Book Proves Marty Stuart a True Renaissance Guy

This appeared in The Birmingham News - August 4, 2000

Country singer Marty Stuart has a darn good brain underneath that poufy head of hair.

If you need proof, just take a look at Stuart's first book, Pilgrims: Sinners, Saints and Prophets.

This $29.95 hardcover, published in October 1999 by Rutledge Hill Press, strikes me as a most impressive volume of words and photographs, all produced by the man who gave us "Don't Leave Her Lonely Too Long," "Little Things" and "Hillbilly Rock."

Stuart, 41, plans to sign copies of Pilgrims in the Birmingham area this weekend — today from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Books-A-Million on Crestwood Boulevard, and Saturday from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. at Sam's Club on Lakeshore Parkway.

A friend who read one of Stuart's essays in The Oxford American magazine had told me Stuart was a precise and poetic writer, but I hadn't encountered this side of the Music City celeb until very recently.

To be honest, my impression of Stuart was formed by watching him pick and grin late at night on The Nashville Network, where he seemed mainly down-to-earth and friendly — a regular Joe, you know?

However, after poring over Pilgrims, a book with more levels than a parking deck, I've decided to place Stuart in a more rarefied category — that of Renaissance guy, multimedia chronicler of the American experience or triple-threat artiste.

All of which he'd probably hate.

"The Pilgrims book is a collection of memories," the genial Stuart says during a telephone interview. "It simply contains photographs I shot of people and places I loved. It represents my life's journey."

The Mississippi native says he drew on a Southern tradition of storytelling when assembling the text and pictures, using idols such as Eudora Welty and that Yankee Alfred Steiglitz for inspiration.

"I have no technical ability; I just shoot from the soul," says Stuart, who employs one trusty camera and a single lens as his equipment.

He owns a Minolta and "an old Nikon," and prefers to shoot spontaneous scenes in black and white because he believes these shots have more power and subtlety than a posed, 8-by-10 color glossy.

Humble on style

Stuart describes his photography style — stolen, he says, from his mother — as the "I'm the only one at the family reunion who thought to bring a camera" type of thing.

Yet his high-profile career has given Stuart the opportunity to snap candid shots of legendary folks — among them Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ralph Stanley — not to mention younger stars such as Birmingham native Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Pam Tillis, Steve Earle and Travis Tritt.

As compelling as the photos can be, they gain an extra depth and dimension after reading Stuart's behind-the-scenes tales, which are always relayed with humor and grace.

For my money, the best of these anecdotes details an encounter between a puzzled George Jones and an adoring Keith Richards, both of whom had traveled to Mt. Juliet, Tennessee in 1994 to record a Jones tribute album, the Bradley Barn Sessions:

"George called me over and said, 'What's that boy's name that's fixin' to come in here?'

"I said, 'Keith Richards.'

"He said, 'What's the name of that bunch he's with?'

"I said, 'The Rolling Stones.'

"He said, 'Are they hot?'

"I said, 'Pretty damn hot!' "

When Richards left after impressing Jones by wanting to sing the relatively obscure "Burn Your Playhouse Down," Stuart asked Jones for his opinion of the gangly, weathered guitarist.

"(Jones) said, He's a good old boy. I like him. He's kind of comical, like a cartoon. He reminds me of Woody Woodpecker."

To my delight, several Alabama references are scattered throughout Pilgrims, including a mention of the drive-through window at a Birmingham Burger King, where Stuart first heard Tritt singing "Country Club." The two would become fast friends, eventually scoring a Grammy Award for "The Whiskey Ain't Workin' Anymore."

Stuart says he never imagined himself as the author of a book, and was astonished when a New Orleans gallery mounted a successful exhibit of his photos on Royal Street.

More Stuart images — this time, still lifes of Nashville memorabilia from his extensive collection — can be found in this year's Oxford American Southern music issue.

"All this gives me inspiration to keep going with a camera," Stuart says. "I feel like my hobby, my doodle has come alive. It's sprouted wings and become a cottage industry. And here I am, kind of standing by, wide-eyed."

By Mary Colurso

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