09/14/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
I don't really consider myself the owner—I'm just the keeper of this stuff," says Marty Stuart, sliding open the door of the temperature-controlled self-storage unit he rents in Nashville. "This stuff" is Stuart's mini-Smithsonian of country music memorabilia, gleaned from years of acquiring costumes, guitars, autographs and other artifacts. (He has had the country bug forever—that's him, below, at 3 or 4 in Philadelphia, Miss.) Stuart himself has made a musical mark, from his debut in 1972 as a 13-year-old mandolin whiz with Lester Flatt to his eight albums (1992's THIS ONE'S GONNA HURT YOU went gold) and his two Grammy Awards. Stuart modestly keeps the Grammys in a cardboard box in the storage unit—he's more interested in celebrating the accomplishments of others (like Porter Wagoner, whose '60s-vintage Nudie jacket he wears at left). In these pages, for the first time, Stuart shares choice items from his collection and reveals his talent as a photographer of his peers at ease. "My crusade," he says, "is to carry some of the tradition of country music into the 21st century."
Last February, "during some of the worst winter days in Nashville's memory," Stuart was one of the stars who "got together to make an album with George Jones. It was singing school with a heart. You should've been there." Left, Possum (Jones) rehearsed with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. Below, Jones's monogrammed boots ('89) from Stuart's coffer.
"Willie Nelson's guitar is named Trigger," Stuart says. "It's as much a part of him as his songs or his bandanna." During the taping of a 1984 TV special in Switzerland, host Johnny Cash added his autograph to Trigger's signature-scrawled body.
"Most of my life I've looked to Bill Monroe for inspiration," says Stuart of the bluegrass sage (left, with singer Connie Smith, center, and Loretta Lynn, this year). "But the lesson here is that playing mandolin is a great way to meet girls." Above, an autographed '40s concert poster.
Backstage at the fabled Ryman Auditorium in Nashville last June, Patty Loveless, Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells (left to right) "were singing together—old Kitty Wells songs and just old country songs. Songs that make you smile. It was like the queen and her adoring disciples."
Above, Loretta Lynn's 1966 YOU AIN'T WOMAN ENOUGH, an album Stuart fondly recalls from childhood. "My sister Jennifer introduced me to Loretta. We used to listen to records every night before bed. I'd get so wound up I couldn't sleep."
"When I shook his hand, I knew I had met a friend for life," says Stuart of his first encounter with future father-in-law Johnny Cash, back in the mid-'70s. Stuart married Cindy Cash, Johnny's daughter, in 1983, the same year he shot Johnny getting the Roman emperor treatment from wife June Carter Cash in Australia. Cindy and Marty split in 1987, but he stays close to Cash: "Johnny is almost a dad to me. They're still like family."
Decades ago, stars boosted their income by publishing folios, or song-books, which they often hawked themselves before or after shows. This sheet music is from Webb Pierce, the chart-topping '50s honky-tonker. "I started collecting stuff the minute I got to Nashville when I was 13," Stuart says. A favorite haunt: the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, founded by the famous leader of the Texas Troubadours.
"Why frogs?" Stuart asks, marveling at the theme of this eye-popping suit made in the early '60s for Canadian balladeer Hank Snow by Nudie, Manuel's famed mentor. "I have no idea. That's the bizarreness of Nudie's mind. There was no rhyme or reason to a lot of things he did. I think that's half the fun of a Nudie suit."
In 1984, Stuart says, "various pickers, grinners, sidewinders and saints," including Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, turned out to cheer Johnny Cash at a "sobriety party" feting Cash's climbing on the wagon. "Iced tea was the hit of the evening."
Stuart treasures this tie once worn by bluegrass giant Lester Flatt, who gave him his big break. "A lot of things going on now ain't worth putting into a warehouse to save," Stuart laments.
Levi Lincoln Stuart, 1983: "My grandpa. He taught me how to whittle, trap birds, catch fish, smoke cigars and tune a fiddle. When I was a kid, his front porch was my stage, where I imagined doing all the things I do now. He lived in a cool country world—I miss him."