Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives

This appeared on JamBase - May 22, 2009

Y’all need to see Marty Stuart live. Seriously. Backed by his justifiably named Fabulous Superlatives, Stuart’s debut San Francisco performance with his group at the Great American Music Hall was as perfect and enjoyable a concert as one could hope to experience -- expertly played, full of shifting emotions, powerfully sung, packed with entertaining stories, professionally organized and shoehorned with great songs.

While Stuart is known to most as a Top Ten country artist from the ’80s and ’90s, he has quietly morphed into one of the finest purveyors of roots music in the past few years. In 2005 he started his own label and in a year’s time released a trilogy of albums that neatly and swiftly redefined him as an artist in the public eye. 2005’s Souls' Chapel, a gospel set to rival Johnny Cash’s best such efforts, and Badlands: Ballad of the Lakota, a devastatingly effective concept album about the lives and mistreatment of the Lakota Indian tribe, were swiftly followed by the glorious bluegrass dust-up Live At The Ryman in 2006. Taken together these records present a much more complex, sophisticated musician than one might have expected from the “Marty Party” guy we saw on The Nashville Network in the ’90s. But, Stuart had long been in the deepest marrow of country’s best, getting his start playing guitar and mandolin in Lester Flatt’s band in the ’70s, followed by a stint in Cash’s band in the ’80s. What one finds today is a man carrying on the legacies of the only two men he ever worked for (a point he made during this show). In 2009, Marty Stuart is a standard-bearer for the finest parts of country and bluegrass, delivering each note in a way that reignites the original power of this music, bringing it back to its homespun, in-your-lap immediacy in a way that tears spontaneous hoots ‘n’ hollers from you.

Dressed all in black, high leather boots, tailored jacket and all, Stuart, flanked by his equally well-appointed men in white, hit the stage with enormous energy. It was like thunder shaking the ground, something elemental changing the space it enters. With a soft smile, Stuart hoisted his mandolin and his fingers skittered over the strings like a spider on a frying pan, drawing the rest of band behind him with centrifugal force into “Orange Blossom Special.” And that’s how the rest of their stunning set went. This is a man born to make music, and freed from the preconceptions and corporate wrangling of mainstream Nashville, this has never been more apparent.

Music flowed from his pores, and his Superlatives kept pace with equal exuberance and skill - these boys are a high octane, purring-under-the hood music machine - and with palpable steadiness one found themselves a little more in love with this man, his band and what they do together with each passing number. It’s a hell of a thing to come face-to-face with something that reminds us why we love music in a semiotic, primal way, and by mid-show both myself and photographer Josh Miller found ourselves hopping up and down behind the mostly seated crowd, shooting one another glances of happy surprise and generally finding our inner twang in a big, big way.

Stuart said the first time he’d played San Francisco was at the Great American in the early ’70s with Lester Flatt’s band and that he hadn’t set foot in the venue since then but was happy to see “some things never change.” His songs and patter are studded with lil’ wisdom nuggets, the precious metal of a life lived awake and aware, with the added boost of being genuinely entertaining. “We’re unplugged tonight so if things go crazy it’s alright because we already have your money,” joked Stuart. Later after giving us some “cut rate Marty Robbins,” he hollered, “There’s a mess of hillbilly in San Francisco!” clearly bowled over by the hail of handclapping and screams his homage had elicited. The band also seemed genuinely appreciative of the audience’s openness to diversity, which allowed them to dip into surf music, contemplative rumination and much more. There’s a bit of The Everly Brothers, Cash and other early country genre-straddlers in Stuart’s schema, and the longer he’s away from the mainstream the more colors he’s showing. It’s glorious and makes him ripe for discovery by the diversity loving fans of Yonder, Salmon and the Punch Brothers.

After an aching, sorrowful take on “Long Black Veil” with some of the finest harmony singing these ears have ever heard, Stuart said he had an appointment with a man named Haggard in Palos Verdes, CA, the next day. His assignment was to bring Merle a new song. “That’s like showing your rock collection to Mount Rushmore,” he quipped nervously. However, the tune he debuted for us -- hung on the refrain, “What will become of the working man with honest sweat on his brow?” -- was, well, superlative. He may not feel like a mountain but Stuart is a hell of foothill at the very least, with a solidity that showed right through the phenomenally well-sung encore of gospel classic “Workin’ On A Building.”

Stuart and his empathetic collaborators are carrying on a tradition of populist music born on front porches and along rail lines that speaks directly to the things we get under our nails and into our hearts. Talking about mentor Johnny Cash, Stuart said, “He taught me a lot, and most of it got me put in jail!” Like Johnny, there’s a peculiar and highly appealing mixture of guffaw and gravitas in Stuart, an “ah-shucks” demeanor that belies the dark, serious things he’s seen and survived. And within his understanding of his mistakes and misadventures lies keys to unlocking our own stories. That one has a fine old time taking it in is essential, but what makes his work linger, much like this phenomenal concert, is the feeling of broad and real understanding of the human condition in his verses.

By Dennis Cook

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