Photographing The Masters Of Country Music

Country music musician Marty Stuart has been playing music with the greats since he was 13 years old

This appeared on National Public Radio - November 25, 2008

The cover of the new book Country Music: The Masters is a black-and-white shot of Johnny Cash in three-quarter profile. His hair is thin and white, his face gaunt, almost ghostly. It's titled, "Last Portrait, September 8, 2003." The Man in Black died four days later. The photographer is musician Marty Stuart, who's been playing country music with the greats since he was 13 years old.

Stuart started taking pictures because of his mother.

"One of the greatest mom shutterbugs," Stuart says. "She always had that innate sensibility to know when to hit the trigger."

While on a tour stop in New York City with bluegrass great Lester Flatt, Stuart came across the photography of jazz bassist Milt Hinton.

"[Hinton] carried his camera with him everywhere he went — to the studio, on the road, on the bus, to dice games, whatever," Stuart says. "Milt Hinton was there to go behind the scenes and give you a peek behind the curtain of the family of jazz. And I thought, 'I can do this, too.' "

Starting with a Kodak Instamatic sent by his mother, Stuart went out to "terrorize everybody in country music." In this interview with Melissa Block, Stuart tells the stories behind some of his favorite photographs: Bill Monroe playing the "Chicken Reel" with real chickens; Johnny Cash's final portrait; and his very first picture, taken at age 12. It was a photo of country singer Connie Smith, who would later become Stuart's wife.

Stuart is very proud of today's wide spectrum of country music, but he feels the need to document its roots.

"The roots end [of country music] is having a hard time finding a voice," Stuart says. "If I'm into anything right now, it's giving the traditional end of country music a voice, a stage and a place to perform and express itself."

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