In 1958, the same year Mississippi native Marty Stuart was born, country music legend Johnny Cash released a single called “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town.”
“There’s a saying in Nashville – ‘It all begins with a song,’” Stuart said. “That song captured my imagination and transported me from my Mississippi bed to the days out West.”
“Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” is a song about a young cowboy named Billy Joe who is filled with wanderlust and leaves home to see the world. It’s a song about a young, naive man who wants to escape the monotony of daily life, but isn’t quite capable of handling his emotions. He doesn’t heed good advice. He isn’t prepared for the cold, cruel world. He seeks adventure, but meets his doom in a duel.
Cash’s ballad about Billy Joe and the television series “Gunsmoke” helped provide a Western fantasy for Stuart as a child. Inspired by his youthful visions of the West, Stuart included the ballad “Lost On the Desert” — also once performed by Cash — on his new album “Way out West.” He is currently touring and performing the album.
While the song inspired Stuart, Billy Joe’s life doesn’t mirror Stuart’s. Even though Marty Stuart also left home in his youth seeking musical adventure, he wasn’t shot down.
A STAR IS BORN
Stuart’s earliest memory is in infancy.
“My first memory on this Earth was being a baby in my mother’s arms and crying,” he said. “I didn’t know why I was crying. I remember feeling the fabric of her dress. I heard the music of the Methodist church, and that music touched my heart and made me cry.”
He also recalls being moved to tears by the music of a local marching band.
“Growing up, my world was music,” he said.
Born Sept. 30, 1958, Stuart was raised on Kosciusko Road in Philadelphia, Miss., near a train track. The train often came through at night while Stuart slept, and he loved the sound.
He spent much of his youth listening to Howard Cole, a radio announcer for WHOC-AM, who introduced him to several music genres, including country, Top 40 and classical.
“It was a wonderful way to grow up,” he said.
Stuart also was influenced by African-American musicians who played at a local cafe. Some sported gold teeth, and Stuart said one of his earliest goals was to have a gold tooth.
As a child, he routinely attended the Choctaw Indian Fair in nearby Choctaw and visited his grandfather, an old-time fiddle player, who lived about 10 miles outside of town.
Stuart hunted and fished on his property and spent time in his grandfather’s home with no telephone or running water. He often played music on the front porch.
“I would play and pretend the Grand Ole Opry, or something, was my actual stage,” he said.
Influenced by his musical family, Stuart started his first band at age 9 and played in local bands until age 12 when he went on tour as a mandolin player with the Sullivan Family, a Pentecostal bluegrass gospel group.
“When I came back, I didn’t want to be in school,” he said. “I went to school until the 9th grade. I was kicked out. I was a pitiful excuse for a student.”
At 13, Stuart began playing mandolin with American bluegrass legend Lester Flatt and his band, The Nashville Grass. Flatt was a guitarist and mandolinist best known for collaborating with banjo picker Earl Scruggs as The Foggy Mountain Boys.
They toured bluegrass festivals and concerts, and Stuart met many musical greats, including Bill Monroe, Scruggs, the Eagles, Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan.
Stuart and his guitar joined Johnny Cash’s back-up band in 1979 and eventually married Cash’s daughter, Cindy. But after parting ways with Cash in 1985 to focus on his solo career, he and Cindy divorced in 1988.
Today, Stuart is touring and performing Way out West, a mix of songs and instrumental music that blends modern and classic country, Western and gospel with Native American and country-psychedelic sound.
“I followed my heart, and it paid off,” Stuart said. “I went into a creative space I had not been in before … When I was in Johnny Cash’s band, he was one of the most creatively fearless individuals in my life. If he got something in his head or in his mind, he did it. He went for it.”
The Way out West tour also features some of Marty Stuart’s collection of country music memorabilia. He said he started collecting memorabilia as a child when bands came to Philadelphia. He’d collect autographs, guitar picks, etc. He got serious about it in the 1980s and now has about 20,000 items.
“I think that in a few years we will have a museum in Philadelphia,” he said.
Stuart said the Way Out West tour collection features such items as Johnny Cash’s first black performance suit, Hank Williams’ handwritten notes for “I Saw the Light” and the boots Patsy Cline was wearing the day she lost her life.
Emily Havens, executive director of GRAMMY Museum Mississippi in Cleveland, said she’s heard Stuart’s plans for creating a country music memorabilia museum in Mississippi.
“His collection of artifacts is extensive and beautiful,” she said. “Marty has been a great ambassador of music and its history in Mississippi. He always makes time to give back to projects in this state.”
Stuart has been a member of the Advisory Board for the museum since 2011 and toured the museum during its development and construction phases.
“In February 2012, Marty performed at Mississippi Night held at the GRAMMY Museum at L.A. Live for us during GRAMMY week,” Havens said. “He also conducted an education program earlier in the day for students in L.A. Marty has loaned the museum artifacts for several exhibits in Mississippi.”
Craig Ray, director of Visit Mississippi, met Stuart April 26, 2007, at one of the Mississippi GRAMMY celebrations. He said Stuart also performed when Mississippi hosted the National Governor’s Association Conference, and he’s booked him for many other events.
“He’s been very involved (in the state), and he’s also very involved in our Country Music Trail, where he has a marker,” Ray said. “He’s been very influential in serving on that board and helping select the markers.”
Ray said he’s aware that Stuart is planning a museum with his 22,000-piece collection of country music memorabilia in Philadelphia.
“It’s one of the largest country music collections in the world, I’ve been told,” Ray said. “It’s exciting to have him bring all those pieces back to Philadelphia to share, not only with Mississippians, but with all of our tourists.”
Ray said Stuart’s work with the Country Music Trail, GRAMMY Museum and his own museum plans are part of the state’s effort to reclaim Mississippi as the birthplace of America’s music.
“It’s really developed into a unique tourism product that we have,” Ray said, echoing the same sentiment as Havens in calling Marty a great ambassador for the state. “Everywhere he goes in the world, he leads with Mississippi. He leads with his roots and where he learned his music growing up, and he is an incredible talent for songwriting and performing.
“It’s a great Mississippi story. I guess I’m just fascinated that, at such a young age, he went to the Neshoba County Fair and showcased his talent there, and how he was discovered in his own backyard and became a country music icon. He’s up there at the top as one of our great ambassadors.”
In 1989, Stuart topped the charts with Hillbilly Rock, the album’s title track. In 1992, partnering with Travis Tritt, he won his first Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Collaboration for The Whiskey Ain’t Workin. In 1993, he won a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance partnering with Chet Atkins, Vince Gill and others.
Stuart is thrilled that Mississippi is focusing on its musical history.
“What we have in the state is something no one can match – the creativity that has come out of this state,” he said.
Stuart still comes to Mississippi about twice a month to work on various music-related projects. He and wife, Connie Smith, who is also a country music legend, own a cabin in the woods on his grandfather’s farm.
“For the last 15 years, I’ve loved being part of the new Mississippi – the new creative Mississippi,” Stuart said. “I dearly love this state. I consider it an honor to be a Mississippian. It’s the most precious place in the world to me.”
Photos by Danny Klimetz