Marty Stuart on three decades of Grand Ole Opry membership: ‘It doesn’t just carry country music on its shoulders, it carries the spirit of the nation’

Almost 50 years ago, Mississippi native Marty Stuart first took the stage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1972, as a starry-eyed, 13-year-old wunderkind who had been a member of Lester Flatt’s tour. band as a mandolin player for about a week.

“In the South, in the middle part of Mississippi, the Opry was just a way of life,” Stuart says Billboard. “It was part of the atmosphere in our house. The people who played in the show felt like family to me before I ever met them. I couldn’t believe I was on that stage and getting an encore, which was unbelievable. It was a pretty good way to start in Nashville,” says Stuart. “It’s still a surreal memory.”

In his teenage years, Stuart’s real schooling came on the road, performing as part of Flatt’s band until the bluegrass legend’s death in 1979 at the age of 64. Stuart then played for Vassar Clement, Doc Watson and later Johnny Cash, from 1980-1986.

In 198 Stuart released his debut album Marty (With a little help from my friends) (via bluegrass label Ridge Runner), followed by the 1982s Busy bicafé. In 1986, he signed a deal with Columbia and released his self-titled project with rockabilly tones. In 1989 came his first MCA record album, Hillbilly Rockboosted by the title track, which reached the top 10 on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs diagram. 1991’s “Little Things” and “Tempted” also reached the top 10, while “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin'” (featuring Travis Tritt) reached No. 2 and earned a Grammy for Best Country vocal collaboration.

The next year, Stuart was recruited 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 to join and I said, ‘I’ve got 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 were at her home at the time, she had suffered a stroke and was unable to get out and about. [Pearl’s manager] Judy Seale arranged the meeting and I was told that Minnie loved white roses, so I got about 75 or 80 white roses. I walked into Minnie’s room and she looked at all the roses and she said, ‘Oh, my God, 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, recording several artists including Pam Tillis (2000), Terri Clark (2004), Dierks Bentley (2005) and Charlie Daniels (2008).

Stuart has also witnessed the Opry’s enduring spirit in the face of trials — including the 2010 Nashville flood, which forced the Opry to temporarily air from venues such as the Ryman Auditorium and Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium while the Grand Ole Opry House underwent repairs. On Sept. 28, 2010, Stuart was among the performers who gathered for the Opry House’s reopening concert. In 2020, when concerts and major events were shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Grand Ole Opry was able to move forward, even without an in-house audience, never missing a performance.

“Times like the flood and the pandemic just proved how indelible the Opry is,” says Stuart. “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 it’s been here for almost 100 years and it’s going to continue. It was designed right. It’s not about one person, which I think is brilliant, it’s about a cast, a family and a lifestyle and an evolving culture music. It’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 going to happen now?’ But they went straight to Concord Road, to [WSM-AM Broadcasting] Tower and started broadcasting from there and just said, ‘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, in some ways, part of the nation’s spirit. 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 esteemed Country Music Hall of Fame, Stuart has been both a creator in and a preserver of the long line 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 grown up on, releasing the seminal 1999 album The Pilgrim, a concept album that included George Jones, Emmylou Harris and Cash. He formed the ace band Fabulous Superlatives (Stuart and his Superlatives were inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame on November 22), and since then his music has crossed paths with gospel (2005’s Chapel of the Soul) and traditional country (2012’s Nashville Vol. 1: Tear down the pile of wood) and, like Cash before him, highlighted the history of Native Americans (2005s 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 down the pile of wood. “The task seemed to be to champion it, love it, protect it, take care of its people, try to write a new chapter for it and make sure everyone understands that it’s alive and well in the 21st century .”

Although best 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 published a photo book American Ballads: The Photographs of Marty Stuart, which includes the last photo taken of Johnny Cash just four days before his passing. From 2008 to 2014, he welcomed a number of other artists as part of The Marty Stuart Show on RFD-TV, inspired by eclectic musical showcases incl Flatt and Scruggs, Porter Wagoner Showor 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 for “Cold, Cold Heart” and the boots worn by Patsy Cline. when she died in a plane crash in 1963 along with 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 of space that will house the artifacts and will serve as a world-class museum, education center and performance space. In December, the space’s historic (and newly renovated) Ellis Theater reopens, with concerts from Stuart, Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill on the books.

The latest 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 died, Mrs. Rodgers said she gave the guitar to the Hess family. It’s been in storage all these years, and Troy sold it to me,” says Stuart.

One of Stuart’s most interesting stories is how he acquired the signature of Carter Family patriarch AP Carter. “I got an autograph kick once and really wanted to find his autograph,” he explains. “I found out there were only three or four that people knew about. I was close to where the Carters lived and this car pulled up. I had no idea who was driving it. This lady gets out and says, ‘I hear you’re looking for AP’s autograph.’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ and all she said was, ‘Go in.’ So we went to this lady’s house and there was a deed on a piece of land and at the bottom was his signature. She took a pair of scissors, cut off the part that had his name on it and handed it to me. And she said not just a word or two 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 TV show that will showcase some of the artifacts he’s collected, and he’ll start shopping soon.

“I see it as 30-minute episodes that revolve around going out and getting an artifact, saving it and bringing it back,” says Stuart. “Each show starts 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 the present together. For example, the lyrics to [Hank Williams, Sr.’s] ‘I Saw the Light’ or ‘Cold, Cold Heart’, it makes perfect sense for one of his grandchildren to sit there and sing them. It shows how artifacts are relevant in the hands of someone at the moment.

“We take it for granted that everyone knows who Hank Williams is, but there’s a whole new generation that needs to be educated,” he continues. “It’s a way of bringing past, present and future, entertaining and educational at the same time.”

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