MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered, I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

(SOUNDBITE OF COUNTRY MUSIC)

BLOCK: I'm looking at the cover of a new book of photographs titled, "Country Music: The Masters." The cover shot is a black and white image of Johnny Cash in three-quarter profile. His hair is thin and white, his face gaunt, almost ghostly. He's looking down and away. It's titled "Last Portrait," September 8th, 2003. Johnny Cash died four days later.

The photographer is musician Marty Stuart, who's been playing country music with the greats since he was 13. He toured as a teenager with his hero, the bluegrass great Lester Flatt, later with Johnny Cash. And Marty Stuart joins us to talk about these pictures. Marty, welcome back to the program.

MARTY STUART: Thank you, Melissa. Good to be on your show again.

BLOCK: I'm trying to picture you out on tour, you know, you're 13, 14 years old. It's the early 70s, and there you are with a camera in hand, just sort of chronicling all of these. How did you start taking pictures?

STUART: My mom was one of the greatest mom shutterbugs. She always had that innate sensibility to know when to hit the trigger, you know. And my uncle had a photography studio in Philadelphia, Mississippi. So cameras were around, so I understood it. But after I went on the road, I lived with Lester Flatt because my folks still lived in Mississippi. And wherever he went I had to go if I wanted to go anywhere. And his buddies became my buddies, and that was like Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Dickens, all the greats of country music, Grandpa Jones, Stringbean.

And, Melissa, the first time that I ever got to go to New York City, I went down into the Village to a bookstore, and I saw the work of a fellow Mississippian, a jazz bass player named Milt Hinton, who was an incredible photographer. But he carried his camera with him everywhere he went, to the studio, on the road, on the bus, to dice games, whatever. Milt Hinton was there to go behind the scenes and give you a peak behind the curtain of the family of jazz. And I thought, I can do this, too. And I asked my mom for a camera, and she sent me one. And then I proceeded to terrorize everybody in country music with my camera.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: What kind of camera did your mother send you?

STUART: It was one of those little Kodak Instamatics that had the cube on top.

BLOCK: Oh yeah, the bulb. Sure.

STUART: Yeah. And every time you'd snap it, the cube would go around.

BLOCK: I want to ask you about the very first picture that you took that's in the book. This was from even earlier that this period you're talking about. It was from 1970, and it was at the Choctaw Indian Fair in your hometown, Philadelphia, Mississippi. And the title of it is?

STUART: "The Day I Met and Fell In Love with Connie Smith."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Uh huh. The night, I think.

STUART: The night I fell in love, yeah. Connie was my mom's favorite singer. And her coming to our hometown to sing at the Choctaw fair was a big event for our family. The big night came, we went to the concert out at the fairgrounds, and me and my sister got our picture made with Connie. I got her autograph, and she didn't notice me. I don't know why I thought she would. But I asked my mom for - I said, can I borrow your camera? I went back and took her picture one more time. She still didn't notice me. But on the way home that night I told my mom, I said, I'm going to marry her someday. And 25 years later, I did.

BLOCK: OK, let's get this straight. You were 11 years old at the time.

STUART: Twelve, I think.

BLOCK: Or, 12? OK, she's 28 or 29.

STUART: Yeah.

BLOCK: She's a huge country star.

STUART: Right. Yeah.

BLOCK: And this picture, she's sitting - it's sort of saturated, great, you know, early 70s color. She's sitting in the driver's seat of, I guess, this must be a station wagon. I see wood paneling on the side.

STUART: Looks like a Ford station wagon. Yeah.

BLOCK: She's got this incredible aqua-colored sequined dress.

STUART: Yeah.

BLOCK: Here's the detail on this picture that I love. The person sitting next to her, you can't see her face, but she's holding something. And I was looking at it because it's such a familiar shape, and I realize it's a bottle of Cutex nail polish.

STUART: You're the only other person that has ever commented on that. And I had not noticed that until we blew the picture up and put it in this book, to the size of the book. That's right. You got it.

BLOCK: And I'm looking at Connie Smith's fingers, and it looks like, I bet, she's sort of splaying her fingers out on her knees, I bet she has just done her nails or her friend has done her nails, and she's drying them there.

STUART: Probably so.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STUART: That's great.

BLOCK: She couldn't move. She had to pose for you.

STUART: Absolutely.

BLOCK: You have a great photograph in here of the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe. As an older man, he's got a gray suit on and, like, is that a Stetson hat that he's wearing?

STUART: It is.

BLOCK: And a tie and sunglasses.

STUART: That afternoon, actually, I cherish that afternoon because that was the last portraits ever taken of him. And he was gone soon after that. But the moment that I cherished at the end of that day was we were standing after all the photographs were taken and the hoopla died down. I called for my mandolin, and he had his mandolin. And we, just the two of us, stood there as the sun was going down next to his barn and played mandolin songs. And he looked at me at the end of the last one, and he said, you learn pretty good, boy.

BLOCK: Mmm.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STUART: And that was a great sign-off for me.

BLOCK: In this picture he's standing with his mandolin. There's a big, white limousine in the background, a Cadillac. He's standing in his chicken yard, in the chicken coup.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: And there's a chicken that look like it's sort of flown up and is hanging off of the chicken wire.

STUART: Yeah, he parked his limousine in his barn, which I thought was kind of cool. And the limo wouldn't crank that day. I wanted him to pull it in front of his log cabin. So, it wouldn't crank, so we just moved up the hill to take the photograph. And he opened the back door of the limousine to get his jumper cables out, and it had a couple of bales of hay back there. And he said, you want to see my chickens? I said, sure. So he started playing "Chicken Reel" on the mandolin. And all these chicken started coming around, hanging out with him and dancing. And I thought, wow, this is really great.

BLOCK: They were dancing?

STUART: They were dancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STUART: Dancing chickens.

BLOCK: What's that one doing up on the fence?

STUART: He was flying, and I couldn't believe I caught that. That was pure luck that the chicken jumped up on the fence and was trying to fly.

BLOCK: You said this was the last picture ever taken of Bill Monroe.

STUART: Yeah.

BLOCK: When you're taking a picture, how do you know when you've got a great shot? What are you looking for?

STUART: Timeless moment. I knew the shot there on the front of this book of Johnny Cash, if it came out right, it was like photographing an old president, and old statesman, an old native chief. I knew that it was a moment that needed to be considered very carefully.

BLOCK: You know, when you look back through all of these photographs that you've been taking for decades now, do your memories of country music change? I mean, is it different in your mind than it is when you look at these pictures?

STUART: I'm charged with a feeling that I followed lately because traditional country music has a hard time existing anymore to the masses. And there's so many people, once you go beyond the interstate and get back into the blue lines of America, there are so many people that love and cherish traditional country music. It is a powerful music. It is the story of us as American people, not only the former Americans, but where we are right now.

I love traditional country music. I feel like it's a cause that's worthy of a champion right now. And I watched the CMA awards, and that's great. That is one end of country music. But the other end, the roots end, is having a hard time finding a voice. And if I'm into anything right now, it's giving the traditional end of country music a voice and a stage and a place to perform and express itself.

BLOCK: Well, Marty Stuart, it's great talking with you. Thanks so much.

STUART: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: And you can see a slideshow of images from Marty Stuart's book "Country Music: The Masters" at nprmusic.org.

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