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Marty Stuart: Keeper Of Country Music's Cowboy Couture

"I got kicked out of school a few weeks in, because I was caught reading a country-music song roundup book inside my history book," Marty Stuart says. (Courtesy of the artist)

Out of love and necessity, Marty Stuart has become a country-music historian. His massive collection of country artifacts and memorabilia — guitars owned by Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, thousands of rhinestone and embroidered jackets designed for Porter Wagoner and Roy Rogers — began when trends in country music began to change in the late '70s and early '80s.

"People were throwing things away," Stuart tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I just took it as a family matter."

The songwriter, singer, guitarist and mandolin player has five Grammys to his name, not to mention a photo exhibit currently at the Frist Center For The Visual Arts in Nashville; he's also got a companion book featuring his photos of country performers and fans. Here, he tells Gross about playing with Lester Flatt at 13 and recording with Mavis Staples, and he plays a few songs from a new double album — country on one side, gospel on the other — called Saturday Night, Sunday Morning.


Interview Highlights

On recording the gospel song 'Uncloudy Day' with Mavis Staples

I always loved the Southern gospel music and traditional hymnbook music. But the black gospel songs that touched me — I'm from the other Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Mississippi — and if you'll remember, in 1964 there was an awful murder there, the slaying of three civil rights workers, so all of a sudden social conscience changed down there. The song that I remember more than any other song during that particular time, The Staple Singers had "Uncloudy Day" and "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" — those two records seemed to always play in that part of the world. And that really opened my eyes to a completely different kind of gospel music.

Pops [Staples] was one of my dearest friends and I miss him very much, but that little recording of "Uncloudy Day" that he and his children made in the basement in Chicago still in my mind stands as one of the greatest songs in the American gospel songbook. It's such a precious recording. That was the first song that we actually recorded for this project nine years ago, and we built this entire project off of that one song and that one performance.

On starting his career in country music at age 12

When I was 12 years old, I went on the road for the first time with a Pentecostal gospel bluegrass group from the South called The Sullivan Family Gospel Singers. They were huge regional stars down in our part of the world, and they played Pentecostal churches, camp-meeting revivals, bluegrass festivals, and George Wallace campaign rallies, how's that?

And so I went on the road that summer and fell in love with the lifestyle of the road. I got to wear clothes the way I wanted to, I could wear my hair goofy, met cool people, stayed up late talking music 24 hours a day, and I got a little bit of money for it and fell in love with applause, and the spotlight charmed me just right on in. So when that summer was over, it was time to go back to school. The Sullivans dropped me off at the edge of Philadelphia, Mississippi, and I felt like the circus had dropped me off at the edge of town and gone on without me. It killed me.

On joining Lester Flatt's band when he was just 13

I got kicked out of school a few weeks in, because I was caught reading a country-music song roundup book inside my history book, and the teacher came up behind me and said, "If you get your mind off of that garbage and get it on to history, you might make something out of yourself." And the smart-aleck said, "Well, I'd rather make history than learn about it." They expelled me. I called a friend of mine who worked for Lester Flatt's band who had offered to have me come to Nashville and just ride the bus with him for a weekend. So he called Lester, and Lester gave his permission. My folks gave their permission — and that was Labor Day weekend of 1972 — and Lester heard me playing in the back of the bus, put me onstage and the crowd liked it. I loved it, and he offered me a job at the end of the weekend. It was kind of like that scene in The Wizard Of Oz where life goes from black and white to color all in one sweep, and that's what happened to me.

On the last photo he ever took of his neighbor, Johnny Cash

I was over at his house and I had just been to Folsom, California. I had been given a gate pass to go to the prison to see where he made his Folsom Prison album, and at that point I was just looking for anything to talk to him about — we recorded, we talked, just anything to keep him entertained, because June had recently passed away. So I went next door to have a cup of coffee and just share with him my impressions of Folsom Prison.

I started a song and I took it next door to John, and we actually wrote this song called "Hangman" that we did on a record called Ghost Train, and it was the last song that he ever wrote. We just finished this song together. And he was sitting there in his chair looking so pretty in the light, the late-afternoon light was coming in from behind and I said, "JR, let me take your picture." I knew he didn't want to, but he let me. There were three frames. In the first two, he just kind of looked tired and weary, but on the third frame I said, "JR!" and he sat up straight and pulled on that black collar, and he became Johnny Cash. Four days later, he was gone.

On his collection of country-music artifacts

There came a time in the late '70s, early '80s when those suits and those guitars and those boots and those manuscripts kind of fell out of favor due to the changing of the times around the world of country music. I started seeing those artifacts come to sales and thrift shops around town. People were throwing things away. A lot of guitar buyers in Japan were buying our instruments. So I just took it as a family matter, like throwing away the family jewels. So when I started making more than $2 in a row, I went on a mission: the crusade to save our culture. The Country Music Hall Of Fame was doing a wonderful job of it, but as a private collector, that's what I went for. I feel good about it. It started in my bedroom, and I think it's the largest private collection of country-music artifacts in the world now, by 20,000 artifacts strong. But it was a job worthy of attention, because it touched my heart.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Marty Stuart, was just described in Rolling Stone as one of the last remaining links to traditional country, roots music and the generation of greats like George Jones and Hank Williams. Stuart is a songwriter, singer, guitarist and mandolin player who's had gold and platinum records and won five Grammys, but then moved away from commercial country to get back to his and the music's roots.

He first went on the road when he was 13 as a member of Lester Flatt's band, then became a member of Johnny Cash's backup band. He went solo in the late '80s. Stuart has a huge collection of country music artifacts and memorabilia. Through his own photography, he has documented country performers and their fans. He currently has an exhibit of his photos at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville. Stuart brought his guitar and is going to do some songs for us, but let's start with a track from his new double album, "Saturday Night Sunday Morning." The "Saturday Night" CD features songs about love and heartbreak. The "Sunday Morning" album features hymns and gospel songs. This is his song, "When It Comes To Loving You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN IT COMES TO LOVING YOU")

MARTY STUART: (Singing) I keep on wanting you with all my heart. Time stands still for me every minute that we're apart. I keep on needing you. That's just what I do. Can't seem to help myself when it comes to loving you. There's a fire that burns down in my soul. It comes with a feeling that just won't let me go. It started the first time that we kissed. And left me with a memory that I just can't resist. I keep on wanting you.

GROSS: That's from Marty Stuart's new album, "Saturday Night Sunday Morning." Marty Stuart, welcome to FRESH AIR. What a pleasure to have you on the show.

STUART: It's an honor to be on your show, Terry. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: My pleasure. So why did you want to combine Saturday night kind of songs with Sunday morning spiritual songs?

STUART: Well, I've always said that country music has always shared a very unique relationship with gospel music - the hooting and hollering, you know, always in abundance. But at some point, the hillbilly always on stage says, friends, we'd like to do you a gospel song. And whether it's "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" or "I'll Fly Away" or something deeper, the country audiences always seem to kind of expect it and understand it. And it's - I've always thought it was a really unique relationship that two genres shared.

GROSS: Did you hear a lot of the Sunday morning songs that you play at church, or do you know most of those songs from country music?

STUART: Well, being from Mississippi, the church house is kind of the common denominator. It was for me growing up. Like so many public performers, that was the first place I was ever invited to sing. Mainly though, the point-blank answer to your question is when I first put The Fabulous Superlatives together, the way we got to know each other musically and spiritually and - you know, was gospel music. Harry Stinson brought the music of the Swan Silvertones and the Dixie Hummingbirds. And Kenny Vaughan loved Sister Rosetta Tharpe's music. He brought her music. Paul Martin came to us and brought music from Southern gospel world. I brought the music of the Staple Singers, Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe.

An we'd listen to those songs, and that's how we learned to sing together going up and down the road or in dressing rooms when we first put our band together. So at some point, there was just simply a whole lot of gospel material that we had either learned or written that was about, you know, eye-to-eye with the country set list. So it's always been a part of what we do as a band.

GROSS: What songs did you hear when you were actually in church?

STUART: The standard fare was, you know, "Amazing Grace," "How Great Thou Art." And I always loved, you know, the Southern gospel music and traditional hymnbook music. But the black gospel songs that touched me when I was - I'm from the other Philadelphia - Philadelphia, Mississippi. And if you'll remember, in 1964, there was an awful murder there - the slayings of three civil rights workers. So all of the sudden, social conscience changed down there.

And the song that I remember more than any other song during that particular time - the Staple Singers had "Uncloudy Day" and "Will The Circle Be Unbroken." Those two records seemed to always play in that part of the world, and that really opened my eyes to a completely different kind of gospel music - a completely different sound of gospel music.

GROSS: And you do "Uncloudy Day" with Mavis Staples on your new album.

STUART: Absolutely - playing Pops Staples guitar. And...

GROSS: Which you own - which they gave to you after he died.

STUART: They gave to me. And it was like being handed a responsibility, an Excalibur and an instrument of truth all in one. Pops was one of my dearest friends, and I miss him very much. But that little recording of "Uncloudy Day" that he and his children made in the basement in Chicago - the basement recording - I think it came out on Vee-Jay Records - still, in my mind, stands as one of the greatest songs in the American gospel songbook. It's such a precious recording. So Mavis coming by to do that - that was the first song, Terry, that we actually recorded for this project nine years ago. And we built this entire project off of that one song and that one performance.

GROSS: So since you've recorded "Uncloudy Day" on your new album, and since Mavis Staples is singing with you on it, why don't we hear that? So this is Marty Stuart with Mavis Staples from his new album "Saturday Night Sunday Morning."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNCLOUDY DAY")

STUART AND STAPLES: (Singing) Woah, they tell me of a home where no stone clouds rise. Oh, oh, they tell me of an uncloudy day. Well, well, well, yes oh yes. They tell me. Lord, they tell me now. They tell me. I've got a home. I've got a home beyond the skies. Well, well, Lord they tell me now of a home far, far away.

GROSS: That's Marty Stuart with Mavis Staples from his new album "Saturday Night Sunday Morning." There's Saturday night songs and Sunday morning gospel songs - one album for each kind. It's a double album. So...

STUART: Pops Staples called me one time and said - he was coming to town to record with us, and he said Marty, I need a Fender 65 with some shake on it and a stretch-out car. And I said sure, Pops - whatever you need. And I called Mavis when it was all done. I said Mavis, what did I just agree to?

GROSS: (Laughter).

STUART: What is a Fender 65 with some shake on it and a stretch out car? She says, oh, Marty. She says that is a Fender amplifier with some trim-low on it for pop sound, and that stretch-out car is a limousine to bring him from the airport. I said no problem.

(LAUGHTER)

STUART: It was beautiful.

GROSS: You've written a lot of your own Sunday morning kind of songs - your own spirituals. I'm going to ask you to do one for us if you don't mind.

STUART: Sure.

GROSS: You've brought your guitar with you, which is very generous of you. So there's a song that you do called "Long Walk To Heaven" which is on your new album. Can you do part of that song for us and maybe tell us about writing it?

STUART: I saw a photograph once - so many of my songs start with shaking somebody's hand and hearing their story or seeing somebody walking down the road. But I saw a photograph of this fellow walking down the road, and he looked very weary. And - but there was actually a look of peace and contentment on his face beyond the weariness. And I thought, he's on his way to heaven for some reason.

(Singing) Well, I'm one day, one day closer than I've ever been before. One mile. One mile further down this tired and weary road. Well, this old world is full of some trouble. So many heartaches I have known. Like a pilgrim, I keep on moving, for this world is not my home. It's a long, long walk. It's a long walk. It's a long walk to heaven, but I'm too close to turn around.

"Long Walk To Heaven," Miss Terry Gross.

GROSS: Now, that's fabulous. That's Marty Stuart, and his new album is called "Saturday Night Sunday Morning." It's a double album. One album is Saturday night kind of songs and the other Sunday morning kind of songs - more like gospel, spiritual kind of songs. So let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more, and we'll hear more of Marty Stuart's music, including him performing in the studio cause he's brought his guitar. That's after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Marty Stuart and he has a new album called, "Saturday Night/Sunday Morning." Marty Stuart, you've brought your guitar. Can I ask you to play for us...

STUART: Sure.

GROSS: ...One of the original songs that's on the "Saturday Night" album from your double album?

STUART: OK.

GROSS: And this one's called "Rough Around The Edges." Maybe you could talk a little bit about writing it before you play it.

STUART: Well, it's autobiographical. I went on vacation from about 1973 until about 10 years ago - totally rock-and-roll lifestyle, and the first line of the song I say, (singing) I woke up this morning with miles of life behind me. My friends and family worried cause they don't know where to find me. Once again I beg forgiveness for another lost night in my soul. Something bad's got a hold on me, and it just won't let me go. Rough around the edges, it's hard to face myself. The mirror in the morning shows a man who looks like death. Can't seem to find a way to steady up and gain control. Rough around the edges, the devil's reaching for my soul.

Anybody relate?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's a great song. So what got you back from the edge?

STUART: Well, my heart finally found a home when I married Connie Smith, and I was tired of feeling bad. And it was time to grow up and get on with life. So that's what happened.

GROSS: You got into country music at such a young age. You were 13 when you started performing on the road with Lester Flatt.

STUART: I was. That's right.

GROSS: So how did you get to tour with him?

STUART: My friend - I'd actually been traveling when I was 12 years old. I went on the road for first time with a Pentecostal-gospel-bluegrass group from the South called the Sullivan Family Gospel Singers. They were huge regional stars down in our part of the world, and they played Pentecostal churches; they played camp meeting revivals, bluegrass festivals and George Wallace campaign rallies and that's like the summary

(LAUGHTER)

STUART: How's that? And so I went on the road that summer and fell in love with the lifestyle of the road. I got to wear clothes the way I wanted to. I could wear my hair goofy, met cool people, could stay up late, talk music 24 hours a day, and I got a little bit of money for it and fell in love with applause. And the spotlight charmed me just right on in. So when that summer was over, it was time to go back to school. The Sullivans dropped me off at the edge of Philadelphia, Mississippi, and I felt like the circus had dropped me off at the edge of town and gone on without me. And it killed me.

And I got kicked out of school a few weeks in because I was reading - caught reading a country music song round-up book inside my history book, and the teacher came up behind me and said, if you get your mind off of that garbage and get it onto history, you might make something out of yourself. And smart-aleck said, well, I'd rather make history than learned about it, and they expelled me. I called a friend of mine who worked in Lester Flatt's band who had offered to have me come to Nashville and just ride the bus with them for a weekend. So Lester gave his permission. My folks gave their permission, and that was Labor Day weekend of 1972. And Lester heard me playing in the back of the bus, put me on stage and the crowd liked it. I loved it, and he offered me a job at the end of the weekend. So it was kind of like that scene in "The Wizard Of Oz" where life goes from black-and-white to color all in one sweep, and that's what happened to me.

GROSS: Let's hear how you sounded when you were 13 and on the road with Lester Flatt. And this is when you were on "The Porter Wagoner Show" TV show. You're going to be doing a song called "When The Bluebird Sings," and Lester Flatt sings first. And you're kind of singing echo on this, and then we'll also hear you take a mandolin solo.

STUART: OK.

GROSS: OK. This is the 13-year-old Marty Stuart with Lester Flatt on "The Porter Wagoner" TV show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PORTER WAGONER SHOW")

LESTER FLATT: (Singing) There's a bluebird singing.

STUART: (Singing) There's a bluebird singing.

FLATT: (Singing) In a blue ridge.

STUART: (Singing) In the Blue Ridge Mountains.

FLATT: (Singing) Calling me back to my home.

STUART: (Singing) Calling me back to my home.

FLATT: (Singing) Oh, I can hear.

STUART: (Singing) Oh, I can hear.

FLATT: (Singing) Bluebirds calling.

STUART: (Singing) Bluebirds calling.

FLATT: (Singing) Calling me back to my home.

STUART: (Singing) Back to my home.

GROSS: That was the 13-year-old Marty Stuart.

STUART: The first time he ever put me on stage at the Grand Ole Opry, you know, I was hoping my folks were listening. I knew they were. He put me on stage to play the mandolin, and I was so little, I had to stand on my tip-toes to get it up to the microphone. And at the end of the song, the crowd just kept going and going and going, and I thought I had done something wrong. And I looked at him, and he had this look on his face. It was just pure delight, and I said, what'd I do? He said, do it again.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That must've felt great to get so much applause at the age of 13.

STUART: It's called an Opry moment when something really happens good at the Grand Ole Opry, and at the end of all that applause, I turned around and all of a sudden, there was Roy Acuff and there was Bill Monroe, Tex Ritter. And there were all these musicians that had been there for years. And they knew something was going on, and they showed up for it. And it was like looking into the face of the Old Testament of country music. I couldn't believe what I was seeing, but it totally made things happen. It made things different around here for me.

GROSS: And you played with Lester Flatt until his death - right? - in 1979. Yeah.

STUART: I did. I did.

GROSS: So can I ask you to play for us a song that was very influential to you early on when you were - when you were growing up, a song that made you fall in love or that helped you fall in love with country music and that you've tried to emulate yourself as a songwriter?

STUART: Well, Terry, we had a wonderful radio station in our hometown. It's still on the air, WHOC - 1490, 1000 watts of pure pleasure. And it was started by a wonderful fellow named Mr. Howard Cold (ph). The station reflected so much of the roots music royalty that came from the state of Mississippi, and it signed on in the morning with country music. At the noon hour there was an hour of Southern gospel music. The afternoon was Top 40 and rock 'n roll. Late afternoon was soul music, and they signed off with easy listening. And I thought everybody's radio station sounded that way, but - and I was like a sponge. I listened to everybody's music. And I loved everybody's - still do. And a lot of it entertained my head, but the music that spoke to my heart the most was country music because it spoke of real-life. It was simple. It was - again the world accessible comes up. I could look into the lyrics and see people around me, our situations. The country music story songs, they appeal to me. But the one song in particular that probably just captivated me was by a fellow named Lefty Frizzell.

(Singing) Ten years ago on a cold, dark night, somebody was killed 'neath the town hall light. There were few at the scene, but they all agreed that the slayer who ran looked a lot like me. Well, the judge said, son, what is your alibi? If you were somewhere else, then you won't have to die. I spoke not a word, though it meant my life. I had been in the arms of my best friend's wife. She walks these hills in a long, black veil. She visits my grave when the night winds wail. Nobody knows, nobody sees, but nobody knows but me.

GROSS: Marty Stuart will be back and will play more songs for us in the second half of the show. His new double album is called "Saturday Night/Sunday Morning." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Marty Stuart, the Grammy Award-winning country music songwriter, singer, guitarist and mandolin player. He grew up in country music and for many years has been collecting country music artifacts, including guitars owned by Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Pops Staples and Clarence White of The Byrds and thousands of rhinestone and embroidered jackets, including ones designed for Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, Porter Wagner and Roy Rogers. A collection of photos he's taken is on exhibit at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville.

So we were talking before about how you were on the road by the age of 13 with Lester Flatt and stayed with him, in his band, until his death in 1979. Not long after that, you played with Johnny Cash for several years in his band. How did you end up moving on to Johnny Cash's band?

STUART: I needed a job, and I was down in Nashville at a place called The Old Time Pickin Parlor. And there was a wonderful guitar builder named Danny Ferrington who was an up-and-coming luthier at the time. And I noticed that on his workbench, he had a beautiful, black guitar with an eagle in it - a gold eagle that he was inlaying. I said, who's that guitar for? He said, Johnny Cash. I said, are you kidding? I want to go with you when you deliver the guitar. And he said, OK. So we shook hands on it, and I made him promise me he would keep me in mind. But I kept him in mind. I'd check in on that guitar from time to time. The day came, and I went with Mr. Ferrington to Cowboy Jack Clement's recording studio over on Belmont Boulevard in Nashville. And when the door swung open, two of my lifelong friends - what came to be lifelong friends - were standing. John had a guitar, singing "The Wabash Cannonball." And Cowboy Jack Clement had a martini on his head, waltzing to "The Wabash Cannonball."

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Martini on his head or in his hand?

STUART: Yeah, on top of his head and not spilling a drop. And he later showed me he was an Arthur Murray dance instructor in Memphis in the 50s. So he was still showing everybody how he could do that. So that was my getting on place. And about a month later, I was out on the road with Doc and Merle Watson, just working some jobs. And it was the last show, and I knew when I got home from Cedar Rapids, I had no earthly idea what I was going to do with my life. For the first time since I was 12 years old, I was out of a job. And this was about 1979 - or - yeah. And so my mom called and said, Bob Wootton - who was Johnny Cash's guitar player - is looking for you. So I picked up the phone at the hotel in Cedar Rapids and called him. And I said, hi, Bob. And he said, John wants to know if you would be interested in working in our band. I said, I would. He said - I said, when would I start? And he said, how about tomorrow? I said, that's really good news; where are you? And they were in Des Moines, Iowa. I was just a short - a rental car ride away. So I got to the hotel the next day and sat down in the restaurant. And the maitre d' came and said, Mr. Cash is on the phone. I said, all right. And he said, do you know my songs, son? I said, every one of them. Do you still do them in the same key? He said, probably. And he said, do you have anything black to wear? I said, probably. He said, well, I'm probably going to take a nap. And I'll probably see you at the show - click. And that's how I got the job.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So had Johnny Cash already changed from Nudie suits to all black?

STUART: Yeah. He was into pretty, black suits made by Manuel. You know, I think there was a lot of black-on-black suits going around at that time.

GROSS: OK. (Laughter). So, you know, I hope this isn't too personal. A few years later, you married Johnny Cash's daughter, Cindy, and stayed married for five years. Did getting married or getting divorced affect your relationship with Johnny Cash?

STUART: No. He called me old number nine. (Laughter).

GROSS: What did he call you?

STUART: Old number nine, the ninth son-in-law.

GROSS: Oh. (Laughter).

STUART: I wasn't the first guy to come through to marry one of the pretty Cash girls or the Carter girls that didn't work out. So I think from day one there was an understanding that he was my chief and my boss and my mentor. But when I became the son-in-law, that was a completely different room. That lived in a different room. But we kept our professional relationship totally separate. And after Cindy and I were divorced, you know, he was mad at me for five minutes. And then he got over it. And we got together and played the guitar and never said a word about it. And to the day he died - we actually became next-door neighbors. Connie and I lived next door to John and June. So we were friends till the day he died.

GROSS: Well, just a few days before he died, you took his photo. And that photo is in your book that collects your photos. And it's also at the exhibit of your photos in Nashville now.

STUART: At the Frist.

GROSS: And the Frist, yeah. It's a beautiful photo.

STUART: Thank you.

GROSS: Do you want to describe it?

STUART: Well, it was four days before he passed away. I was over at his house, and I have no idea how to - probably - I probably had a bag slung over my shoulder. I had just been to Folsom, California. And I had been given a gate pass to go to the prison to see where he had made his "Folsom Prison" album. And at that point, I was just looking at anything to talk to him about. Just to - we all - we recorded; we talked - just anything to keep him entertained 'cause June had recently passed away. And so I went next door to have a cup of coffee and just kind of share with him my impressions of Folsom Prison. The day I went there, the country band - the Folsom Prison country band - was playing. So we played a Merle Haggard song, "Folsom Prison Blues," of course, and a song that I wrote called, "The Whiskey Ain't Workin' Anymore." And those guys - we had a ball. But that band hall, in its former days, was the hanging gallows. And it haunted me all the way home. I kept thinking the job of a hangman - what a rotten job. What do you do, go home at night and tell your wife, I did a great job today? And I had started a song. And I took it next door to John. And we actually wrote the song called "Hangman" that we did on a record called "Ghost Train." And it was the last song that he ever wrote. We'd just finished the song together, and he was sitting there in his chair looking so pretty in the light. The late afternoon light was coming in from behind. I said, J.R., let me take your picture. And I knew he didn't want to, but he let me. And there were three frames. In the first two he just kind of looked tired and weary. But on the third frame, I said, J.R. And he sat up straight and pulled on that black collar, and he became Johnny Cash. And I got through, and I started to leave the room. And he says - he said, is there anything in this room you want? I said, just your love. He said, well, you've got that. And I said, well, you have mine, too. And I said, I have to go to Washington; can I bring you anything? He said, oh, bring me the Washington Monument. I'll be home in three or four days. I said, you OK? He said, I'm OK. I said, how is your spirit? He said, it's strong. I said, you got plenty of rope left in there? He said, I got plenty of rope. I said, I love you, and so I'll see you when I get home. And so four days later, he was gone. I got the word on the way home from that trip.

GROSS: It's interesting that you were able to have that kind of connection with him right at the end and even collaborate on a song with him and take that fabulous photograph. It's two really deep connections to make - in addition to the love that you expressed for each other, which is no small thing.

STUART: Well, you know, and that's something I carry with me. And I lean on that. I dream about him every now and then. I've dreamed about him three times since he passed away. And one of the dreams, he came walking down a road. And it was like a dirt road. And he looked so beautiful. He looked like he did, like, in about 1973. He was - I mean, clean as a whistle. He looked rested, and he had a tan. And he - we stopped, and he sat down. He said, Stuart, how are you doing? I said, good, J.R. How're you doing? He says, you wouldn't believe what I've learned to do since I've been up here. I said, show me; tell me. He said, I can sing just like Merle Haggard.

(LAUGHTER)

STUART: And so he started imitating Merle Haggard and got up, and we hugged each other. And he walked off. And I saw Merle right after that. I said, Hag, you've got to hear this. You have to hear this. And I told him what I had dreamed. And he said, was it in color? I said, absolutely. He said, those are the best kind. (Laughter).

GROSS: Does it feel like a visitation when you have a dream like that?

STUART: Absolutely. It was a wonderful visit.

GROSS: Yeah. My guest is Marty Stuart. You can see his final photo of Johnny Cash on our website, freshair.npr.org. His new album is called "Saturday Night/Sunday Morning." He'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is country music singer-songwriter, guitarist and mandolin player Marty Stuart. His new album is called "Saturday Night/Sunday Morning." He was on the road with Lester Flatt's band at the age of 13 and as a young man, played in Johnny Cash's band.

So you went on your as a solo performer in the '80s. And I'm going to ask you to play an early song of yours that you still like a lot and that helped establish you. And I'll ask you to choose one that you'd like to do.

STUART: There was a song that - I fell into a writing spell in the beginning with a great songwriter named Paul Kennerley. He had a record called "White Mansions" that he had done and "The Legend Of Jesse James," I think, but he was also writing hit songs for Emmylou Harris and the Judds. And he came from England so he brought this wonderful rock 'n' roll perspective along with him to the country side of things.

And we were writing songs - and he was a great Buddy Holly fan - and I had just worked on a session with Roy Orbison as a guitar player and Paul was inspired by Buddy Holly for some reason at the moment. And we wrote this song called "Tempted." If I can...

(Singing) There's a girl trying to steal my heart and I'm tempted. Even though she could tear it apart I'm tempted. In her eyes there's mystery every time she smiles at me. Well, I know how it could be and I'm tempted. Tempted and tried deep down inside. I can't deny that I'm tempted.

And I heard it the first time on the radio when I went to...

GROSS: I love that song, by the way. Yeah.

STUART: ...Thank you. I heard it the first time on the radio when I was in Lubbock, Texas which was Buddy Holly's hometown. I'd gone to the local station to do a radio interview to promote the show that evening. And I said, would you do me a favor? And I handed him a test pressing of the song "Tempted," - and the record company didn't think it was a single - I said, would you play this for me so I could hear it in the car on the way back to the hotel? And he did and when he got through, he said, I believe that's a hit song and I think Buddy Holly would be proud to endorse that song himself.

And I thought - that is the first time I felt like I had found my own sound and we had found kind of the mark I was looking for. It was a real getting on place for me. So I still am very fond of that song, "Tempted."

GROSS: There was a period where you decided you didn't like what you were playing. You didn't like where your career in music was heading. You'd been very successful, but you wanted to make a musical change. What was that about?

STUART: It was at the end of the 1990s and I had been making commercial country records since about 1986. And I had every level of success, from the worst to the best. And we were out there rockin' and rollin' and again, I - it had got so loud. And I looked at it and it didn't sound like rock 'n' roll and it didn't sound like country. It was just - I felt I was in the weeds, musically. And I knew I was spiritually and professionally and personally - and I was just - you know, that's what happens when you start the road when you're 12 years old and you don't go home for a long, long time. And it was a lifestyle that I knew was going to kill me. I was going to be just another body bag on the edge of Nashville, a headline in the paper if some things didn't change.

So I knew that I had to bring it down - turn the volume down - and go back to the ground. So I went back home to Mississippi to my farm and spent a lot of time soul searching and looking for a different way to do it. And it has paid off. I didn't like the way my life or my legacy was shaping up and I knew that I could do something about it and only I could do something about it. So I tried and I like the path I'm on now.

GROSS: Could you do one of the songs that you wrote when you decided you wanted to be on a different musical path?

STUART: There was a record that I did, I think, at the end of about a 10 or 12 year run with MCA Records called "The Pilgrim." And commercial radio had all of the sudden kind of cooled on the singles I was making. And I chased for a minute and I felt completely miserable chasing - I hit up and down Music Row - so I just thought, there's a better way to live. And I went deep and I wrote a record called "The Pilgrim." It was a bit of an opera. And this song actually came - I was looking for inspiration and sometimes when I need inspiration, I go to Memphis because Memphis is a wonderful city. And it's a completely different atmosphere than Nashville. It is completely - it is a hardcore Mississippi River town. And there's a lot of good spirits in the air in Memphis and while I was there, I actually rented Sun Studios for me and the band, just to go in and make sketch tapes, didn't even go down there with a song. But during the course of when I was down there, I got the message that Bill Monroe had passed away. And I took a walk - I called timeout - I took a walk around the back streets of Memphis. When I came back to the studio, I told the everybody, I said, turn the lights out, it's in the key of D and I'll see you when I'm through. And we turned the lights out and I made up this song called "The Pilgrim" on that little walk. But "The Pilgrim" was a song that for some reason kind of unlocked the door to a different place.

(Singing) I am a lonesome pilgrim. I am lonesome pilgrim far from home. And what a journey I have known. I might be tired and weary but I am strong because pilgrims walk, but not alone. There's been a hand to guide me along the way and it held me up when I went astray. And as I stand before that valley why, it will lead me to the other side. I am a lonesome pilgrim far from home. And what a journey I have known. I might be tired and weary, but I am strong because pilgrims walk, but not alone. Pilgrim.

GROSS: Wow, thank you.

STUART: You're welcome.

GROSS: Thank you for doing that. My guest is Marty Stuart. He has a new album called "Saturday Night/Sunday Morning." He'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Marty Stuart, and he has a new album called "Saturday Night Sunday Morning." "Saturday Night" are Saturday night country music songs, and the second CD, "Sunday Morning" is gospel and spiritual songs. Some of them are originals. Some of them are traditional songs.

You've embraced a lot of aspects of country music from the '60s and '70s when you were coming of age, including the kind of rhinestone embroidered suits. And I think there's an aspect of country music that a lot of people were rejecting at that time 'cause they considered it too commercial - too show-bizzy, including the suits. So talk about why you not only embraced it, you collect it. You have this huge collection of, like, Nudie suits and also of great country music performers' guitars and other instruments. You also do your own photographs of country music people. So you have a museum. (Laughter). You basically have your own country music museum.

STUART: And a big insurance bill to go with it. Well, I came to Nashville at a wonderful time, 1972. But there came a time in the late '70s and the early '80s when, as you said, those suits and those guitars and those boots and those manuscripts kind of fell out of favor due to, you know, the changing of the garden - the changing of times around the world of country music. And I started seeing those artifacts come to - you know, to sales and thrift shops around town. People were throwing things away. A lot of guitar buyers in Japan were buying our instruments.

So I just kind of took it as a family matter - like throwing away the family jewels. And so when I started making more than two dollars in a row, I just kind of went on a mission to crusade to save our culture. The Country Music Hall of Fame was doing a wonderful job. But as a private collector, that's what I went for. And I feel good about it. And it started in my bedroom, and I think it's the largest private collection of country music artifacts in the world now - about 20,000 artifacts strong. But it was a job worthy of its attention because it touched my heart.

GROSS: Are the clothes that you wear and that your band, The Fabulous Superlatives, wear clothes that you saved or are they clothes that you've had made for you?

STUART: Oh, no. They're new clothes. They were inspired by, perhaps, some of those old-fashions. Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood, California - Nudie's Rodeo Tailors was there. Manuel was later there. And Jaime Custom Tailors - the fellow out there knows. Two people in the world that really make that - those type clothes anymore and that's Jaime out on Lankershim Boulevard, and Manuel is in Nashville now. So they're the kings of cowboy couture.

And I loved Lankershim Boulevard as a kid because it's where the Lone Ranger got his costumes made...

GROSS: (Laughter) Really?

STUART: ...And Porter Wagoner and Johnny Cash. I mean, mask men and rhinestones were kind of commonplace on that street. Nobody even batted an eye. It was a wonderful place to hang out.

GROSS: What's the craziest thing you've ever done to get a country music artifact that you wanted?

STUART: There was a country singer named Johnny Rodriguez - had a beautiful gray suit on one night at a bar in Nashville. This is in the early 1980s. I had recently come across a set of black leather gloves with fringe on them with rhinestones, and on the cuff of the glove it had H.W. in rhinestones. They were made by Nudie Rodeo Tailors in the early '50s, and they belonged to Hank Williams.

And so Johnny Rodriguez commented on how cool those gloves looked. And I said yeah, but I'll tell you what - they're jinxed. Every time that I pick up my guitar, the handle falls off, or the car won't start - I get in an argument with my girlfriend. I mean it was just endless - the things that happened to me when I wore those gloves, but I kept wearing them. And he said well, funny thing - the suit that I have on is - George Jones traded cars nine times one day in Nashville.

(LAUGHTER)

STUART: And the suits - these suits were in the trunk, and he just kept forgetting them and the salesman - one finally forgot to give them back to him. And they stayed in the car dealer's office for like a year, and George never would pick them up. So I went and - he gave me these suits, and I called George. George said keep them. He says, but every time I wear this suit, something crazy happens. Me and my girlfriend get in a fight or a tree falls on my car. And I said, well, let's swap. So I swapped him Hank Williams's gloves for George Jones' suit.

(LAUGHTER)

STUART: Pretty good.

GROSS: And you don't wear them 'cause it would bring bad luck. You just put them in your museum. (Laughter).

STUART: Absolutely. Absolutely.

GROSS: And then another thing that happened in your life - and very few people can say this. You married the person who was one of your idols when you were young.

STUART: Connie Smith.

GROSS: Yeah, the country music singer Connie Smith. And you went to see her when you were what, 12?

STUART: My mom took my sister Jennifer and me to see Connie Smith when she came to our town of Philadelphia. And there's the Choctaw Indian Reservation - the Mississippi band of Choctaws - they have a great fair that still goes on down there every year, but Connie Smith was the star. She was a RCA Victor recording sensation, and she came to our town and sang her songs in July of 1970. And she looked so pretty to me. I thought she was an angel. And I got my picture made with her that night and got her autograph. And on the way home, I told my mom - I said, I'm going to marry Connie Smith someday. (Laughter). So it took me 25 years to talk her into it, but we're happily married for almost 20 years now.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's great. And you've produced music by her. She performs on your TV show a lot. And you duet with her on your previous album which is called "Ghost Train." And there's a song of yours that you sing called "I Run To You." Did you write this for her?

STUART: Connie and I wrote it together.

GROSS: Oh, I didn't realize that.

STUART: We wrote several songs together, and we were writing songs for - we were just writing. And this song came out of the sky. And I said Connie, this is a good song. And I'm very, very cautious about singing with her. She's kind of like Frank Sinatra or Barbra Streisand. She's that level of singer. She does not need a bit of help. And usually when I hear people sing with Connie, it just distracts me.

But I knew this was a good song, and it spoke from our hearts, and it told our story. And so it was an honest performance. And we recorded it back at RCA studio B where she'd recorded all of her hits back in - you know, from the beginning of her career on. And so the sound of her voice coming back up in that room was just absolutely magical.

GROSS: Marty Stuart, thank you so much for talking with us and for performing for us. It's just been a treat. Thank you.

STUART: It has been a treat to be on your show. Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: This is my guest, Marty Stuart, with his wife, Connie Smith, from Marty Stuart's album "Ghost Train." And this is "I Run To You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I RUN TO YOU")

STUART AND SMITH: (Singing) I run to you when I'm lonely. I run to you when I'm feeling blue. Each step I take leads to you only. When I need love, I run to you. This world is sometimes cold and hard to bear. What would I do, sweetheart, if you weren't there? When things go wrong and my dreams fall apart, you lift me up. You touch my heart. I run to you.

GROSS: Marty Stuart's new double album is called "Saturday Night Sunday Morning." If you missed any of his interview and performance, you can download the podcast on our website, freshair.npr.org.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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