost.
MS: Thing is I find out that it enriches my life. Tradition can trap you and you can be a prisoner to it. Or, I can inspire you and inform you to take things into the future. The past is the past. We all look at it with wonder and see our mistakes and the accomplishments of our heroes. But as far as moving the story, song by song, show-by-show, museum exhibit by museum exhibit, photography exhibit by photography exhibit, day after day, we have to keep pushing it into the 21st century, deeper and deeper. We’ve got to keep getting it in the hearts and hands of like-minded kids who get it. There was a price to pay when I made that turn almost 20 years ago. It started at Sun Records at the end of the 90s. I said I've got to do something different and I don't know where to start.
MF: That room means a lot of things to a lot of people.
MS: During the Class of ‘55 sessions I was looking to start my own band. And be a band leader. Well, I had a bunch of hits after that. After the first round of that, though, I thought I had to keep going deeper. So I went back to Sun and started working on a record called The Pilgrim. That record was the line in the dirt record that got me on the trail that I'm still on today. I had enough radio hits. My piggy bank was full. I was married to the girl in my dreams. I had a huge Cadillac and a Telecaster. It was time to do something that had some meaning to it. Something other than just stack up more money in the bank and be a star. I had all that.
MF: So, you’re coming to town to play at Graceland’s Guest House with The Fabulous Superlatives. But you’re also opening a new exhibit out there as well. Tell me a little about Hillbilly Rock.
MS: I wrote the whole exhibit. And you'll find artifacts out there of Hank Williams, Hank Snow, the Maddox Brothers and Rose, Little Jimmy Dickens. And I show how they informed The Million Dollar Quartet. Then, how the Million Dollar Quartet basically informed Dwight Yoakam,Travis Tritt, Chris Isaak. It's about evolution and inspiring the next generation.
MF: You have been collecting this stuff for a long time. And between your own connections and being married to Connie Smith, you’ve had uncommon access. But I can’t help but wonder if there’s “one that got away.” A holy grail. Something you want in your collection that’s just not happening.
MS: There are 20,000 items in this collection. And it's deep stuff. It's some crazy stuff. Johnny Cash's first black performance suit. The handwritten lyrics for “I Saw the Light” and “Your Cold Cold Heart.” The boots Patsy Cline was wearing when she lost her life. On and on, and all at that level. But there is one thing I have yet to find, that I've been looking for for a long time. I have Jimmie Rogers briefcase that was in his casket when he died and they brought him home on the train from New York City. But I do not have Jimmie Rogers' autograph.
MF:Before letting you go, I want to ask about a piece of advice you once shared. About how, when a fella's down all he really needs is a new Cadillac and a Nudie suit. Always thought that sounded like something that couldn't fail to cheer a person up.
MS: That's what Merle Travis told me. That was in Mountain View, Arkansas. It's when I was married to Cindy Cash. We were over there for Merle Travis days or something like that.
After the show he said to come by the room and we’d talk and play poker. I was down to like 10 bucks. Well, he beat me and took my $10. I love Merle Travis. He was one of my heroes. But he put my 10 bucks in his pocket and said, “now I'm going to sell you some advice for $10 that will last you a lifetime. I know you're fixing to leave J.R.’s band to go off and be a country music singing star. Well you're about to find out what the real definition of ups and downs is. Now let me tell you what you do when you're really coming up out of a bad place or a bad spell where the world is upside down. Go buy you a Cadillac. It don't have to be a new one, but buy you a Cadillac. Call out there to California and get you a Nudie suit. Find your guitar because you probably lost it somewhere along the way in the last week or two. Put some new strings on it. Make you up a new song and start singing it. Make sure it’s one that makes you feel good about yourself. And go put your suit on and get in your Cadillac and drive around town and remember who you are.” I laughed, but several times along the way I've done that and it worked.
At 2 p.m. on June 9, Stuart will participate in a ribbon cutting ceremony for his new “Hillbilly Rock” exhibit at Elvis Presley’s Memphis entertainment and exhibit complex. Tickets for the evening concert start at $35.