I met Marty Stuart Saturday night at a concert he gave at the college where I work. He’s from Mississippi, so I was excited about meeting him! He was as nice and polite as I expected him to be, and had great hair, of course. When he found out I was from McComb, MS, he told a story about performing as a little boy at Percy Quin State Park, just outside McComb. That’s where he got his first request for an autograph, he remembered, and he said he told himself right then and there that he could “do this thing” and become a star!
Before the show, some friends and I were snooping around backstage looking at the band’s instruments, when the fellow who takes care of them pulled one down for us to get a closer look. The old mandolin he showed us was special, he said, but to us, it just looked old. “See those initials JRC and that cross?” he asked. “Those were carved by Johnny Cash and there is a story there.” In an interview on CMT in 2005, Marty told that story, and I’m including it in his own words here:
“I’d saved my money to buy that mandolin when I got a job with Lester Flatt, and it was $650. For years, I was real proud of the fact that it never had a scratch on it. It looked like a brand new instrument for probably 12 or 13 years. When I got a job with Johnny Cash, he got on a kick of wanting me to teach him how to play the mandolin. And he was a horrible mandolin player. He’d take my mandolin on the stage and just play along with June Carter when she was singin’. One night I looked over there and he had his pocketknife out and scratched a huge cross on it and put his initials, “JRC,” on it and then flipped the mandolin over and autographed it and signed, “Johnny Cash.” My heart fell. After the show, I said, “What did you do that for?” and he said, “I didn’t want you to forget the Lord.” And I told him I could have remembered the Lord without him wrecking my mandolin. But it was all in good fun. And that started a trend after that. People just felt compelled to sign the mandolin. It has Stephen King, President Clinton, Bob Dylan, Billy Bob Thornton, Chuck Berry, Quincy Jones, Natalie Cole, ex-girlfriends, my momma and a lot of people I don’t know on there. I’m about to run out of places for people to sign.”
I rubbed my finger on the carved “JRC” and the Cross and imagined the many people who had held that mandolin through the years. What a thrill it was to hear the story of that important piece of musical history and then to hear Marty Stuart play Southern gospel on it…well there just aren’t words to describe it all. You just had to be there!