Country Music Hall of Famer and former Johnny Cash band member Marty Stuart shared the spotlight with another country music veteran on Saturday, Feb. 18, at the Reilly Arts Center in Ocala—a gleaming red, black and white 1957 Flxible StarLiner bus dubbed “The Chief.”
The venerable bus, restored and customized almost entirely by local craftsmen and technicians, was donated by the owners of a Marion County horse farm and was set to be shipped by flatbed trailer to Marty Stuart’s Congress of Country Music museum in Philadelphia, Mississippi, houses more than 33,000 cataloged items.
According to congressofcountrymusic. org, the $30 million project will create a 50,000-plus-square-foot campus featuring the historic and recently renovated Ellis Theater, a museum, classrooms, a community hall, meeting and event space, and a rooftop performance venue.
The bus, which was located three years ago, was shipped to Ocala and painstakingly restored and customized in a project spearheaded by husband and wife, Dave and Boots Wright, owners of We Both Farms in northwest Marion County. The Wrights have been involved in several bus restorations, including ones used by the late NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt and Cash. When Stuart visited Ocala just over three years ago, Dave Wright showed him a “Private Coach” sign from a former Cash tour bus and the meeting led to the search for a bus to restore and install as a display at Stuart’s museum. The presentation Saturday was the culmination of the three-year project, although Wright said improvements will continue to be made on the bus.
“I was completely overwhelmed by such unselfish generosity,” Stuart wrote in an email.
On Saturday, “The Chief ” served as the centerpiece for a gathering at the Reilly before Stuart’s Feb. 18 evening performance where Stuart thanked those involved in the bus restoration project and met past owner Rick Norcross, bandleader of the Vermont-based Western swing band Rick and the All- Star Ramblers.
Norcross’ group used the bus from 1998 to 2020. Stuart provided an advance “thank you” VIP show for the group before his evening concert.
“All the stars came together. It was a wonderful day,” Wright said of the handoff to Stuart.
The name of the bus honors Chief Oliver Red Cloud, who was a supporter of education and “warrior of this century, looking out for the rights of the people…(who) cared deeply for the children and the families of the Lakota Nation,” according to RedCloud School.com, the website for the Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Oliver Red Cloud died in 2013, at age 93. Stuart was friends with and was “adopted” by the chief and continues to support Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, South Dakota.
“The bus is an immeasurable gift from the hearts of Dave and Boots Wright. They paid for everything, including an endowment to cover maintenance and personnel to care for the bus in Philadelphia, Mississippi. They also donated two other incredible vehicles. The Congress of Country Music bought a building adjacent to our campus to house the fleet and the building will be named in Dave and Boots honor,” Stuart stated.
Levi Amerson Jr., of Amerson Trucking LLC in Spring Hill, has transported the bus previously and will haul it to the museum on a flatbed.
Stuart called the 33-foot-long bus “a star” and said he has spent perhaps 51 years of his career traveling on buses like “The Chief.”
“It’s like seeing a painting going down the road. This bus brings back the idea of the artistry, craftsmanship and ingenuity this country was built upon. (This bus) is a portrait of old America,” Stuart said.
Stuart remarked on how buses historically have drawn people together to share experiences. He praised the work of those involved in the project which, he said, will preserve a part of country music history.
The Flxible StarLiner began its service life as a 29-passenger bus at Halifax Airport in Nova Scotia. By 1961, the bus was sent to Custom Coach Corporation in Columbus, Ohio, to be outfitted as a luxury ride. Norcross said he purchased the bus from a truck driver and used it for more than 20 years with his musical group.
The manufacturer’s name—Flxible, which is the correct spelling—harkens back to the Flxible Side Car Company of Loudonville, Ohio, which made motorcycle sidecars with a flexible connection circa 1912, according to Flxibleowners.org. The company made funeral cars, buses and more up until the 1970s, when the company was sold.
Wright found the 66-year-old bus on eBay and enlisted Gary Romine, of Edge Motorsports Racing & Restorations in Summerfield, to organize a host of local companies to handle the various tasks.
The StarLiner interior has two tables with tooled leather handiwork and upholstered seats in the front, a kitchen area and storage in the center, and a lounge/office layout in the rear area with etched glass tables and wrap-around upholstery, a television and plaques commemorating both Stuart’s (2020) and his wife Connie Smith’s (2012) elections into the County Music Hall of Fame. Touches on the exterior include gold leaf striping, graphics and museum signage.
The 10-ton bus is powered by a Ford 535-cubic-inch V-8 industrial gasoline engine and has an Allison five-speed transmission. It has original air brakes and air horns. It gets about five miles to a gallon of gas.
Derek Quesenberry, owner of Platinum Details of Ocala, did an initial clean-up of the bus, steam cleaning the interior and more, before restoration work began.
Wayne Green, with Raney’s Truck Center in Ocala, said the bus was at the center for several months and the work done there included exhaust system replacement, in-house fabrication of brake shoes and updates including LED headlamps.
Jack and Nicole Quintana, owners of Lucky’s Upholstery in Belleview, were on hand for the bus handoff. The couple’s shop did the custom black leather, ostrich and suede upholstery with red stitch highlights. The new upholstery was done with a “nostalgic look,” he said.
Chuck Partin, of Castaway Customs Northwest in Bronson, said his company installed new Sea Dek flooring usually used in marine applications and made modifications for a smooth floor. Partin said before work began, the floor was “pretty rough and had holes.” Replacement took more than three weeks.
Geet Faulkner, of LN Signs of Ocala, said his company did “all lettering and graphics and stripes and the etched glass tabletops in the rear of the bus,” including 23 carat gold leaf designs. Special touches by LN Signs include Marty Stuart’s signature on the entry door and a message on the engine’s cooling fan that reads “Marty’s Other Fan!”
Shift’n Gears Auto Body of Williston handled the multi-color paint on the bus.
Terry Lankford, of Lankford Made, based in Franklin, Tennessee, did all the hand-tooled leather highlights. Tabletops, the dashboard and several other areas are treated with the decorative leather work.
Also helping with the restoration project were Big John’s Customs, Butler Industries, IBP Industries, ElVideo Cowboy, Robert Martin, Raymond West, Mariano Placencia and Gerardo Felix.
Stuart, 65, a native of Philadelphia, Mississippi, began his career around age 13 when he joined fellow Country Music Hall of Fame artist Lester Flatt on the road. He called traveling with Flatt a “business arrangement” and when asked Saturday if his parents were agreeable, he joked that he wasn’t joining a heavy metal group.
“Buses were a big part of my life (and) the only constant on the road,” Stuart said about the ever-changing food and accommodations from town to town while on tour.
Norcross, a native of Vermont visiting currently in Tampa, worked as a music entertainment reporter with the “Tampa Times” during the 1960s and 1970s and interviewed music celebrities including Elvis Presley. He has lived in Florida and Vermont and toured with Rick and the All-Star Ramblers in New York, Massachusetts and Vermont. Norcross decided to sell the bus, which at the time was painted green and was nicknamed “The Mighty Pickle,” because of “winding down” on tour dates.
He called selling the bus “bittersweet” but said he now is “thrilled” to see it will be on display at the museum. Norcross called Stuart one of his country music “heroes, like one of the Beatles” and said that seeing the bus was a “thrill.” He said the emotion connected to the event Saturday, “runs deep.” Norcross presented Stuart with a vintage plaque from Columbia Records, which cited Johnny Horton for sales of his “Sink the Bismarck” recording.
Stuart, Wright and Norcross sat in the bus on Saturday afternoon reminiscing and discussing the two musicians’ careers and more before the show. Stuart noted that the same type of gatherings have occurred for years on tour buses.
“People visit,” he said with a smile.