John Stuart was born in 1932 in the Bellevue community west of Hattiesburg, where he still lives today. His great-great-grandfather had emigrated from Scotland, moving across the southern United States to Texas. His great-grandfather, a Civil War veteran, bounced back to Mississippi. John’s father farmed and was a Baptist minister with responsibilities for several churches. When one church moved out of “the old pump organ days” and bought a piano, the Stuarts were given the retired pump organ. John, then about six years old, welcomed the new addition to the family. Until the acquisition of the organ, his musical performances had been limited to singing while hitting an old bucket lid. He would later get a piano and also added the fiddle and other instruments to his bag of tricks, but still remembers that old pump organ.
During World War II, his older brothers were in the service, and his father had heart problems, so John ran the farm—100 acres, with about 100 head of cattle. He learned to operate a bulldozer at age 19 and, though he’s had many other jobs, could always fall back on that (his last job before retirement was as a groundskeeper at the University of Southern Mississippi). It was back during the war that he was first exposed to bluegrass, on a radio purchased to keep up with news on the fighting. Listening to the Grand Ole Opry was “almost a no-no among church-going people” at the time, but when he heard Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys, he “knew that was the kind of music my heart had been wanting to hear all of my life.”
He’s played piano in church since he was little, but in a style that evokes the stringed instruments he loves: guitars and fiddles and banjo. His piano performance is “more or less in the bluegrass style.” He heard bluegrass on Jimmy Tugwell’s radio station out of Magee and attended festivals like the big one just outside of Mississippi in Chatom, Alabama. He is eternally curious about the history of folk music. One foray into it found him making mouth bows after extended conversations concerning such instruments with the late country music star Jimmy Driftwood.
In the mid-1970s, John and his son Coleman (born in 1957) became charter members of the Magnolia State Bluegrass Association. Coleman, who does telephone engineering work, can’t remember when he didn’t have a guitar in his hand. They had a family band for some time, with Coleman flat picking his guitar, John fiddling, Coleman’s eldest boy on mandolin, and daughters singing. The band lapsed when the daughter who sang lead got married, but three generations of Stuarts still play together every Friday night. They can be found performing at the Bellevue Bluegrass Jam, held at Wayne Wilson Trucking, less than two miles from the family home. Coleman holds down the left side of the stage playing rock-steady guitar chords and fluent breaks, while John alternates between playing piano and fiddle, and, like everyone there, just has a grand time.
– Chris Goertzen