Grand Ole Memories

This appeared in the New York Times - December 6, 2008

Country music is a death-haunted art. In standards like Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil” and Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” — to nod to just a few — death is the hushed man in black, keeping time on the bass of eternity. These songs conjure a dark Americana that defies the cherished and too-sweet small-town clichés of Norman Rockwell and “Mayberry R.F.D.”

Country Music: The Masters

By Photographs and text by Marty Stuart

373 pp., with CD. Sourcebooks MediaFusion. $49.99

It’s clear that Marty Stuart, who has been a successful country musician for nearly 40 years, understands that heart of hick darkness. In Country Music: The Masters, a vast collection of photographs of country stars (and more), Stuart’s bleak wisdom is apparent right away: the cover quakes with a stark portrait of Johnny Cash, taken four days before he died in September 2003.

Country Music is a strange and mournful book. Its publisher calls it a love letter to country, but it’s really a death letter, a book of shades who twang — down-home necrophilia.

Stuart’s ache for a vanished rural America comes through in images of a decaying hay wagon, of vine-choked shacks and lonesome railroad lines. And, too, in the introduction, in which he writes of “the glorious parade of the sons and daughters of the mountains, the valleys, the plains, the bayous and the cotton fields. A people who brought their culture, their heritage, their very hearts and souls as their gifts to the microphone.”

It can be argued that Stuart, in this era of corporate country, embodies the butt-end of that “glorious parade.” Born in 1958, he grew up in Philadelphia, Mississippi, not far from Meridian, birthplace of Jimmie Rodgers, the consensus Father of Country Music. At 13 Stuart was on the road with Lester Flatt, then joined Johnny Cash’s band at 19. He also started taking photographs of the men and ­women he worked with and idolized.

Country Music is Stuart’s attempt to distill his trove of photos and memorabilia, to create an album for the family of country. Rather than an album, though, it feels more like an overstuffed milk crate exhumed from your great-grandfather’s attic. It’s a jumble — dates for the photos and an index would have been helpful — and some pictures are poorly lighted or out of focus, some subjects as zombie-stiff as Ma and Pa in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.”

The book does burst with legends: Rodgers and the original Carter Family, Hank Williams and Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Bill Monroe (plucking his mandolin for his flock of chickens). Stuart is also an obsessive collector — he owns, for example, a railroad brakeman’s lantern that once belonged to Rodgers. The book dishes up a taste of the more than 20,000 items that he possesses and that, in turn, possess him, including: Sara Carter’s brooch, boots worn by Bob Wills and Hank Williams, and Tex Ritter’s Colt .45.

But it all reeks of death.

In the introduction Stuart lingers over the violent deaths of Patsy Cline and the musician and comedian Stringbean Akeman. And the ghostly images here include the Cadillac convertible that Williams died in, as well as the site of the plane crash that killed Cline; the last portrait of the guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins; Buck Owens clutching the Fender Telecaster of his dead best friend, Don Rich; Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville, where too many musicians learned to drink their way to their graves; and Skeeter Davis’s belongings being sold at the Tennessee Antique Mall after her death. (The gloom got so thick that I had to put on the album Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar to shake it off.)

Speaking of Cash, the book’s most powerful photo is that cover shot of him (which also appears inside). Looking 100 years old, instead of 71, Cash has the air of a Confederate general in his autumn, or of a biblical prophet with a faraway gaze as Jerusalem is razed. Another ghost.

Another essential photo is that of the “open well of Uncle Jimmy Thompson” in Laguardo, Tennessee In 1925, Thompson, a fiddler, was the first musician to play on the radio show that became “The Grand Ole Opry.” It’s a mythic image: wells are a source of life and, maybe in this case, the source of Uncle Jimmy’s music. But in the dark America of country — where there’s no light in the window back at the old homeplace — wells are also where dead bodies are hidden, where ghosts beckon.

Stuart pines hard for his ghosts, for the Philadelphia, Mississippi, of his childhood and the train’s midnight moan, the lush tomatoes on the vine, the music that suffused the place. Ghosts: monuments and gravestones, along with guitars posed as if they were headstones. Even the book itself — bound in black, 9-1/2 inches wide, 13-1/4 inches long — looks like a footstone stumbled upon in some backwoods cemetery.

In the end, Country Music, perhaps unintentionally, reveals the deep melancholy of the artist as a 50-year-old country boy.

By Dana Jennings

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