Marty Stuart: Hillbilly Rocker Proved That He's An Entertainer And A Pro

This appeared in the Evansville Courier & Press - August 16, 2011

The concert was scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m. last Thursday. For a town of working people with a work day left in the week, the start time means something.

So it was that at 7:30 p.m. sharp, the house lights at the Henderson Fine Arts Center dimmed. At 7:31, meteorologist Wayne Hart strode out to good-naturedly take credit for a break in the withering heat wave, and then introduced the talent.

At 7:32, country music's Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives strode smartly out, shouldered their instruments and -- though this concert served as the kickoff for Bluegrass in the Park, where acoustic is king -- lit into an amplified version of "Stop The World (And Let Me Off)," followed by "Branded" and "The Whiskey Ain't Workin.' "

"If you came here to see a slick show, you're lost," Stuart told the audience. "But if you're here to see a high-energy hillbilly show, you're in the right place."

Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives are high-energy, all right. But don't think Stuart is just a rowdy greenhorn. He's a Grand Ole Opry star and a four-time Grammy-winner who spent years playing with Johnny Cash, went gold with his own 1989 album "Hillbilly Rock" and has put four singles in the Billboard country top 10.

More to the point, he's a pro. While performing "The Whiskey Ain't Workin' " -- a 1991 song that Stuart co-wrote and that hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles and Tracks in 1991 -- he pointed his microphone to the crowd and invited them to take the lead. Now, the Henderson Fine Arts Center isn't exactly Tootsie's Orchid Lounge; only a few folks knew the words. But Stuart and his band weren't fazed. He just smiled and kept on playing.

"Nice hall," he said of the center, grinning. "It's just ... snazzy!"

Stuart is snazzy himself, with his coifed gray hair, rhinestone-studded jacket and snug leather pants, and he can rock.

But as he proved to an audience with some members who weren't that familiar with him, Marty Stuart isn't just a honky-tonk rocker (not that there's anything wrong with that).

He was once, after all, a 13-year-old mandolin player who went into the recording studio with no less a legend than Lester Flatt, and he impressed the crowd Thursday night when he took off his electric guitar and pulled out his old instrument. ("He might make a pretty good mandolin player if he sticks with it," Bluegrass in the Park organizer Ken Christopher, himself a mandolin player, said admiringly later.)

And Stuart hushed the crowd with a version of Merle Travis' haunting 1946 coal-mine classic, "Dark as a Dungeon" -- particularly when he stepped out from around the microphone and finished the song without an amp. The audience was spellbound.

Later, the band took a bluegrass turn and sang a gospel song, "The Unseen Hand," in soaring four-part harmony.

After 90 minutes, he waved goodbye, then he and the talented Fabulous Superlatives -- guitarist Kenny Vaughan, drummer Harry Stinson and bass player Paul Martin -- headed toward the wings.

But with the crowd on its feet and roaring its approval, they came back for an encore. Then, for all his earlier cheekiness, Stuart took an admiring look at the McCormick Performing Hall in the Fine Arts Center and declared, "This is a beautiful place. Please support this place."

And then he made a promise.

"We'll stay and sign autographs as long as there's a line," Stuart said, and that's exactly what he and the Fabulous Superlatives did. For nearly an hour, they patiently signed anything someone put in front of them, from a newly purchased CD to the ticket from the just-completed show.

On the other side of the lobby, local bluegrass band King's Highway played into the night, helping sustain the evening's atmosphere. As the last autograph-seeker passed through the line, the guys from King's Highway walked up, and Stuart greeted them as though they were members of the Grand Ole Opry.

Later, Stuart and the band visited King's Highway blue-and-white retro tour bus -- a 1946 Flixible highway coach they've renamed the "Bluegrass Bus" -- and, like other visitors before them, the autographed the ceiling.

As folks filed out of the concert hall, they compared notes. Most said they didn't know much about Marty Stuart beforehand. Everyone was impressed. He blew the roof off the joint.

I've seen some other pretty famous acts hit the stage in various venues and pretty much just phone in their performance. I've seen some lesser-known acts amaze audiences.

What impresses me most is when a veteran performer, someone with thousands of shows behind them, comes out on a weekday night and honors an audience with the performance they deserve and a performance they will remember. It's what I call an honest performance, delivered by someone who knows how to entertain -- delivered by someone who is a professional.

I saw Paul McCartney do that in St. Louis.

I saw Tom Petty do it in Evansville

I saw Marvin Hamlisch do it at the Henderson Fine Arts Center.

By Chuck Stinnett

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