Choctaw Gardens Depicts Marty Stuart's Life

This appeared in The Clarion Ledger - October 27, 2012

Marty Stuart remembers his first dreams of stardom: "I wanted a gold tooth and to give the weather like Woodie Assaf did on (WLBT) Channel 3 in Jackson."

That was before music took hold of him around age 6.

"My sister, Jennifer, had a normal childhood, and I had this musical life invading me like a big fog," said Stuart, 54, the country music star from Philadelphia who became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1992. "To me, a guitar was as much a part of the house as a stove or a refrigerator. I couldn't imagine life without one being within reach."

That life, along with his family's, is documented in Choctaw Gardens, a 103-page book of photos taken by his 79-year-old mother, Hilda.

"Mama's photographs were something I studied when I was a boy," said Stuart, also an accomplished photographer. "I might go a year before pulling them out again, but when I did, it was like reading the Bible, they were so moving."

Photos of family reunions, relatives being baptized in ponds, Marty and Jennifer hunting Easter eggs, Christmas mornings and the opening of presents, birthdays, watermelon cuttings, jam sessions in the living room, and Marty performing -- from small festivals to the Opry stage.

Stuart mentioned the pictures to Tom Rankin, a photographer, filmmaker and former professor at Delta State University and the University of Mississippi. He is now a professor at Duke University's Center for Documentary Film Studies.

When Stuart said he would "put some of her photographs up against many of the best," Rankin suggested an exhibit of her work at Duke. "That was the first and only time I've committed to an exhibition without seeing even one image," Rankin writes in the foreword.

Never had a lesson

And it was a grand evening in 2011 on Duke's campus in Durham, N.C. when "outsiders" were first allowed to view Hilda Stuart's work.

A woman approached her during the showing. "She was real distinguished looking, and I figured she was coming to tell me she really didn't like my photos all that much," Hilda said.

Instead, she had a question: "Darling, at which school did you study photography?" The woman looked at her in disbelief when Hilda said modestly she had never attended a photo class.

Hilda was "15 or 16" when she first got her hands on a camera.

Her brother had won it selling "Grit" newspapers, and she loved the way it felt in her hands, loved experimenting with different settings.

She got one of her own about four years later, and it consumed her. Still does.

"She basically photographed everyday happenings in our lives," said Jennifer, 52. "You don't really think about it at the time, but now it's one of the most precious gifts our mama has given to us.

"And until the book was being published and those little snapshots were blown up, we had no idea what we really had. Mine and Marty's jaws were on the floor the first time we saw them in book form. There were so many things in those photos, tiny details, which we'd never seen before."

Bird's-eye view

There is one photo in particular that is eye-popping, not only for what it shows but the obvious thought that went into getting it. From high above the Opry stage, in the left corner of the balcony, Hilda took a picture of a 13-year-old Marty Stuart performing alongside legendary bluegrass picker Lester Flatt.

"I would've never imagined her going to the balcony and taking that shot," Marty said. "The fact that it even occurred to her to do that says so much. And I love all the detail of the picture, especially the big boxes in front of the Opry stage. They were full of seat cushions, which they sold. Those old pews got pretty hard after a while at the Ryman (Auditorium). But that photo shows just how down-home the Opry show was back then."

Hilda Stuart had no way of knowing, of course, that part of her portfolio would capture the rise to stardom of the man who today is recognized as the chief spokesman for country music.

"It's a self-imposed job," Marty said. But one he has prepared for all his life.

Music and Ole Miss football

The only other thing that could hold his interest for any length of time other than music while growing up was Ole Miss football, especially during the Archie Manning years.

"Archie married a Philadelphia girl (Olivia Williams) and they had the reception at the National Guard Armory," Hilda says. "Marty and a friend went to the reception. When it was over, they collected a bunch of champagne bottles and decided they could strike it rich, selling them. I don't think it worked out like they thought it would."

Marty played baseball, "but the coach called me and said, 'Mrs. Stuart, I really don't think your son is into it. Every time I look up he's pretending his bat is a guitar,' " Hilda said.

By Billy Watkins

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