Kate Meyers
September 18, 1992 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Marty Stuart reeks of style. Country style. ”The four things a hillbilly singer needs are a Cadillac, a Nudie suit, the right hairdo, and a pair of pointy-toed boots,” says the 33-year-old backwoods belter. And he should know. Stuart has been performing on the road since he was 13, when he talked his parents into letting him play mandolin in bluegrass guitar great Lester Flatt’s band for a weekend. He took off on that tour bus in 1972 and it was good night, Irene, to his hometown of Philadelphia, Miss.

Stuart, whose new album, This One’s Gonna Hurt You, is getting the reviews of a lifetime, considers himself more a stylist than a singer, meaning he gets by with a mix of approaches — ”Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, and a dash of Dylan every now and then,” to name a few — rather than relying on a fantastic voice of his own. ”Nat ‘King’ Cole, that’s a singer,” says Stuart. ”That guy could sing a phone book. I do well to stay on pitch sometimes.”

But when it comes to personal style, Stuart lets his best licks rip. In fact, his fashion fusion of country outlaw with rock & roll felon — or, as he puts it, ”the Cisco Kid-meets-Keith Richards look” — and his Smithsonian-size collection of Nashville artifacts have made Stuart the CEO of country chic.

Starting at the top, Stuart’s striking black mane, specked with well-earned gray, is ”a cross between Albert Einstein, Porter Wagoner, and a few Apaches,” he says, hybridizing again. Often tied in a black or pink bandanna headband, his hair is fastidiously sculpted. What does it take to achieve such a resplendent coiffure? ”About four minutes, a 60-mile-an-hour wind, a $1 hairbrush, and an 87-cent can of Aqua Net.”

His wardrobe is equally meticulous: The Levi’s must be faded, the T-shirts black or bleach-white (he buys them — and dog food for his bloodhound, Oscar — at Wal-Mart). The only color is provided by his hand-tooled cowboy boots and his rhinestone-studded jackets, made by renowned country designers Nudie and Manuel. (Stuart doesn’t buy the matching pants; if you wore too many rhinestones, he says, ”you’d get beat up.”) Throw in an Indian concho belt here, a silver bracelet there, and you’ve got Stuart wear.

But it’s his arcana collection that puts him over the top in country. Traveling in Ernest Tubb’s old tour bus, Stuart buys as much classic country stuff as he can find. ”I see country music as a true piece of Americana,” he says, ”and I noticed that a lot of the great rhinestone suits and guitars were disappearing.” Since 1972, he has amassed a 400-piece collection of vintage rhinestone jackets, hand-tooled boots, and silver conchos, along with suits that once belonged to the likes of Hank Williams and George Jones. ”I don’t consider myself the owner of these things,” he says. ”I consider myself the keeper.”

There were times when it seemed that Stuart was paying more attention to the past than the present. In the mid-’80s he suffered a career crisis, lost his recording contract with CBS, and saw his five-year marriage to Johnny Cash’s daughter Cindy dissolve. ”I’ve been to jail just four times,” he brags, ”and I was under the influence of Merle Haggard each one.” Stuart pulled things together by listening to the advice of his mother, Hilda; he went back home, sang in church, ”cleaned it all up,” and studied the pages of his old brown leather Bible. Now he’s teetotal and a ”card-carryin’ mama’s boy,” calling home three or four times a week. And although he’s riding solo these days — ”I’ve proven that I’m the worst husband on earth” — he declares himself ”a truly, truly” happy man.

Certainly the self-proclaimed road gypsy has all the clothes he’ll ever need to rock rebel hell. They blend perfectly, and if there’s one mystery to his look, it may be why someone so classic feels the need to wear his jeans so dang tight.

”I’d much prefer loose overalls and no underwear,” he says, peeking over the rim of his aviator Ray-Bans. ”But somewhere along the line some hillbilly discovered this sells records.”

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