Guitar Aficionado

How Marty Stuart Is Keeping Country Music’s Rich Tradition Alive

Marty Stuart’s new double-album set, Saturday Night/Sunday Morning, touches on the age-old tension between sin and salvation that lies at the very heart of country music.
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This story appears in the January/February 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine, which includes features on the Beatles and Epiphone, guitar builder Roger Giffin, Johnny Cash's Custom Gibson J-200 and more. Click here to visit our store .

American Heritage: With his impressive collection of guitars previously owned by music legends, Marty Stuart is keeping country’s rich tradition alive.

By Alan di Perna | Photo by Roderick Trestrail II

Marty Stuart’s new double-album set, Saturday Night/Sunday Morning, touches on the age-old tension between sin and salvation that lies at the very heart of country music. Saturday Night is a rip-roarin,’ hell-raisin,’ honky-tonk romp packed with loving renditions of country classics by artists like Hank Williams, George Jones, and the Statler Brothers as well as Stuart’s own flawlessly timeless, traditional compositions. Sunday Morning, on the other hand, pays rousing homage to the plangent vocal harmonies and sanctified spirit that resides on the gospel side of country music’s deep, wide river of song.

“It’s a razor-thin line,” Stuart says of the boundary between country’s honky-tonk and gospel borders. “Country music has always shared a unique relationship with gospel. You can be falling off the stage drunk, and at some point all you have to do is take your hat off and start singing ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken,’ and everybody else sings too. Doing that goes back a long way, and I’m right in the center of that.”

Many of the songs on the album were originally written by Stuart as material for him and his ace band, the Fabulous Superlatives, to perform on The Marty Stuart Show, his weekly country-music television program on RFD-TV. “When I started the series,” he says, “it became a kind of Saturday-night theater to stage traditional country music in the 21st century. And it wasn’t just about preserving the music; it was about furthering it. Every new song that came through sounded like it could have been recorded 40 years ago. We want to see that the music is alive and well today and handed off to the next generation of people who think this way—great young artists like the Old Crow Medicine Show, Brandy Clark, and little Emi Sunshine, who is just nine years old and a killer. These are tradition-minded people.”

Stuart’s enviable collection of historic guitars and country-music memorabilia is rooted in the same deep love for country’s rich legacy that inspires his music and is also deeply intertwined with his own history as a performer. As a boy growing up in Mississippi, he began to collect autographs, set lists, and used guitar picks from country musicians who passed through his hometown. In 1972, at the tender age of 14, he was recruited to play in bluegrass legend Lester Flatt’s band, which placed him in an ideal position to acquire memorabilia. With the advent of the Eighties’ urban-cowboy phenomenon, Stuart was alarmed to see more traditional country artists and styles relegated to the dustbin of bygone culture. This impelled him to become even more devoted to collecting.

“The old-timers were kind of disregarded and put out to pasture,” he says. “Their costumes, manuscripts, instruments, and all things pertaining to the old world of country music were being forgotten. The guitars at the time were either going to George Gruhn’s or they’d get traded in pawnshops around town. Japanese collectors would come to Nashville and buy up country culture. It seemed like the family jewels were getting away.”

In 1980, Stuart joined Johnny Cash’s band, and on a U.K. tour with Cash he visited the London Hard Rock Cafe, which had just recently begun to display celebrity rock and roll guitars and music memorabilia. “I really understood and respected what they had going on,” Stuart recalls. “All the way back home to America, I kept going, ‘I know my mission. I’m going to self-appoint myself to save as much country-music old-world culture as I can.’ I see it as American culture and a great part of our story that’s been squandered, pawned, and thrown away. So I got serious. My collection started in my bedroom, and now it’s in a warehouse that’s full.”

Stuart estimates that the collection includes a total of some 50 or 60 guitars. “It’s not crazy,” he says. “I sold off some things a few years ago that didn’t mean a lot. Everything in the collection now has an absolute story to it. On a scale of one to 10, everything’s a 10.”

Perhaps the best-known highlight of Stuart’s guitar collection is the sunburst 1954 Fender Telecaster that formerly belonged to country-rock pioneer Clarence White and was played by White on his groundbreaking recordings with the Byrds. The guitar is equipped with one of the earliest Parsons/White B-string benders, installed by White and Byrds drummer Gene Parsons themselves. The feel of the string pull is entirely different, and in many ways far more crude, than that of later commercial iterations of the Parsons/White bender. But that’s the way Stuart likes it. This and a neck-position Stratocaster pickup that had been hot-wound by pedal-steel maven Red Rhodes all contribute to the instrument’s historicity and unique tonal qualities.

“It’s an indescribable guitar,” Stuart says. “You could put a hundred Telecasters in a row, and when you plug this guitar in it just has a voice all its own. It is absolutely one of the most magical guitars I ever played.”

The Clarence Tele has occupied a central role in Stuart’s music ever since he got it and can be heard on the song “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome,” from Saturday Night. He acquired the guitar through his long and close association with the White family. Clarence’s brother, bluegrass mandolin ace Roland White, got the youthful Stuart his gig with Lester Flatt. Stuart lived in Roland’s house during his early years in Nashville and became friendly with Clarence White’s widow, Susie. In 1980, Stuart visited Susie’s home in Elkhorn City, Kentucky, to check out a 1954 Stratocaster she had for sale. Knowing of Stuart’s huge admiration for Clarence White, she also showed him Clarence’s Tele and let him play it a while.

“She said, ‘That’s what you really want, isn’t it?’ ” Stuart recalls. “I said, ‘Absolutely, I would love to have it.’ She said, ‘Let me think about it.’ Later in the afternoon, she said, ‘I’d be happy to sell it to you.’ So she sold me the ’54 Strat, Clarence’s Tele, a couple of his Nudie suits, and a lot of Byrds memorabilia for $1,450. I couldn’t believe it. I had basically laid my checkbook on the table and said, ‘Susie, name your price.’ She could have asked for far more and I would gladly have paid.”

Stuart’s main acoustic guitar that he uses for studio work and TV appearances is another instrument with an impressive historic pedigree: a 1939 Martin D-45 formerly owned by Johnny Cash, who was often seen playing it on his ABC television music-variety program, The Johnny Cash Show. Stuart obtained the guitar by trading Cash a Martin D-28 that had formerly belonged to Merle Travis. Cash was a huge Travis fan, so he was willing—albeit reluctantly—to part with the D-45, which had been on exhibit at the singer’s House of Cash museum at the time of the swap.

“It’s like playing a Steinway or something,” Stuart says of the Cash guitar. “It’s one of the most perfect instruments I’ve ever played, and it’s on just about every song on my new record.”

Cash acquired the instrument from Hank Williams Jr., who purchased it from bluegrass picker and guitar dealer Tut Taylor. The guitar had come to Williams with a small round hole cut into the top to accommodate a volume knob. Williams had a mother-of-pearl inlay engraved with the name Hank made to fill the space. When Cash acquired the guitar, he changed the engraving to Cash.

Adding to his stash of guitars formerly belonging to his boss, Stuart recently acquired a Cash acoustic made by the short-lived but highly regarded Nashville company Grammer Guitars. In 2004, the guitar had surfaced in the Sotheby’s auction that took place after the death of Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash.

“I heard it sold for $110,000, probably a high-water mark for a Grammer guitar,” Stuart says. “About three weeks ago, I was playing in South Dakota and a lady named Sharon Graves Lind walks up. She said, ‘I have one of Johnny Cash’s guitars, and I’d like for you to see it.’ She opened up the case, and I said, ‘Are you the lady who bought that guitar at Sotheby’s?’ She said, ‘I am. I bought it for my husband, and I’d like you to have it now.’ Her husband had passed away. And she gave me the guitar. I was blown away by it. It’s a cool guitar—a star guitar. It’s quirky, but it has a lot of personality.”

Stuart’s collection also includes several guitars that belonged to Johnny Cash’s longtime lead guitarist Luther Perkins. Among these is a prototype red 1962 Fender Jaguar heard on Cash’s adaptation of the Bonanza TV show theme song, recorded in the early Sixties. The guitar had resided at the home of Carl Perkins—no relation—for many years.

“Carl’s son sold me that guitar,” Stuart says. “Luther, as I understand it, was good friends with Leo Fender. So Leo was always giving Luther guitars to try out and experiment with. And I know every nuance of every song Luther ever played with John. When he played Jazzmasters and Jaguars, it always came off a little different than his Esquire. The Jaguar was kind of a quirky trail that he went down. But it still works because it’s him, and he just had the touch inside of him.”

Stuart is also the proud owner of a 1970 Martin S000-45 that Martin custom-made for Merle Haggard and features the artist’s name inlaid on the fingerboard. Haggard himself gifted the guitar to Stuart. “I was telling Merle about a country music exhibit I had going, so he let me have that guitar,” Stuart recounts. “It’s on a lot of his album covers, and it was there when he wrote a lot of his great songs, especially in the early to mid Seventies.”

A more recent acquisition, purchased from George Gruhn, is a 1988 Martin D-45 that belonged to George Jones, whose song “Old Old House” is beautifully arranged and performed by Stuart on Saturday Night.

“One of the holes in my collection was a guitar that belonged to George Jones, who famously played D-45s,” Stuart says. “He’s my wife Connie’s favorite male country singer. And I think George will be remembered as one of the most—if not the most—important country singers of all time. That guitar was around his neck when he was doing a lot of great singing, so I was very proud to add that to my collection.”

Another guitar that Stuart treasures is a 1970 rosewood Telecaster that belonged to gospel legend Roebuck “Pops” Staples of Staples Singers fame. Pops played it at the Band’s Last Waltz concert in 1976, and after his death, in 2000, his daughters Mavis and Yvonne gave the guitar to Stuart. Stuart reverently keeps it tuned down a whole step, as was Pops’ custom, and mainly uses it for his own, somewhat frequent, recordings of classic Staples Singers’ songs. There are two on Stuart’s 2005 Souls Chapel album, and a faithful rendition of the Staples’ “Cloudy Day,” complete with a stirring guest vocal by Mavis Staples, is the lead track on Sunday Morning.

“That guitar comes with a different kind of responsibility,” Stuart says. “It is an instrument of truth. It is almost like Excalibur. I never take that guitar lightly. Pops was a gospel man all the way. He was all about the message and shedding love and light on mankind. So when that guitar goes to work, it usually has a message to convey.”

As befits a guitarist of his stature, Stuart has collaborated on signature model instruments with Martin and Fender. The 1996 prototype for Martin’s Marty Stuart Signature Model D-45 is his main stage guitar. He worked on the design with Martin’s Dick Boak. Nashville artist Diane Patrick created the western-motif pearl fingerboard inlays, based on drawings by Stuart. Of the inlays Stuart says, “Truthfully, I probably borrowed some from the Gretsch 6120 idea, but I did my own spin on it.”

The guitar’s limited production run of 250 sold out immediately upon release. “I wanted a guitar that had a neck like my ’39 D-45 but had the power of a bluegrass rhythm guitar that I could also play Telecaster kind of leads on,” Stuart explains. “We accomplished that with this guitar. It’s a very even guitar. I use it every night onstage. I think one of the most innovative things is the herringbone pearl inlay around the sound hole. Dick Boak said Martin had never done that before.”

Stuart is also very proud of his signature model Fender Telecaster. He worked with Fender master builder Mark Kendrick on the design, which combines the checkerboard binding and sparkly finish of the iconic Teles played by Buck Owens and Don Rich with a neck contour modeled after that of a 1952 Esquire, also in Stuart’s collection, that formerly belonged to David Bowie/Ian Hunter guitarist Mick Ronson. Like Stuart’s signature Martin, his namesake Telecaster boasts western-motif fingerboard inlays, created for this guitar by artist Ron Thorn.

“I have two prototypes of my signature model Telecaster,” Stuart says, “one without a bender and one with a bender that Gene Parsons put in. The Martin and the Telecaster are kind of a collectible pair. They both came with hand-tooled straps with three-piece cowboy buckle sets. So again, back to the 6120 concept.”

While Stuart is at the forefront of today’s country guitar pickers, he also is a world-class bluegrass mandolin player, as his fleet-fingered soloing on the Saturday Night track “Streamline” proves. His main mandolin is a Gibson F-5 copy built by bluegrass banjo picker and luthier Chris Warner that’s covered in autographs left by country greats who have played with Stuart.

“I bought it in 1972 for $650,” Stuart says. “Roland White had commissioned the instrument, and when it came, he didn’t connect with it for some reason. But I’d just stated to work with Lester Flatt, and I needed a mandolin. So I bought it, and it���s probably been the most steady instrument I’ve had since the beginning of my career. I was so proud of it for a lot of years, because it didn’t have any scratches on it. It was the one thing that I took really good care of.

“Then one night when I was in Johnny Cash’s band, he got really bored. So John took out his pocket knife and scratched a big cross into the mandolin. And he put JRC [on the treble bout] and signed it on the very, very back. I said, ‘What did you do that for?’ He said, ‘I don’t want you to forget the Lord.’ I said, ‘I can remember him without you wrecking my mandolin!’

“And that started a whole thing. I’d put the mandolin down in the studio and go off somewhere, and while I was gone people felt obligated to sign it. So it is covered with signatures—most of which I didn’t ask for. But it’s like a who’s who of country greats. Years later, I bought an original [Gibson] Lloyd Loar F-5 mandolin. It was really wonderful—a great mandolin. I played it for two or three years, but in the end I sold it and went back to my $650 mandolin.”

Along with his collections and his music, Stuart has immortalized country tradition with photos he’s taken during his many years as a first-call country musician and headliner. Over 60 of these were recently displayed in an exhibition, American Ballads: The Photographs of Marty Stuart, at Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts. Vanderbilt University Press published a companion book with the same title. This foray into the fine arts has helped bring Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives into some distinctly uptown venues.

“This year, we’ve played Lincoln Center, Central Park, the Smithsonian, and the closing of the Martin guitar exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” he says. “It has been about taking country music not just to the people—that’s understood—but weighing it in as an art form alongside jazz, ballet, and classical in the pantheon of the arts. That has been a big part of the mission.”

This story appears in the January/February 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine, which includes features on the Beatles and Epiphone, guitar builder Roger Giffin, Johnny Cash's Custom Gibson J-200 and more. Click here to visit our store .

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