With Ken Burns’ latest superb music documentary series Country airing this month, I figured it made sense to pull out some interviews I’ve done with country legends over the years. Here’s part of a conversation I had with Marty Stuart way back in 2002, where he discussed his vast collection of memorabilia. I think it’s safe to say that he’s done more than anyone to preserve the history of country music over the decades — and that Burns’ series (and country music in general) would not be the same without his efforts. For that alone, he probably deserve some sort of award.
Marty Stuart isn’t just carrying country music’s torch — he’s holding on to more than a few of its treasures. Along with being a devoted fan of the music, the Nashville singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is also an amateur historian and obsessive collector. And over the past couple of decades, he’s amassed a huge personal archive of memorabilia, documents and artifacts — costumes, instruments, lyrics and personal effects — from country’s most beloved and important figures.
“It started off as a hobby,” Stuart says. “There was a point in time, about 20 years ago, that nobody took old country stuff seriously. You could buy some old country singer’s Nudie suit at a thrift shop. You could buy some other old singer’s Martin guitar at a pawn shop. I didn’t think that was right. The first time I ever was in a Hard Rock Cafe — you know, where they have all the rock ’n’ roll stuff on the walls — I got it. I got it immediately. And I thought, country music has a heritage that should be preserved, too. So I just started buying stuff here and there. Then before I knew it, I had a warehouse full of stuff. Then I had a bigger warehouse.”
He can’t possibly pick one favourite item out of the thousands he’s found, he says. “It’s all precious to me. Whether it was Patsy Cline’s stage dress that her mom made for her so she could look like a star before she really was one, or Hank Williams’ guitar, or his handwritten lyrics to I Saw the Light with the four extra verses that he crossed out and never sang, it all has a spirit around it.”
Stuart isn’t just hoarding all his goodies for himself, either. Many of Williams’ lyrics — which he bought from Hank’s sister, along with some of the late singer’s letters — were reprinted in a coffee-table book, Hank Williams: Snapshots From the Lost Highway. And a good chunk of Stuart’s collection is currently housed in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. Some might see it as ironic that Stuart’s collection is in the hall of fame while he isn’t, but he says there’s plenty of time for that.
“The way I see it is it’s like a tree,” he says. “You go in the woods and look at trees and you see the mighty oak, and then you see the one that’s gonna be a mighty oak, hopefully if lighting don’t strike. That one’s me. I just have to keep growing. I’m not quite in legend-land yet. Maybe you could call me a legend-in-training.” Here’s hoping he saves one of his own Nudie suits for when the time comes.