Marty Stuart inside his warehouse of the square as his country music collection is being unpacked.
Marty Stuart inside his warehouse of the square as his country music collection is being unpacked.
It’s a good weekend when you drive 700 miles into the mountains and get to hear a Mississippi native wow a crowd on its fourth day of a thirteen-stage music festival. When I’m able to make it to Merlefest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina – a “traditional plus” music event fundraiser in memory of Merle Watson – I’m always doubly pleased to see Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives.

Stuart left Neshoba County at age twelve for a life on the road working first for Lester Flatt and then Johnny Cash. With five Grammy’s to his credit, his latest album, “Way Out West” deserves to earn him another. While still pure Marty Stuart, tracks echo Marty Robbins, the Bakersfield sound, surf-rock, and a touch of Jim Morrison (if he were a cowboy). “Way Out West” is a creative and innovative concept album and worth a listen.

But the most exciting news from Stuart for Mississippi is his announcement last month that he will create the “Marty Stuart Congress of Country Music” in downtown Philadelphia which will include a music venue and a museum for his collection of country music artifacts and photographs. While no doubt Stuart will be a large feature there, his memorabilia saved from a lifetime in country music and his personal photography of music legends is the largest private collection of country music artifacts in the world.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the national Grammy Museum in Los Angles have displayed pieces from his collection.

When Stuart’s project opens in four to five years, it should develop a symbiotic relationship with Neshoba’s Choctaw casinos both with performers and tourists, and will compliment the $40 million Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience (“The MAX”) opening next year in Meridian, just 45 minutes away. Meridian, already home to the Jimmie Rodgers (The Father of Country Music) Museum and Festival and the MSU Riley Center, provides an anchor to Mississippi’s Country Music Trail. That trail — currently with 30 stops including Rodgers and Stuart — also honors famous Mississippi country music stars like Charley Pride, Conway Twitty, Faith Hill, Tammy Wynette and even Jerry Clower.

Stuart’s forum  will be an additional draw to music tourism that currently attracts visitors from across the country and the world to visit the Birthplace of American Music including the hometown of Elvis Presley in Tupelo, the B.B. King Museum in Indianola and the Grammy Museum in Cleveland. The Mississippi Blues Trail has nearly 200 stops.

But back to Merlefest which celebrated its thirtieth show this year. Stuart was at the first show in 1988 and this was his eighth appearance there in total and my second time to see him on the campus of Wilkes Community College. I’ve seen him play in Mississippi and at the “Mother Church” of country music – the Ryman in Nashville - during a Grand Ole Opry show celebrating Mississippi. That’s a passion of Stuart who brags about Mississippi and celebrates his native home everywhere he goes like our own cultural ambassador.

Merlefest — held at the onetime “Moonshine Capital of the World” and the birthplace of Junior Johnson and his high-speed bootlegging that gave birth to NASCAR (the North Wilkesboro Speedway was the first NASCAR track) – commemorates Merle Watson, but his father Doc Watson played at the festival annually until his death in 2012.

(My friends and I got to briefly meet Doc’s brother-in-law this year. He approached us to take a picture of the truck we drove because we had a magnet on the side reading “Mississippi to Merlefest” and he wanted to share with the family that folks from Mississippi were driving in to the event.)

This was Stuart’s first return to Merlefest since the death of Doc Watson. He said he was able to visit with Doc after the 2012 show for about two hours at his home in Deep Gap just about a month before his death. Stuart and his band dedicated a performance of the old gospel standard “Angels Rock Me To Sleep” to Watson. (They perform a version of that song on Stuart’s 2014 release “Saturday Night / Sunday Morning.”) Other songs performed by Stuart and his cohorts included Woody Guthrie’s “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd” and “El Paso” by Marty Robbins, as well as tracks from their latest album, the old blues standard “I Know You Rider” and more.

Marty Stuart will headline the Governor’s Concert at the Mississippi Bicentennial Celebration event in Oxford on June 24 at the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts on the Ole Miss campus. If you haven’t seen him, or haven’t seen him in years, be sure to check him out. Unlike Merlefest, the closest thing to a mountain will be the “Thacker Mountain” radio show; but you also won’t need a 1,400 mile round-trip to get there.



Brian Perry is a columnist for the Madison County Journal and a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. Reach him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.