Marty Stuart Captures History Through A Lens

This appeared in The Clarion-Ledger - December 8, 2014

Marty Stuart walked across his yard, which most would consider a small pasture, to the house next door in Hendersonville, Tennessee. His former father-in-law, country music icon Johnny Cash, was ill, alone and still mourning the death four months earlier of his wife of 35 years, June Carter Cash.

"After June died, I'd go see about him every chance I got," says Stuart, the country music star who grew up in Philadelphia. "We'd talk and drink coffee. Sometimes I'd stay all day; other times, maybe five minutes. But I was about to go on tour, and I wanted to hug his neck and tell him I loved him."

On this day, Stuart brought along a half-written song and a camera. Cash helped him finish what became known as "The Hangman." And Stuart asked Cash if he could snap a few pictures of him.

"Three," Cash answered.

Stuart captured an astonishing shot of Cash, his swept-back hair thinning and white but his face still chiseled and unmistakable.

Cash died four days later, on Sept. 12, 2003, of complications caused by diabetes. He had lived a full, hard 71 years.
The picture of Cash is one of more than 60 featured in the book American Ballads: The Photos of Marty Stuart (Vanderbilt University Press, $35). It also is part of an exhibit Marty Stuart: The Art of Country Music on display through January 3, 2015 at The Sheldon Concert Hall & Art Galleries in St. Louis.

It's been a good year for Stuart, a five-time Grammy winner and one of Mississippi's most relentless ambassadors. His double record Saturday night / Sunday Morning released September 30 consists of one traditional country album, one gospel. Thirteen original tracks are included. Stuart was backed by his longtime band, the Fabulous Superlatives.

Rolling Stone magazine named it a "must hear" of 2014: "More than just exploration of two genres ... the double album from Stuart is a tremendously entertaining continuation of his dedication to American music and a testament to the indisputable fact that he has one of the best bands working in any genre today."

The country album offers covers of tunes by George Jones, The Statler Brothers and Hank Williams. The Staple Singers, who have deep Mississippi roots, helped Stuart kick off the gospel album with a rendition of their 1956 hit "Uncloudy Day."

The combination of the photo book and the double album speaks to Stuart's undeniable strength as an artist of many talents. While music fans know the 56-year-old as a master picker of the guitar and mandolin, some are just now learning of Stuart's unique eye for photography. Stuart's photographs were on exhibit earlier this year at Nashville's Frist Center for the Visual Arts.

"Marty's photography is an extension of his musicianship," says Susan Edwards, executive director at Frist Center. "It is equally distinguished and characterized by the same complete absence of pretension. He performs with a generosity and enthusiasm that honors the importance of his audience in a shared experience.

His photographs do the same. He captures not only the soul of his subjects but his own. We cannot look at a Marty Stuart photograph without learning something about ourselves.

He credits his mama, Hilda, who still resides in Neshoba County, for teaching him the basics of photography. Hilda Stuart has her own book of published photographs, Choctaw Gardens.

"Mother had this wonderful sense of timing," Stuart says. "She could make the most trivial events kids' birthday parties or simple get-togethers in our living room come to life. She knew just when to hit the button."

His photo journey began in 1974, on his first trip to New York City at age 15 while touring with Lester Flatt's bluegrass band. He walked into a book store in Greenwich Village and was spellbound by an exhibit of black-and-white photos featuring well-known jazz artists. The photographer? Milt Hinton, a jazz bass player from Vicksburg. "That was a transformative experience, seeing that," Stuart says. "I was not the same person afterward."

Stuart later had a similar experience "when I stood in front of (Mississippi writer) Eudora Welty's photographs," he says. "It was like a deposit that went into life and became part of me."

Soon after seeing Hinton's photos, Stuart phoned his mother and asked her to mail him a camera, which she did. "A Kodak instamatic," Stuart laughs. "But the camera didn't matter. I'm still a dinosaur. I still shoot film instead using digital.

"But what I wanted to do was what Milt Hinton did with the jazz musicians photograph the people of country music wherever I went. I had access. I had a camera. And that's what I've done.

"It's satisfying to know that I've captured forever a disappearing world of traditional country music. It's like having photos of your family once they start dying off."

Stuart loved the individuality of the country artists he came to know. And who projects that more than Marty Stuart, with his big hair, silk neck scarves and glittery suits?

"Authenticity is something I've never apologized for," he says. "It hasn't always been the most popular thing in the parade. But my style ... I try to follow my heart. I leave it up to God and go with whatever bubbles up inside me. And I try not to get in the way of it."

With today's country music seriously lacking individuality and steering further away from its traditional sounds, Stuart believes the trend will someday reverse.

"Old Crow Medicine Show is traditional, from a roots perspective, and they're on fire right now," he says. "There's a new girl, Brandy Clark, who is one of the great singer/songwriters I've heard in a long time.

"It's just going to take one person to slip under the crack of the door playing traditional country music and make it big. Then you'll have 100 others trying to do it. Authenticity will reign eventually."

By Billy Watkins

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