Marty Stuart Heads Back to the ‘Spiritual Home of Country Music’
When Marty Stuart was growing up in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the Ellis Theater downtown could practically qualify as his second home. He watched the 1969 film Johnny Cash! The Man, His World, His Music in the old movie house, and lived to tell the Man in Black about it after joining his band in 1980.
But today, with decades of success in Nashville to his credit — first as a sideman to bluegrass legend Lester Flatt, then Cash, and finally as a bandleader in his own right — Stuart has reclaimed the 500-seat venue in the name of country music history.
The Ellis Theater is the first wing to open from the Congress of Country Music, Stuart’s monument to the genre and proof of his obsession with collecting and preserving its artifacts. When it fully opens in 2024, the museum will be the repository of his 20,000-piece country artifact collection, including Nudie suits — the decorative outfits worn during country music’s golden era — plus guitars and ephemera that give insight to how country music was made.
The museum will join the state’s rich roster of musical treasures like the Grammy Museum Mississippi in Cleveland, the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, and the Mississippi Arts & Entertainment Experience in Meridian. Not to mention the nearly 250 Mississippi Blues Trail and Country Music Trail markers, which together tell the story of the birthplace of American music.
The genesis of the Congress of Country Music came after Stuart visited with B.B. King at the museum he helped design before his death in 2015. On the drive home, Stuart hatched a plan for cementing his hometown’s status as a hub of country music, and establishing a place where he could display his collection.
“It seemed to me that Tupelo was the kind of spiritual home of rock & roll [because of Elvis Presley], and B.B.’s place was the spiritual home of the blues,” Stuart says. “I thought, ‘I know what I need to do with my collection: Take it to Philadelphia.’”
Stuart knew his project would create a stir — he likens it to “setting a spaceship down in the middle of nowhere, expecting everybody to understand it” — but after a run of sold-out shows for the Ellis Theater’s opening weekend, he’s enjoying the buzz it created.
“What’s happening there with the Congress of Country Music has given Philadelphia a puff of wind in its sail, and it’s getting on to a new chapter,” he says. “To see Jontavius Willis and the Choctaw dancers, Connie Smith and Ricky Skaggs, and Vince Gill and Bill Gaither bring their music there, I just couldn’t believe what I was watching. It was just awesome.”
We caught up with Stuart to talk about how his home state continues to inspire him, and his new album, Altitude.
Mississippi, and your region in particular, produces some megawatt country music talent. Beyond you and Jimmie Rodgers, you’ve got artists like Hardy, Randy Houser, and Track 45. That must make you proud.
Without question. When I first got involved in the state [in the 2000s], I noticed that the Mississippi Blues Trail markers were so pretty and cool and informative. I went to the governor at the time and said, “Can we have a country music trail?” But I noticed most of the people we were celebrating in the blues category were ghosts — friendly old ghosts that we love — and the thing I love about country music is that it’s not just about the past. There’s a whole lot of future in what’s happening in the world of country music.
Who was the last musical artist you discovered here?
It was Chapel Hart. Somebody was telling me about these three girls from south Mississippi that were independent, doing things their way, and I went, “yeah, yeah, yeah.” But I heard their song, the Dolly Parton thing, “You Can Have Him Jolene,” and I thought, wait a minute, this has “smile” written all over it. I met them at the Grand Ole Opry a couple of weeks ago, and they’re just as cool as their music. I was really proud for them. Proud for all of us.
Do you get to see many local musicians when you’re home?
Not as much, but that’s starting to evolve and change. That’s one of the mission statements of the Congress of Country Music. When Old Crow Medicine Show hit with “Wagon Wheel,” the next time I went to Asheville [North Carolina], there was an Old Crow Medicine Show on every corner. It was the beard-and-banjo capital of the world, and you could hear music coming from backyards, street corners, inside of restaurants, bars. That’s what I hope Philadelphia evolves into, that musicians from all over the planet know they can come set up camp and play music.
What’s your favorite song that was inspired by Mississippi?
At the end of the Nineties, I was pretty fried. I hadn’t been home in 25 years. I went to stay at my grandpa’s old farm — he was just a little backroads cotton farmer — and spent day after day in the pine trees in silence. One morning I was sitting at the dining room table, and I started thinking about all the prayers that have been prayed over the table, for his crops, for neighbors, World War II servicemen in the community.
All of a sudden, here I was sitting at that table praying for my own soul. Just trying to hang on. And the song “Far Away” appeared at that table. The next thing I know, I’m on a Hollywood soundstage, and they’re calling for an end title for a film that I was scoring called All the Pretty Horses. I only had one song, and I played it for everybody — and that’s the song. It went from my grandpa’s table in Arlington, Mississippi, to Hollywood, and standing in front of the 75- or 80-piece orchestra hearing it played, it was beautiful.
Your new album Altitude was conceived on the road. What inspired the songs?
I thought we turned the wheel pretty good and headed off into a different direction with [his 2017 album] Way Out West, and on the heels of that we did a run with Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman to celebrate the 50th anniversary of [The Byrds’] Sweetheart of the Rodeo. So me and the Fabulous Superlatives got to be the Byrds, and it was wonderful. I have no doubt in my mind that after those three tours, which were loaded with great songs, those songs and sounds followed me home. And I just got into a writing spree, and it wound up being Altitude.
After a lifetime in music, how do you stay creative?
It’s always about the next song. I had a professor one time who pointed out to me that the word “art” appears in my name twice. He said, “It shouldn’t take you more than a lifetime to live up to that, but I think you’re on your way.” But the most astounding statement he said was, “You always have to keep a creative endeavor in front of you that knows more about you than you know about it — and your job is to seek it out.” And whether it’s building the Congress of Country Music or writing the next song or finding the next guitar lick or playing the next town, there’s always one more out there.
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