Marty Stuart has to be one of the most underappreciated guys in country music.
And not just for his musical talent – because that’s a given.
If you watched the Ken Burns documentary on PBS a few years ago, you know that Marty is an absolute wealth of country music knowledge and history. He has a deep reverence for country music that it seems like too many in the industry don’t have these days, and he talks about the history of the genre with an eloquence and admiration that really makes you appreciate the beauty of country music all that much more.
I think it’s fair to say that Marty Stuart knows more about country music than just about anybody. But did you know that he’s also a photographer who took the last ever photo of the legendary Johnny Cash?
The photo was taken just four days before Cash passed away. His wife, June Carter, had passed away just a few months earlier.
According to Marty, in the days and weeks after June’s passing, the order of business was to keep Johnny busy. And the way they kept him busy was to keep him recording:
“The day after June passed away, John Carter Cash, Johnny’s son, called me and said ‘Daddy wants to record.’
I said ‘That’s the best news I’ve heard. Let’s go.'”
The result of these recording sessions, many of which took place in the bedroom of the Cash home, ended up being many of the songs on Johnny’s last two albums, American V: A Hundred Highways and American VI: Ain’t No Grave.
At one of these sessions, just four days before Cash’s death, Stuart had just returned from a trip to Folsom Prison, where he was struck by the sight of the former hanging gallows. He had begun writing a song about what he had seen, and when he played the beginnings of the song for Cash, he filled in the second verse for Stuart:
“Who killed who, I asked myself Time and time again God have mercy on the soul Of this hangman”
“Hangman” would be the last that Johnny Cash ever wrote, and would be released by Stuart on his 2010 album Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions.
And during that visit, Stuart also happened to have his camera with him.
As he describes it:
“He was sitting there in the light. The afternoon light from the lake was touching him on his back.
I said “JR, let me take your picture. He said ok.”
I shot three frames. In the first two he looked like a little old man. I said, “JR!” and he sat up straight and he pulled that collar. And he became John R. Cash, and I got the picture.”
Remembering the one and only Johnny Cash, who passed away on this day in 2003.
Ironically, Stuart was on his way to Washington DC, and asked Johnny if he would like him to bring anything back for him. And Johnny had one specific request:
“He said, ‘See if you can find me a replica of the Washington Monument. I want to shove it up my nose.'”
Well Stuart obliged, and found a marble replica of the Washington Monument at Reagan Airport. But as he was on his way home, the monument in his bag, he got the call that the legendary Johnny Cash, an icon of country music, had passed away.
God bless Johnny Cash, and God bless Marty Stuart for keeping his legacy – and so much of the history of country music – alive through his photos and storytelling.