In Performance: Marty Stuart And His Fabulous Superlatives

This appeared on The Musical Box Blog - February 15, 2014

"It's nice to have indoor work," proclaimed Marty Stuart last night at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort, Kentucky. It was a fitting sentiment as capping off Valentine's Day with a two-hour set of roots-driven country music with the veteran singer and his outstanding Fabulous Superlatives combo was far more inviting than the latest love letter Old Man Winter was simultaneously delivering to Franklin County.

While Stuart has had ample share of the Nashville spotlight over his years, his music today bears little, if any, resemblance to contemporary country music. The repertoire last night went heavy on songs penned or popularized by Marty Robbins, Bill Monroe, Johnny Horton, Charlie Rich and other heralded country stylists from decades past, along with a few of Stuart's own hits from the '90's ("The Whiskey Ain't Workin'," "Tempted," and an especially twang-friendly "This One's Gonna Hurt You").

Even though modern Nashville didn't figure into the show, there was a seriously rocking side to the Superlatives, especially within the effortless guitar exchanges between Stuart and Kenny Vaughan that erupted out of the nifty picking during the show-opening "Stop The World (And Let Me Off)" and continued through to the encore reading of "Hillbilly Rock."

But this was also a program full of extraordinary dynamics. While the ensemble Superlatives sound provided enough grove, sass and overall roots country fortitude to "Air Mail Special" (where the nimble guitar exchanges brought to mind the fabulous electric picking of Clarence White), "Parchman Farm" (the murderous penitentiary classic Stuart summed up with a hearty "Happy Valentine's Day, baby!") and even an impromptu stab at the "Bonanza" theme, some of the program's most commanding moments were also the quietest.

A suitably somber "Long Black Veil" was played with whisper-thin clarity, which the crowd responded to with active, attentive quiet, while the solo acoustic original "Dark Bird" proved an efficiently emotive eulogy to Johnny Cash (Stuart's one-time employer and father-in-law). But the kicker was a version of "Orange Blossom Special" that Stuart took out of its overly familiar context as a fiddle tune and refashioned as a sort of ghost train effigy for solo mandolin. It was the simplest, boldest and most primal sounding entry in this expert roots country primer performance.

By Walter Tunis

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