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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

A Different Kind of History Lesson

August 4, 2021

When I am leading tours, especially in the Italian region of Tuscany, I’m always amazed at how much history we pass on a non-descript road without ever knowing what we are missing. On a seemingly simple one mile stretch of road outside of our friend’s villa in the remote Tuscan countryside one passes historic tombs from Etruscan times (8th Century BC) to a spot where Da Vinci painted a still life, to a mythical cistern from the 14th century to World War II sites with even more history in between. All of this on a stretch of road that 99 out of 100 people would drive by oblivious to what has come before.

In America our established history isn’t that old. I remember when I started inviting my Italian friends over here. The first place I wanted to take them to was New Orleans. But it hit me when I was trying to create an agenda for their visit that, at best— as it stands today— New Orleans is only 300 years old. That is brand new when it comes to Italian culture.

We pass different types of histories here in Mississippi. If one is driving down Center Avenue in Philadelphia Mississippi, he or she may pass a nondescript building and think well that’s just a shuttered storefront next to a Barber shop across the street from a payday loan operation. Ten times out of 10 you would pass that building not knowing there are more than 20,000 unique, historic, and priceless pieces of country music artifacts and memorabilia inside.

Last week— in that non-descript spot— I spent one of the more enjoyable and interesting days I have spent in months.

Maybe I should stop and give a little backstory here. Bluegrass and country music legend— and Philadelphia native— Marty Stuart, is a friend. He and I have done a couple of projects together over the years. I’m sure everyone reading this piece knows about this Mississippi superstar, but a quick primer for the one potential person who doesn’t. Marty Stuart is the five-time Grammy-winning, multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, performer, and all-around great guy who started touring with Lester Flatt when he was 13-years old. At 19-years old he began touring with Johnny Cash. He married one of Johnny Cash’s daughters and lived next door to Cash for the next three or four decades. Actually, Marty had Johnny Cash as a neighbor on one side and Roy Orbison on the other. He has enjoyed an impressive solo career since the mid-1980s, has an encyclopedic knowledge of bluegrass and country music, and is currently married to country music legend Connie Smith.

In the early 1980s, Marty started collecting country music artifacts and collectibles. He currently owns the largest private collection of country music memorabilia in the world. He is also in the process, in a joint venture with the city of Philadelphia Mississippi, in building The Congress of Country Music which will house that impressive and important collection as well as a performance venue.

Extra Table, the nonprofit I founded in 2009, hosts a fundraiser every December called Merry Mississippi. We offer 12 unique Mississippi experiences online to raise funds to feed Mississippians in need across our state. Last year Extra Table executive director Martha Allen and I were in my office brainstorming ideas for unique Mississippi experiences, and I said, “Let me call Marty.”

I called Stuart and asked him if he would be willing to give a private tour of his collection which is currently housed in a climate-controlled warehouse while The Congress of Country Music is being built. He didn’t hesitate. “I can do you one better,” he said. “Let’s schedule the tour around the Neshoba County Fair, and the winning bidders can join me and be my guests at the new Country Music Marker unveiling.”

“That would be great,” I replied. “And I’ll provide lunch afterward at your warehouse.” He was on board from the opening request.

The food development was easy. When I created the menu for that luncheon, I knew it would need to consist of all cold items. Not only because there was no kitchen in the warehouse, but because the guests were going to be coming straight from the Neshoba County Fair which, according to the only time I’ve ever been, is hot. Seriously hot. Seriously, like surface of the sun hot. I also wanted to serve dishes that were representative of my part of the state since the six guests who purchased the experience were from Utah, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

The meal started with a Gulf Coast staple, smoked yellowfin tuna dip. I followed that up with boiled shrimp and two sauces. The main course was a chilled Creole chicken pasta salad, and I finished the meal off with what is probably my all-time favorite dessert, fresh summer berries, and crème anglaise.

It was a memorable lunch. We both shared stories, and the guests had a blast.

Years ago, Stuart and I performed a piece I wrote, “My South,” on a television program. I read the piece while he gently picked his guitar in the background. On this day, Stuart made an unexpected request, “Robert, why don’t you read your ‘My South’ piece.”

“Do you have a guitar laying around?” I asked. Minutes later I learned what a ridiculous question that was. He went into the instrument section of his memorabilia inventory and pulled out a guitar case in which the name “George Jones” was written on the side. The day continued to get better and better from that moment on.

Stuart spent the next two hours showcasing the amazing collection he has amassed over the past 40 years— handwritten lyrics by Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, personal letters from Patsy Cline, musical instruments by dozens and dozens of country music legends, flashy cowboy boots, and dozens— if not hundreds— of iconic country and western outfits made by the all-time clothier to the country music stars, Nudie Cohen. I was expecting to be impressed, but I was blown away.

It would take several newspaper columns to describe the joy and amazement I experienced in those two hours. There was notable energy in the room of legends past and present. All one needs to know is, when The Congress of Country Music opens its doors in the near future, you need to be there.

Marty Stuart has accomplished many things, and from an early age. But, of all the musical notes played on all of the stages and the television sets, his lasting contribution to the world will be The Congress of Country Music here in Mississippi. We are fortunate that Stuart’s passion will become our blessing.

Many only think Mississippi history goes back to 1817. But that’s not true. Not even close. Mississippi history goes back thousands of years to the Native Americans. Especially in the Philadelphia, MS area where the Choctaw Nation has thrived for more than 2,000 years. In Philadelphia, the Choctaws are keeping their history and culture alive while Marty Stuart is doing the same thing for America’s music. God bless them all.


This week’s recipe: Brandy Crème Anglaise

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