American Ballads: The Photographs of Marty Stuart on View at the Birthplace of Country Music Through January 31, 2020.
The exhibition American Ballads: The Photographs of Marty Stuart originated at the Frist Museum in Nashville, but now’s a great time to catch up with it at an equally fitting venue: the Birthplace of Country Music in Bristol, Virginia, a town that spreads over the state line and has its twin in Tennessee.
It’s on hallowed ground for country music because this is where the Bristol Sessions took place in 1927. Those sessions, which some consider the “big bang” of country music, saw the commercial debuts of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family and enshrined Bristol’s future reputation and legacy as the birthplace of the genre.
Seeing the American Ballads exhibition of Marty Stuart’s photographs at the Birthplace of Country Music is a revelation for a couple of reasons: First, if you only know Stuart as a country star and not also as an accomplished photographer, your eyes will be opened to his considerable visual prowess and the impactful images he captures, from the Grand Ole Opry to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Second, if you don’t know much or anything about the Bristol Sessions, which the Birthplace of Country Music celebrates, you’re in for an exciting education in that regard, too.
If you’re inspired by Stuart’s photographs, we hope you’ll enter some of your own in the annual C&I Photo Contest.
[The following information about Stuart and the exhibition comes from the originating venue, Frist Art Museum.]
“Although known primarily as a country music star, Marty Stuart (b. 1958) is a master storyteller not only through his songs, but also through his revealing photographs. He has been taking photographs of the people and places surrounding him since he first went on tour with bluegrass performer Lester Flatt at age 13.
“His inspirations include his mother, Hilda Stuart, and her documentation of their family’s everyday life in Mississippi. He also admires bassist Milt Hinton’s photographs of fellow jazz artists and Edward Curtis’ well-known images of Native Americans at the turn of the 20th century.
“Stuart’s photographs in American Ballads range from intimate behind-the-scenes depictions of legendary musicians, to images of eccentric characters from the back roads of America, to dignified portraits of members of the Lakota tribe in South Dakota, a people he was introduced to by his former father-in-law, Johnny Cash.
“Whatever the subject, Stuart is able to tease out something unexpected or hidden beneath the surface through a skillful sense of timing and composition, as well as a unique relationship with the sitters often based on years of friendship and trust.
“The exhibition is organized around three themes:
“THE MASTERS: 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.
“[Stuart] had access to the great figures of country music through Flatt, who took him under his wing at age 13. 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.
“BLUE LINE HOTSHOTS: 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.
“BADLANDS: 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.”
American Ballads: The Photographs of Marty Stuart was organized by the Frist Art Museum in Nashville. The traveling exhibition is on view at the Birthplace of Country Music in Bristol, Virginia, through January 31, 2020. The companion book is available on Amazon.
Photography: All images by Marty Stuart, © Marty Stuart. (Lead image) Bill Monroe, Last Winter, 1995. Archival pigment print; Chicken Reel, the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe, 1995. From the Masters series; The King of Broken Hearts, George Jones, 1997. Archival pigment print; Noah, 2004. From the Badlands series.