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Frist Center presents the photography of Country Music icon Marty Stuart
Marty Stuart, Marvin Helper at Home, 2005. Archival pigment print. © Marty Stuart .
NASHVILLE, TENN.- This spring the Frist Center for the Visual Arts presents American Ballads: The Photographs of Marty Stuart. The exhibition is on display from May 9–November 2, 2014, in the Conte Community Arts Gallery, which is free to the public. Organized by Frist Center Curator Katie Delmez, American Ballads demonstrates that Stuart is a master storyteller not only through his songs, but also through his revealing photographs.

Widely recognized as a songwriter, platinum recording artist, five- time Grammy Award winner and member of the Grand Ole Opry, Stuart has also been honing his photography skills over the decades by documenting the people and places surrounding him since he first went on tour with bluegrass performer Lester Flatt at age 13. 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. Frist Center Curator Katie Delmez notes, “Whatever the subject, Stuart is able to tease out something unexpected or hidden beneath the surface through a skillful awareness of timing and composition.”

Stuart’s mother, Hilda Stuart, a photographer of considerable talent, inspired his early interest in photography and gave him his first camera, a Kodak Instamatic. Observing his mother’s depictions of mid-century family life in Mississippi, a selection of which are on display in the exhibition, Stuart developed a curiosity and the eventual ability to capture memorable and meaningful moments on film.

A charmed career in country music from the onset provided early exposure and access to country music living legends. In his introduction to the publication that accompanies the exhibition, Stuart writes “…I often found myself in the company of Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff, Porter Wagoner, Merle Travis, Grandpa Jones, Ernest Tubb, and Stringbean. They always welcomed me, treated me like family, and gave me reasons to believe I was a part of the tribe. Whether at a concert, the Opry, a recording studio, a truck stop, or poker game, any time any one of these people were present I viewed it as history in motion. However, other than the fans, I seldom saw anyone present with a camera to capture the proceedings.”

In her scholarly essay also included in the exhibition publication, Dr. Susan H. Edwards, executive director of the Frist Center and a photography historian, writes, “Stuart was born gifted but he has also refined his talents at every turn. One can easily say that music and art are not what Marty Stuart does, but who he is. His foray into black and white photography yielded a body of work rich by virtue of his abilities and compelling because of the ambiguity hidden within.”

American Ballads is composed of more than 60 photographs from three bodies of work: “The Masters” of country music; the “Blue Line Hotshots” he has met on his travels on America’s back roads; and the Lakota people of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and others in South Dakota in the section “Badlands.”

A champion of his subjects, Stuart refers to the people he has photographed with a language of respect and familiarity. The country music circle to which he had early entrée is “family.” The subjects of the “Blue Line Hotshots” series are “friends” and “cultural correspondents, good- hearted representatives, each with a story to tell that borders on the fantastic.” His relationship with the Lakota people that began in the early 1980s through his former father-in-law Johnny Cash is one of frequently expressed mutual respect and admiration. In summarizing this selection of work, Stuart says, “The fierce spirit of individualism is the common bond that unites the masters of country music, the characters from the blue line roads of America, and the Native Americans who live in the shadow of the Badlands.”

“A Marty Stuart photograph can come ‘slowly stealing’ to conjure a memory from the past or to play a familiar refrain,” says Dr. Edwards. “He is always looking, recording, collecting, preserving, and galvanizing our histories as Americans, southerners, country music fans, and students of humanity and humility…There are those among us those who make history and those who keep it. Marty Stuart does both.”

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