Before he was in double digits, Stuart started his first band, playing at the local Lion’s Club and Rotary Club and staying true to the one genre that had captured his heart. “Back at that time, the British Invasion was ruling the world, but I loved country music,” he says. “I took a particular pride in representing that kind of music.”
Stuart’s self-taught skill on the mandolin soon attracted the attention of bluegrass legend Lester Flatt, and in 1972—when Stuart was just 13 years old—he began performing and traveling with Flatt’s band. That would lead to a stint as a guitarist with Johnny Cash’s back-up band, and before long Stuart’s own songs were topping the radio charts. First there was “Arlene,” then “Hillbilly Rock,” “Tempted,” and a string of other hits. His collaborations with longtime friend and fellow country star Travis Tritt, including “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin” and “This One’s Gonna Hurt You,” further solidified Stuart’s place in music history. In 1992, he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry.
Fans found his distinctive mix of traditional country, honky-tonk and rockabilly refreshing, but to Stuart, this form of playing from the heart was simply a way to honor country’s roots. From his youngest days, he had been an avid student in the school of country music, soaking in the sounds and styles of the genre’s greats. And as his own career progressed, he became both a passionate historian and an ambassador for this uniquely American art form.
He also began quietly amassing what has become the largest private collection of country music memorabilia—more than 20,000 items ranging from Johnny Cash’s first black suit and song lyrics handwritten by Hank Williams to the boots Patsy Cline was wearing when she lost her life. “I had a world-class collection, but I didn’t know what I was going to do with it,” he says.
To solve that dilemma, Stuart needed only to look back to the place where it all started—not just for him but for country music itself. Back in his home state of Mississippi, after all, was where “Father of Country Music” Jimmie Rodgers was born. It was here that Stuart had also recently helped to launch the Mississippi Country Music Trail, which leads from Rodgers’ early stomping grounds to the haunts of dozens of other noteworthy names in the industry.
That conviction explains why Stuart’s colorful collection now sits in a warehouse in his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi, as Stuart moves full steam ahead with one of the most ambitious projects of his life: to create a music museum and performing arts center known as Marty Stuart’s Congress of Country Music. Encompassing a 50,000-square-foot campus that includes the historic Ellis Theater, this $30-million initiative is poised to draw music fans from around the world—fans who can also include on their itineraries visits to other iconic Mississippi music destinations like the Grammy Museum Mississippi, the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience, and the Delta Blues Museum.