Conserving His Roots With Memories And Music

Marty Stuart Preserves Country In New Music And Photos

This appeared in the New York Times - October 3, 2014

Marty Stuart preserves country music's history in his new projects.

When the country music singer Marty Stuart first went on the road, at 13 with Lester Flatt’s bluegrass band, he took with him not only a mandolin and a guitar, but also a camera. Even at that tender age, he was intent on documenting the genre’s rich history and heritage.

That was in 1972, but Mr. Stuart is nothing if not consistent. This week he released a two-disc set, Saturday Night  / Sunday Morning, dedicated, as its title suggests, to distinct but intertwining strands of country tradition: the profane and the sacred, the honky-tonk and the church.

The records are coming out shortly after the publication of American Ballads, a book of Mr. Stuart’s photographs of country music stars, their fans and his travels over the years. A selection of 50 of those images is also being exhibited at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, which in the past has also shown artifacts from Mr. Stuart’s vast collection, a trove that includes handwritten lyrics by Hank Williams, a George Jones guitar and costumes worn by Porter Wagoner, Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline.

“Preservation is always part of our thing as a group, part of our mission statement,” Mr. Stuart said in a recent interview in New York when asked what ties together his various endeavors, which also involve a weekly television show on the RFD-TV cable network. “We don’t want to be radical revisionists or anything like that, but this is a culture that in this new century, is on the verge of slipping away.”

The guitarist and singer Vince Gill, president of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s board, has been a friend of Mr. Stuart’s since they both were child prodigies on the bluegrass circuit and he did not initially share that collector’s bent. But he now sees a direct connection between his friend’s sense of mission and his creativity.

“Some people are born with old souls, that’s just who they are right out of the womb, and Marty is one of them,” Mr. Gill said. “He was always around his heroes and reverent toward his mentors, but of all that he’s done, this is the best he’s been. That band he’s put together, the authenticity of it all, it’s not pointed toward a Top Ten mind-set, it’s all so honest and pure.”

At an August show at Joe’s Pub, Mr. Stuart, who will be returning to New York for a show at the Met on Monday, described his four-piece group, the Fabulous Superlatives, as “a high-octane hillbilly band.” That pretty much describes their approach on Saturday Night. “When It Comes To Loving You” is a classic romantic ballad with a weeping pedal steel guitar, but other tracks, especially “Rough Around The Edges” and “Sad House, Big Party,”are tales of carousing and regret propelled by charged rockabilly licks.

Sunday Morning, on the other hand, opens with a soulful version of the gospel standard “Uncloudy Day,” a hit for the Staple Singers in 1956, that Mr. Stuart sings in a duet with Mavis Staples. The two have long been friends, and Ms. Staples and her sister Yvonne even gave Mr. Stuart one of their father’s prize Fender Telecaster guitars, which he played on the track, drenched in the tremolo that was one of Pops Staples’s trademarks.

“He and his band sound so much like the Staple Singers” because “he’s got that sound, that twang,” Ms. Staples wrote in an email in which she recalled being overcome with emotion while recording the song in Mr. Stuart’s home studio. “You know Marty was Pops’ godson and we’ve always called him our lil brother. Just the fact that he seemed to inherit pop’s sound, we just love him so much, it felt natural for him to get one of the guitars.”

Mr. Stuart, who turned 56 on Tuesday, displays a similar reverence for his mentors in American Ballads. The book’s opening image is a photograph he took of Johnny Cash, his former next door neighbor, boss and father-in-law, three days before his death, and Ray Charles, Merle Haggard, B. B. King, Loretta Lynn, Bill Monroe, Willie Nelson and other performers Mr. Stuart has played with also show up, often in backstage or recording studio settings.

The book also has a section devoted to country music fans, which underlines a point about Mr. Stuart’s photographic style: Like his music, it can be described as Southern populist and steeped in Americana.

“He’s never critical of other people or condescending,” said Susan H. Edwards, executive director of the Frist and author of an introductory essay to the book, published by Vanderbilt University Press. “He considers himself a documentary photographer, and I do too, but there’s also something soulful about the work. He knows where his subjects come from, and when he steps out of the bus he is part of that soil. You just feel a great deal of honesty and respect.”

Mr. Stuart cited his first trip to New York with Mr. Flatt as a decisive moment in encouraging his preservationist’s instincts and impulses. His parents had allowed him to join the Flatt band on condition that he live with Mr. Flatt and his family, and since, he recalled, “I couldn’t drive, wherever he went, I had to go, so his peers became my peers.”

On that trip, Mr. Stuart wandered into a record store in Greenwich Village and noticed some black and white portraits of jazz musicians shot by the jazz bassist Milt Hinton. He liked “the family-style informality” of the photographs and realized, “I now have the same kind of access to country music that Mr. Hinton had to jazz.” So he “went out to a pay phone, called back to Mississippi and asked my mom to send me a camera,” then immediately began snapping away.

“Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe, Hank Snow and Ernest Tubb, Grandpa Jones and Stringbean, those kinds of characters, they were my buddies too,” he explained. “And whether they were playing poker or getting in their costumes, getting ready to go on stage, or recording or sitting at a truck stop having a cup of coffee, it always looked important to me, like history in motion.”

By Larry Rohter

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