Marty Stuart And His Fabulous Superlatives Dazzle Fall River Fans

This appeared in the Patriot Ledger - December 6, 2014

Anyone doubting Marty Stuart's talent and versatility would've come away completely dazzled by Friday night's two-hour show at the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River. Stuart and two of his Fabulous Superlatives backing band delivered somewhere around 29 songs in the all-acoustic set, spanning country, bluegrass, honky tonk, gospel and rock, along with a tongue-in-cheek recitation, several humorous stories, and a phoned-in Christmas tune from the missing Superlative.

The sold out crowd of about 280 fans was standing and singing along throughout most of the five song encore segment, and if the titanic talents of Stuart himself were not enough, there was ample proof his two cohorts, guitarist "Cousin Kenny" Vaughn and drummer/guitarist "Handsome Harry" Stinson, are headline-quality performers themselves. Best of all, the Narrows Center's warm vibe made it all seem like a casual wing-ding Stuart was throwing in his rec room.

The night opened with "The Lonely Kind," a ballad that really reminded everyone what a rich, deep baritone Stuart has, as all three musicians played guitar. Stuart, 56, looked impeccable in a white Nudie suit with black piping, while his two compadres wore black Western-cut suits. Stuart's magnificent leonine head of hair has gone silver, but is still among the most striking in all music.

Stuart, who grew up loving bluegrass mandolin, and was playing that instrument in Lester Flatt's band by the time he was 14, picked up that axe for the second song. Stuart has also played with Vassar Clements, Carl Perkins, Bill Monroe, and by 1980 was a member of Johnny Cash's backing band. He was, in fact, married to Johnny Cash's daughter Cindy from 1983-88, but started pursuing his solo career in about '85. With a Top ten single from the title cut to his 1989 Hillbilly Rock album, Stuart became a major country music drawing card, and his career kept climbing with 1991's Tempted album, with that title cut hitting the Top Five singles.

1991 was a big year for Stuart in other ways, as a duet with Travis Tritt on a song they co-wrote, "The Whiskey Ain't Working," became a huge hit, and a follow-up duet with Tritt, "This One's Gonna Hurt You For A Long Time," became an equally big hit single the next year. But somewhere after that Stuart's albums began slumping commercially, as he began questioning his role in the way country music was seemingly morphing into twangy arena rock. Starting with 1999's The Pilgrim album, he's forged his own path, seeking a more authentic way of honoring his roots. He may not be selling out arenas these days, but he's become a revered figure in the Americana movement, and has an enduring popularity with country, honky tonk, and bluegrass fans.

But getting back to Friday's concert, that second song could've been any number of Stuart's own rootsy hits, but instead he uncorked a delightfully edgy, speeded-up take on Neil Young's "Are You Ready for the Country?" It was both a nod to his fans from all across the musical spectrum, and a witty challenge, a sort of "buckle up, people, here we go!"  Following that tune, Stuart led the trio in a frenetic mandolin breakdown, the kind of wild and wooly instrumental showcase he likely learned years ago with Flatt.

Vaughn sang lead on the appealing two-step "Country Music's Got A Hold On me,' as Stinson played brushes on a snare drum hung around his neck. That two-guitars/and drum setup turned "The Whiskey Ain't Working" into an easy-rolling toe-tapper, and that laidback swinging style carried over to the bluesy rendition of "This One's Gonna Hurt You For A Long Time." Stuart energized the room after that with a guitar breakdown, one of those racing flurries of notes that seems too pell mell to ever maintain a melody, yet somehow does.

Stinson got the spotlight next, for a marvelously buoyant number, "Look Out Heart," where his clear tenor vocal filled the venue--no wonder he provides such stellar harmonies with Stuart. The three-guitar lineup tackled "Tempted," with a throbbing version that ranked with the best acoustic rock, and ended with a goofy segment of Stuart and Stinson imitating Marty Robbins singing it.

Stuart just released a new double album, Saturday Night / Sunday Morning, a couple months ago, with a theme of honky tonking on Saturday night, and making amends with gospel-tinged songs the next morning. One notable song he did from that new CD was an old Charlie Rich song, "Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs," a tender ode to lasting love, delivered with delicate, almost folk music intimacy. A good timey romp through Cash's "Big River" was a rowdy delight.

"Ghost Train Four-Oh-Ten" rumbled along with a haunting aura, a tune from his 2010 album Ghost Train inspired by an old station in his Philadelphia, Mississippi home town.

But after that Stuart's tour manager Phil Clark came onstage saying the star had a phone call. It was the missing Superlative, bassist Paul "The Apostle" Martin, calling from his home in Tennessee, where Stuart noted Martin would be honorary marshal of the holiday parade on Saturday. The entire Martin clan was ready to sing for the audience, over the miles, and as Stuart held the cell phone to the microphone, one of Martin's younger kids led a very impressive version of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus."  That prompted such an ovation from the throng in Fall River that Clark offered a recitation, and then did a comically dramatic reading of "Twas the Night Before Christmas," but ended before the last verse, saying he hadn't quite finished "his" poem.

With that chicanery out of the way, Vaughn sang a rockin' rendition of "Can't Judge a Book," displaying his own vocal gifts. Stinson came back to explain how a song he'd penned had languished as other artists hesitated to perform it under a previous title, but once he'd changed its name, "Wild Angels" became a mega-hit for Martina McBride. Stinson sang his take on it solo, and again his soaring tenor filled the room with jaw-dropping power.
Stuart told a sweet anecdote about a 1973 Flatt Band road trip that had them going from Nova Scotia to Miami in one arduous drive, and then, at the Miami festival they were playing, him meeting the old bluegrass picker who'd written "Orange Blossom Special." Introducing himself to the man, young Stuart decided the old fellow was a bit dotty, as he showed Stuart a recent royalties check for $25,000 for "Orange Blossom," and wondered why the venue's hot dog stand wouldn't cash it for him.  Stuart's version of the tune Friday was done solo on mandolin, lending that familiar old classic a new level of excitement.

A two-song gospel segment was highlighted by the mass clap-along on "Don't Leave Home Without Jesus." The three-guitar attack made "99 And A Half Won't Do" a bouncy bit of twang-rock. And then, for another curveball, Stuart and the boys ended the main set with Tom Petty's "Running Down A Dream," with the singer switching between guitar and mandolin in a masterful sprint.

The first encore found Stuart pulling out a 1965 Warner Mack hit, "The Bridge Washed Out," the kind of country song where self-parody seems to be gleefully just around the corner. There was no denying the surging momentum behind the old chestnut "Mama Tried", and a rockabilly-flavored treatment of "Hillbilly Rock" certainly had the joint jumping. The night ended with another mass singalong/clapalong, with the whole crowd standing for a heartfelt "Will The Circle be Unbroken."

By Jay Miller

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