The Folly's Soul Chapel

This appeared in the Kansas City Star - August 27, 2006

Who's gonna fill their shoes?" George Jones crooned in his popular tribute to country music's old guard. Marty Stuart made it clear Saturday night at the Folly Theater in Kansas City, Missouri that he's first in line for a boot fitting.

One of Stuart's hit songs characterizes his music as "hillbilly rock." Stuart and his band of ringers, The Fabulous Superlatives, featured 22 variations of that versatile sound in their two-hour performance for an appreciative audience of approximately 700.

Clad in black and sporting an enormous plume of graying hair, Stuart seemed determined to have more fun than anyone in the theater. While drummer Harry Stinson and bassist Brian Glenn offered first-rate support, Stuart asserted that Kenny Vaughan was "the best guitar player in Kansas City tonight," and as if awed by his impeccable playing, shameless hamming and garish white Nudie suit, no one at the Folly disagreed.

He didn't hesitate to share the spotlight with his band, but the evening's two best performances involved Stuart alone on the Folly stage with an acoustic guitar. After speaking at length about his relationship with country music, Stuart offered "Dark Bird," a melancholy new tribute to his mentor, friend and former boss, Johnny Cash. The haunting "Hobo's Prayer," from 1999's The Pilgrim, was even better. "I'm a circle in a world full of squares," Stuart whispered. "Trading sorrows for tomorrows."

The 47-year-old Stuart began his career as a 12-year-old prodigy playing, as he revealed Saturday, "at tent revivals and George Wallace campaign rallies." He served apprenticeships in the bands of Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash before launching his solo career.

After leaving Cash's group, he said, "the first place I ever played with my own band was The Cactus in Kansas City." Five people showed up, he joked, including his cousin, who suggested that "You should have stayed with Johnny Cash." He then performed "Homesick," a gorgeous ballad rendered even more wistful by Stinson's high, lonesome harmony vocal and Stuart's wrenching guitar solo.

Stuart didn't bother to feature all of his chart hits, but the rough-edged readings of "Tempted," "Now That's Country" and "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'" seemed like deliberate disavowals of his former Nashville's slickness.

His hit-making days are behind him, but Stuart is in the midst of an artistic renaissance. In 2005 he released the gospel-inflected Souls' Chapel and the Native American-themed Badlands, both artistic triumphs. And Stuart announced Saturday that he just wrapped up a collaboration with gospel and soul star Mavis Staples.

The concert was the second installment of the "Cyprus Avenue Live" series, and at the bequest of the KCUR radio program host Bill Shapiro, Stuart and his band closed the show with a 30-minute gospel-oriented encore. After changing into black suits and pink ties, the band performed the set of spiritual songs with even more ardent fervor than they'd exhibited during their energetic first set.

By Bill Brownlee

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