Late Night Jam, Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN on June 6, 2007

One wouldn’t think that on a stage that featured two country music Hall of Famers, five Grand Ole Opry members and several major label artists that the radio DJ acting as the night’s master of ceremonies would come closest to stealing the show. Thirty minutes before curtain, Eddie Stubbs announced that Marty Stuart’s annual benefit for Music Cares would be carried live on WSM for the first time, and the crowd at the Ryman Auditorium was certainly receptive to Stubbs inaugural stint as the show’s MC. Eddie, who has attained rock-star status in some Nashville circles, shocked many in the audience by leaving the podium at the beginning of the show and playing a mean fiddle with Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives, and impersonations of other radio personalities and a demonstration of his ability to perform any of WSM’s intricate on-air commercials from memory also drew enthusiastic cheers from the crowd.

However, music is still king in Nashville and Marty Stuart put together a sensationally diverse lineup of announced and surprise performers for his sixth annual Late Night Jam on Wednesday night. Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives kicked off the show with a bluegrass rendition of “Orange Blossom Special,” featuring the aforementioned Eddie Stubbs on fiddle, and a hilarious take on “Stayin’ Alive” (a nod to Marty’s new neighbor Barry Gibb).

Ashley Monroe has to be the only major label rookie whose road band revolves around a dobro. She showed true class by resisting the temptation to pimp her floundering singles and instead performed two songs made for the Mother Church. She sounded like a young Dolly Parton on the gospel standard “In the Garden” and “Hank’s Cadillac,” a haunting cut from Ashley’s unreleased debut album, is the best song that I’ve heard in quite a while and was enthusiastically received. As she was exiting the stage, Eddie pulled Ashley aside and asked her when her album is going to be released. Ashley hesitated before answering, “Maybe late this year, maybe early next year,” and then added with a smile, “but next year is quickly approaching.” It’s clear from Ashley’s stage performance that she’s not ready for stardom, but her talent is undeniable. Sony’s continued failure to release her debut album borders on criminal negligence.

Special guest John Rich walked onstage with a dazzlingly-Rhinestoned guitar and got the crowd excited with classic country covers; “The Battle of New Orleans” was the set’s highlight. At Marty’s request to perform one of his recent hit writing credits, Rich turned in a beautiful acoustic performance of “Like We Never Loved At All.”

Pam Tillis continued the classic country theme as she opened her set with her take on Connie Smith’s rendition of “Only Mama That’ll Walk the Line.” Songs from Rhinestoned were very appropriate given the costuming of most of the night’s performers, and I have a new appreciation for “Something Burning Out” after hearing it on the Ryman stage.

Country music Hall of Famers are still the favorites of the Ryman crowd, and Charley Pride received three standing ovations during his extended set. Pride has aged quite well and his voice sounded exuberant on standards like “Is Anybody Going to San Antone.” “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” provided the evening of the highlight and Pride can still jerk tears with songs like “Crystal Chandeliers” and “All I Have to Offer You Is Me.” The set concluded with “Kaw-liga” and other classic covers.

Porter Wagoner still appears frail after his recent health scare and he had to shed his guitar and sit down midway through his set. Nonetheless, the standing reception he received from the Ryman crowd and the adoration exhibited by Marty Stuart testified to his legendary status. “Green Green Grass of Home” and a cut from Wagonmaster, “a record so country I’d stand on Hank Williams coffee table and play it to him” according to producer Marty Stuart, provided set highlights.

The program veered away from classic country following surprise appearances by Connie Smith and Barbara Fairchild. Most of the crowd seemed unfamiliar with the music of Neko Case and many shifted uncomfortably during her first two songs, but the woman has a huge voice and closed her set with a brilliant gospel number that left many wishing that she’d played longer.

Marty Stuart introduced Raul Malo as his favorite singer but curiously allowed him to play only one song. Cameras flashed as the lights went down and Raul accompanied himself at center stage as Marty leaned against the proscenium arch and watched in awe.

The few teenagers in the crowd had to wait until nearly 1:30 a.m. to finally see Eric Church, but that didn’t seem to deaden their screams once he finally walked on stage. Church’s raucous rock instrumentation seemed to overwhelm some in the crowd; no, Eric, “How ‘Bout You” is not “a song that begs to be played on the Ryman stage,” especially when you replace the bridge with a medley of rock songs. Marty Stuart picked up his guitar and joined Eric on stage when it sounded as if he was beginning “Sunday Morning Coming Down” but then looked confused when Church segued into his own “Sinners Like Me.”

By the time Church’s set finished, what had previously been a concert had turned in to the jam it was billed as, and many started to leave as the guest performers became more obscure and Marty introduced a very mediocre performance by a member of his fan club. Thankfully, Marty reclaimed the show before the hour got too late and closed with fan-favorite “The Whiskey Ain’t Working Anymore” (featuring Eric Church) and an a capella Gospel number that ended nearly four hours of music.

Review by Matt C.

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