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American Ballads: The Photographs of Marty Stuart - Exibit, Book

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 The Photographs of MartyStuartAlthough known primarily as a country music star, Marty Stuart has been taking photographs of the people and places surrounding him since he first went on tour with bluegrass music performer Lester Flatt at age twelve. His inspirations to do this include his own mother, Hilda Stuart, whom he watched document their family's everyday life in Mississippi, bassist Milt Hinton's photographs of fellow jazz artists, and Edward Curtis's well-known images of Native Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. Stuart's work ranges from intimate and often candid behind-the-scenes depictions of legendary musicians, to images that capture the eccentricities of characters from the back roads of America, to dignified portraits of members of the impoverished Lakota tribe in South Dakota, a people he was introduced to through his former father-in-law, Johnny Cash. Whatever the subject, Stuart is able to sensitively tease out something unexpected or hidden beneath the surface through a skillful awareness of timing and composition as well as a unique relationship with many of the subjects based on years of friendship and trust. The book cover includes a photograph of the Father of Bluegrass Music, Bill Monroe.

This book will present images from these three bodies of work (see below): "Badlands," on his time with the Lakota; "The Masters," from his work with musicians like Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Dolly Parton, George Jones, Kitty Wells, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings; and "Blue Line Hot Shots." As Stuart explains, "The newly built Interstate Highway System was at one time represented on our maps by the color red, while the two-lane highways and back roads of the nation were represented in blue. The back roads are where you'll find some of the people that I admire, respect, and always keep an eye out for. ... They are renegades … As Roger Miller once said, 'These people flush to the beat of a different plumber.' "

The photographs are framed by an introduction by Stuart and a context-setting essay by photography historian Susan Edwards, executive director of the First Center for the Visual Arts. The book and accompanying exhibition at the First Center demonstrate that Marty Stuart is a master storyteller not only through his songs but also through his revealing and compelling photographs.

"When I first began traveling I loved the adventure of going from town to town and exploring what each place had to offer. Whenever possible, on the day of the show I walked the streets and back roads, gathering stories and songs from local folks. I studied everything from the different kinds of architecture that surrounded me to the majesty of the sunsets and how they affected the mood of the town I was in. That first season was filled with the joy of a new musical life taking flight. The applause, the spotlight, the sparkle of the fame, the freedom of 'here today, go somewhere else tomorrow' charmed me night after night, day after day, until show business found its mark and became a way of life. I enjoyed every minute of the dance. I still love those things, but most of all it's the people that I've enjoyed along the way, namely the characters. The kind of characters who can be defined as American originals."
  --from the Introduction by Marty Stuart

The Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee will present an exhibit of Stuart's May 9 through November 2, 2014. The exhibition is divided into three sections:

While touring with Lester Flatt’s band in 1974, Marty Stuart discovered bassist Milt Hinton’s candid photographs of fellow jazz musicians in a Greenwich Village bookstore. He had been exposed to the medium’s ability to portray aspects of everyday life through his mother, Hilda Stuart, a skilled photographer, and realized that he could document the country music world with the same approach that Hinton had taken with jazz. He had access to the great figures of country music through Flatt, who took him under his wing at age thirteen. As Stuart says, “Walking into the Grand Ole Opry with Lester Flatt was the equivalent of walking into the Vatican with the Pope. His endorsement gave me instant acceptance into the family of country music.” Being a trusted member of the inner circle has allowed Stuart to capture the stars in moments of unguarded intimacy and honesty.
Marty Stuart has been traveling on the road as a professional musician for over four decades. Along the way, he has been intrigued by the unique characteristics of towns he passes through, learning about the local history, architecture and music. He especially seeks out the quirky residents “who have enough Elvis in them to give America its spice.” Stuart lovingly refers to these people as “Blue Line Hotshots” because, at one time, the two lane highways and back roads of our nation were represented on maps as blue lines. Whether his subject is a devoted fan, passionate preacher, or gutsy Dolly Parton impersonator at a state fair, Stuart respects their individuality and willingness to stand out in our increasingly homogenized world.
Marty Stuart first encountered the Lakota people in the early 1980s when he, as a member Johnny Cash’s band, played a benefit on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Stuart immediately felt a strong kinship with the tribe and began to make yearly pilgrimages to Pine Ridge in an effort to establish meaningful connections with its members. Twenty years later, Stuart was adopted into the tribe and given the name O YATE’ Ö CHEE YA’KA HOPSILA (the man who helps the people). As with the country music community, Stuart has gained unusual access to and the trust of the typically guarded Lakota inner circle. His photographs of both everyday life and traditional ceremonies do not romanticize the culture nor overlook the tragic conditions often found on the reservation—poverty, alcoholism, and unemployment—but rather present honest portraits of dignity, strength, and perseverance.

The illustrated book published by Vanderbilt University Press with an introduction by Stuart and a scholarly essay by Dr. Susan H. Edwards, executive director and CEO of the Frist Center, will accompany the show. The book is also available through This exhibition is organized by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts.

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