How Marty Stuart Became Country Music’s Family Photographer

How Marty Stuart Became Country Music’s Family Photographer

Queen of Country Music Kitty Wells (1994) Credit: Marty Stuart
Queen of Country Music Kitty Wells (1994) Credit: Marty Stuart

Marty Stuart’s intimate photographs of Nashville biggest stars have become almost as important a part of Stuart’s artistic legacy as his music. For 40 years, the Grammy winner has documented the private life of Music Row’s legends with an insider’s eye.

With a new exhibit about to go on display at the Frist Center, Stuart told WPLN how his career-long photography project began in New York City when he was a 14-year-old prodigy on tour with Lester Flatt.

I went into a bookstore in the Village and up there on the upper wall were some beautiful jazz portraits taken by a bass player, Milt Hinton. And it was very obvious to me that Mr. Hinton carried his bass in one hand and his camera in the other. And he had total access to the inside world, behind the curtain, behind the scenes, to the family of jazz. And they were informal portraits, but at the same time there was a real formality about them, a dignity about them, an integrity that I loved.

It dawned on Stuart then that he had the same sort of access to the world of country music, and he says “I walked out of that bookstore that afternoon in New York City and called down to Mississippi and asked my mother to send me a camera.”

Lester Flatt (1975) Credit: Marty Stuart
Lester Flatt (1975) Credit: Marty Stuart

Working with Lester Flatt before he was able to drive,  Stuart lived with the Flatt family and says “if I wanted to go anywhere I had to go with him.”

All of a sudden my running buddies became Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, Grandpa Joe and Stringbean, Ernest Tubb, those kind of people. Whether they were playing poker or making music or just sitting at a truck stop having breakfast it looked like history in motion to me.

Last Winter (Bill Monroe) 1995 Credit: Marty Stuart
Last Winter (Bill Monroe) 1995 Credit: Marty Stuart

 I proceeded to take pictures of everybody and everything to do with country music. To document it for my own good, but at the same time to be able to take photographs and be able to send home to my parents in Mississippi and show them the people I was working with.

Willie and Waylon (1985) Credit: Marty Stuart
Willie and Waylon (1985) Credit: Marty Stuart

Stuart played in Johnny Cash’s band and, for a short while, was married to his daughter. The two always maintained a special connection. Four days before Cash died, Stuart visited him at home and took what would be the Man In Black’s final portrait.

I’m very proud of it. He was my old chief and that picture kind of sums it up in my heart.

Last Portrait (2003) Credit: Marty Stuart
Last Portrait (2003) Credit: Marty Stuart

After Marty Stuart honed his photographic skills in the dressing rooms and backyards of Music City legends, he branched out to other places where he has a unique level of access: making photos of fans he meets on the road…

The Knoxville Girls at Dollywood (1995) Credit: Marty Stuart
The Knoxville Girls at Dollywood (1995) Credit: Marty Stuart

…and life on a Lakota reservation in South Dakota, where Stuart is an adopted member.

Marvin Helper at home (2005) Credit: Marty Stuart
Marvin Helper at home (2005) Credit: Marty Stuart

The Frist Center exhibit drawing from each of those collections is open through November 2.

Nina Cardona

Nina Cardona is WPLN's host for All Things Considered. As a reporter, she covers a wide range of assignments with an emphasis on culture, the arts and local history. A graduate of Converse College, she's lived in Middle Tennessee most of her life.
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