Nearly 50 years ago, Mississippi native Marty Stuart first stepped onstage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1972, as a starry-eyed, 13-year-old wunderkind who had been a member of Lester Flatt’s touring band as a mandolin player for all of about one week.
“In the South, in the middle part of Mississippi, the Opry was just a way of life,” Stuart tells Billboard. “It was part of the atmosphere at our house. Those people that played on the show felt like family to me before I ever met them. I could not believe I was standing on that stage and getting an encore, which was unbelievable. That was a pretty good way to start in Nashville,” Stuart says. “It’s still a surreal memory.”’’
In his teens, Stuart’s real schooling came on the road, performing as part of Flatt’s band until the bluegrass legend’s death in 1979 at age 64. Stuart then played for Vassar Clement, Doc Watson and later, Johnny Cash, from 1980-1986.
In 1978, Stuart released his debut album Marty (With a Little Help From My Friends) (via the bluegrass label Ridge Runner), followed by 1982’s Busy Bee Café. In 1986, he inked a deal with Columbia and released his rockabilly-tinged self-titled project. In 1989 came his first MCA label album, Hillbilly Rock, bolstered by the title track, which reached the top 10 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. 1991’s “Little Things” and “Tempted” also reached the top 10, while “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’” (with Travis Tritt) reached No. 2 and earned a Grammy for best country vocal collaboration.
The next year, Stuart was inducted by Little Jimmy Dickens as a member of the Grand Ole Opry on Nov. 28. But before he would accept the honor, Stuart told then Grand Ole Opry GM Hal Durham that he needed special permission.
“He asked me about joining, and I said, ‘I have to get two people to sign off on it — [Grand Ole Opry icons] Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl.’ I got Mr. Acuff’s blessing and Minnie was at her home at that time, she had had a stroke and wasn’t able to get out and about. [Pearl’s manager] Judy Seale set the meeting up and I was told Minnie loved white roses, so I got about 75 or 80 white roses. I went into Minnie’s room and she looked at all those roses and she said, ‘Oh, my gosh, look at those tight pants,’” he recalls with a laugh. “But she gave me her blessing that day, and I called Hal on the way home that day and said I’d be honored to be a member.”
In his three decades as an Opry member, Stuart has paid it forward, inducting several artists, including Pam Tillis (2000), Terri Clark (2004), Dierks Bentley (2005) and Charlie Daniels (2008).
Stuart has also been witness to the Opry’s enduring spirit in the face of trials — including the 2010 Nashville flood, which forced the Opry to temporarily air from locations like the Ryman Auditorium and Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium, while the Grand Ole Opry House underwent repairs. On Sept. 28, 2010, Stuart was among the cast members who gathered for the Opry House’s reopening concert. In 2020, as concerts and large events were shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Grand Ole Opry was able to forge ahead, even without an in-house audience, never missing a performance.
“Times like the flood and the pandemic just proved how indelible the Opry is,” Stuart says. “The show never went off the air. It was about the only outpost in show business that had the lights on during the pandemic. There’s a reason why it has been here for almost 100 years and it keeps going. It was designed right. It’s not about one person, which I think is brilliant. It’s about a cast, a family and a way of life, and an evolving culture of music. That’s a pretty good framework to exist on.
“When I saw the pictures of the Opry House [following the Nashville flood] I thought ‘What’s gonna happen now?’ But they went straight to Concord Road, to the [WSM-AM Broadcasting] Tower and started broadcasting from there, just saying, ‘Hey, we’re on the air.’ Again, surreal. But the Opry has such broad shoulders. It doesn’t just carry country music on its shoulders — it carries a part of the spirit of the nation, in some ways. In the pandemic, I remember the first night I played, just looking out at an empty house and looking into the cameras. It was my hope that we would inspire someone.”
During his five decades in music, and now as a member of the venerated Country Music Hall of Fame, Stuart has been both a creator in and a conservator of the long lineage of country music artists and their stories. By the late 1990s, the radio hits had dried up, and Stuart again delved deep into the traditional country music sounds he had been raised on, releasing the pivotal 1999 album The Pilgrim, a concept album that included George Jones, Emmylou Harris and Cash. He formed the the ace band the Fabulous Superlatives (Stuart and his Superlatives were inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame Nov. 22), and since then, his music has intersected with gospel (2005’s Soul’s Chapel) and traditional country (2012’s Nashville Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down) and, like Cash before him, highlighted the story of Native Americans (2005’s Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota).
“When I reconnected with traditional country music I found myself, my calling,” Stuart said in the liner notes to his 2012 album Nashville, Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down. “The job seemed to be to champion it, love it, protect it, care for its people, attempt to write a new chapter for it and to make sure that everybody understands that it’s alive and well in the 21st century.”
Though most well-known as a musician (Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives released their latest single, “Country Star,” last week), the multifaceted artist has also been a photographer since he was a child. In 2014, he released photography book American Ballads: The Photographs of Marty Stuart, which includes the final picture taken of Johnny Cash just four days before his passing. From 2008 through 2014, he welcomed an array of fellow artists as part of The Marty Stuart Show on RFD-TV, inspired by eclectic musical showcases including Flatt and Scruggs, The Porter Wagoner Show, or The Johnny Cash Show.
Stuart has also built one of America’s largest private collections of country music artifacts, with over 20,000 pieces — among them Johnny Cash’s first suit, Hank Williams Sr.’s handwritten notes to “Cold, Cold Heart,” and the boots Patsy Cline was wearing when she died in a plane crash in 1963 alongside Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins and manager Randy Hughes.
In Stuart’s hometown of Philadelphia, he has been steadily building and strategizing The Congress of Country Music, over 50,000 square feet space that will house the artifacts and will operate as a museum, educational center and world-class performance space. In December, the space’s historic (and newly renovated) Ellis Theater will reopen, with concerts from Stuart, Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill on the books, with the next phases of the venture starting soon.
The most recent addition to Stuart’s collection is a 1928 Martin Guitar belonging to the “Father of Country Music,” Jimmie Rodgers, which Stuart acquired from Troy Hess, whose grandfather had worked with Rodgers on railroads in Texas. “When Jimmie passed away, Mrs. Rodgers gave that guitar to the Hess family. It’s been in keeping all these years and Troy sold it to me,” Stuart says.
One of Stuart’s most interesting stories is how he acquired the signature of Carter Family patriarch A.P. Carter. “I got on an autograph kick one time and really wanted to find his autograph,” he explains. “I found out there were only three or four in existence that people knew about. I was up near where the Carter family lived and this car drove up. I had no idea who was driving it. This lady gets out and says, ‘I hear you’re looking for A.P.’s autograph.’ I said, ‘Yes, Ma’am,’ and all she said was ‘Get in.’ So we went to this lady’s house and there was a deed for a piece of land and at the bottom was his signature. She took a pair of scissors, cut the part that had his name on it off and handed it to me. And she didn’t say but one or two words to me. Sometimes things just find you.”
Stuart could soon return to television with a new project. He and his team are editing the pilot for a television show that will showcase some of the artifacts he’s collected and he will begin shopping it soon.
“I see it as 30-minute episodes, revolving around going out to obtain an artifact, rescuing it and bringing it back,” Stuart says. “Every show will start in the warehouse in Philadelphia, Miss., where everything is staged right now. You get the story behind the artifact and it’s a treasure hunt. If there are musical instruments involved, we try to bring the past and present together. For instance, the lyrics to [Hank Williams, Sr.’s] ‘I Saw the Light’ or ‘Cold, Cold Heart,’ it makes a lot of sense for one of his grandkids to sit there and sing them. It’s showing how artifacts are relevant in the hands of somebody current.
“We take for granted that everybody knows who Hank Williams is, but there’s a whole new generation that needs to be educated,” he continues. “It’s a way to bring past, present, and future, entertaining and educating at the same time.”