Great American Folk Boom - Ryman Auditorium - Nashville, TN - May 17, 2000
WSM air personality Eddie Stubbs called it "Substance Supreme," and it was. On Wednesday night, May 17, Ryman Auditorium rang with the ancient tones. Put together in its entirety by Renaissance Man Marty Stuart, the gala served a three-fold purpose.
First, the night opened an exhibit of the work of Nashville native Thomas B. Allen, whose art has graced album covers of nearly every genre of Southern music, including seventeen Flatt & Scruggs albums. No art critic, I am singularly unqualified to comment except to say that I found his work beautifully vivid -- one face revealing a sly wit, another the joy of performing. The May 14 Tennessean quotes Marty "Instead of your basic hillbilly headshot, this was art. You could put their album covers alongside any of the jazz covers of the day." Second, the evening's $10,000 in proceeds went to the Watkins Institute School of Art & Design. Finally, it promised a musical bounty, including a rare concert appearance by bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs. I found myself seated on a pew near Governor and Mrs. Sundquist. (When you're going to an event, always dress as if you're going to sit next to the Governor. You never know.)
There followed a night of unparalleled intensity and purity, hosted by Marty Stuart -- an avid music historian, scholar of most anything traditional, and musical genius. Allen's daughter Hillary opened with a rendition of "Wildwood Flower" accompanied by Marty on guitar. Minister Evelyn Hubbard from Tunica, Mississippi, scored the evening's first standing ovation by leading the audience in a worshipful -- and musically stunning -- "Amazing Grace."
Governor Sundquist presented Allen with an official proclamation declaring May 17 Thomas B. Allen Day in Tennessee. In honor of his cultural contribution, much of which is displayed in the upper lobby of the Ryman through October 27.
The second standing ovation (Eddie Stubbs counted seven) came when Marty brought longtime Roy Acuff sideman Oswald Kirby to the stage, who waved to the audience from his wheelchair, visibly moved by the ovation. Bashful Brother Oswald remained in the wings the entire evening.
Next came the phenomenon that is LeRoy Troy. Words fail me here: you have to see LeRoy to believe him. Sufficient to say that, once he graced the stage, the audience was well and truly entertained. He and Marty regaled the audience with "Bottle of Wine" as LeRoy delighted the audience by twirling his banjo and generally being himself. Then, joined by other members of the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band -- Mike and Lester Armistead, Kent Blanton and Glenn Duncan -- LeRoy, Marty and friends continued with "Too Old To Cut The Mustard" and "Charming Betsy." The audience clapped and stomped when the WSM Grand Ole Opry's Melvin Sloan Dancers joined the band onstage, kicking their heels to a joyful fiddle tune.
Janette Carter provided the most moving moments of the evening. Accompanied by Marty on guitar and her own autoharp, she brought to the Ryman state the sparse, pure arrangements of the original Carter Family. The daughter of A.P. and Sara, Janette falls heir to the legacy of the First Family of Country Music and she does it proud. Acoustically, the Ryman proved uniquely suited to the autoharp's simple, melodic chords and Janette's plaintive mountain voice. A hush fell over the audience, mesmerized by the haunting quality of the songs as she performed "Bury Me Beneath The Weeping Willow," "Little Moses" and "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes." Standing ovation number three, and we were just at intermission!
Afterward, as the audience settled in again, anticipation rose audibly as Earl Scruggs and friends -- Marty, dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas, Glenn Duncan on fiddle, Marty's whiz guitarist Brad Davis, and Gary Scruggs on bass -- took over. Earl, who is pretty much the last surviving architect of bluegrass music, earned the fourth ovation simply by walking onstage. Anyone unacquainted with Earl's immortal three-finger picking style quickly became familiar with it.
They kicked off with a rollicking version of the old chestnut "Rock About My Saro Jane," then launched into "Salty Dog Blues." Thereafter, I found it impossible to keep up from one delight to the next. Earl's banjo blazed through the night on song after song, as Marty and Gary traded lead vocals. There was "Earl's Breakdown," a Jerry Douglas feature on "Fireball," "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," "The Good Things Outweigh The Bad," "Little Maggie," "In The Pines," and "John Henry" followed by LeRoy Troy singing "The Death of John Henry." Eddie Stubbs earned yet another standing ovation when he tore up a fiddle in true Paul Warren style on "Wake Up Susan." The audience screamed for the Martha White theme, boisterously singing along, ending at fever pitch: "....Martha White self-rising flower HAS GOT HOT RIZE! The band drove on with "I Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow," "Black Mountain Rag" and a chilling rendition of "Long Black Veil."
They performed a hushed, delicate a cappella "Precious Memories," and Earl took the guitar for "Paul and Silas" and the simple sweetness of "You Are My Flower." And, of course, there was "Flint Hill Special" and the national anthem of banjo players everywhere, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." After a thunderous standing ovation (number six), Janette Carter and Connie Smith joined the band to encore with "The Storms Are On The Ocean" and received a final ovation.
Besides being so much fun, the musicianship was just so good. Each instrumentalist earned repeated applause for his virtuosity on solo turns. Perhaps a professional musician could hear things that could've been done better or differently. I'm not a professional musician, and I didn't hear anything I didn't like.
The person most deserving credit for the night's triumph is, of course, Marty Stuart. As a youngster, Marty saw the artwork of Thomas B. Allen on the covers of the record albums he loved most, and an art lover was born. The day's dedication to Allen, the convergence of the exhibit and the music of Earl Scruggs -- all were conceptualized by Marty, who so urgently insists that the public recognize the treasure that lie in traditional, old-time and bluegrass music. Every day Marty works to raise public awareness and to light in others the same fire that burns within him. We owe much more to Marty Stuart than one night's bliss at the Ryman.
Review by Elizabeth Ferrell
Editor's Note: Marty Stuart was this year's recipient of the Uncle Dave Macon Days Heritage Award, which was presented during a special ceremony at the 23rd annual Uncle Dave Macon Days old-time music and dance festival in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, on July 8. The honor is given by the directors of the festival to an individual "who is determined most dedicated to the preservation and advancement of old-time music and dance." Marty also served as grand marshal of the festival's Motorless Parade.
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