Marty Stuart At Sellersville Theater Both Wonderfully Loose And Talented

This appeared in Lehigh Valley Music - February 21, 2015

When country singer Marty Stuart played Sellersville Theater 1894 on Friday, it was hard to tell whether he was so talented that he could play loose and still be good, or whether he was so good because he played so loose.

Whichever was true, the five-time Grammy Award winner's 22-song, 75-minute show (the first of two he was scheduled to play) was a rollicking good time of country, honky tonk, bluegrass, rockabilly and gospel music played at full speed, with a devil-may-care approach.

He opened with “Freight Train Boogie,”  his three-man backing band The Fabulous Superlatives on acoustic guitar, stand-up bass and brushed marching drum, as they would play throughout the show.

“We love playing intimate, when you can get inside the songs,” Stuart told the nearly sold-out crowd.

He divided his set largely as he does on his new album, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, with the first part of the show country and the second half gospel.

That first half included “Sundown in Nashville”; a totally outlaw-country “Walk Like That,” on which he left the band take solos, and a slow shuffle “Old Old House,” on which he picked and strummed his mandolin, and showed off his underrated voice.

“In case you never heard it before, that’s called country music,” he said after the latter – a needed statement in a world where listeners think Taylor Swift is, or was ever, country.

Stuart, now 56, still was the lovable rogue – wearing a black jacket over a shirtless chest, scarf and black leather pants, his fully gray hair still poofed out in his trademark mullet. And his fun swagger made every song that much better.

The best of the night was his 1991 biggest hit, “Tempted.” The song showed the real transition from country to rock ‘n’ roll – a Buddy Holly-esque blast of rockabilly that was not only great musically, but fun, too. And Stuart was fully invested in it.

Stuart showed how broad his palette was with an unrecorded song that was a quiet-but-dangerous county shuffle (on which he jokingly affected a “Marty Robbins voice”), a version of “Bluegrass Express” that challenged all of his players; and a blazing cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” sung by drummer Harry Stinson.

As he did with that song, Stuart sometimes let his band have the spotlight, but also stepped into it himself occasionally, such as when he wailed vocals on “Life Has Its Ups and Downs,” among four of the songs he did from the new album, and stretched it to five minutes with a musical coda.

A couple of instrumentals were exquisitely played – especially Stuart on blazing mandolin. Stuart introduced another instrumental as “a steel guitar song without a steel guitar” after an audience member called for that instrument.

The audience’s response to the wordless songs showed they were interested in hearing the playing, too.
Stuart finished the first part of the show with “Ghost Train Four-Oh-Ten,” which he introduced with a spooky recounting of being amidst Hurricane Katrina, then the excellent song “Jailhouse” from the new record.

The Fabulous Superlatives left the stage to let Stuart play alone on a medley of “Fire of the Mountain” – a fiery and hypnotic display of his mandolin skill – and “The Pilgrim (Act I) on which he played so sparsely it was almost a cappella.

The band returned for a full-on tent-revival, stomping-in-the-aisles, moving-in-the-spirit version of the gospel standard “Working on a Building,” then the doo-wop gospel of “There’s a Rainbow (at the End of Every Storm” and “Mercy No. 1” from the new disc, on which the others sang while Stuart played lead guitar.

He closed the main set with “Angels Rock Me to Sleep” from the new disc – a gentle gospel lullaby that turned bluesy and had the crowd slow-clapping along.

For an encore, Stuart asked the audience what it wanted to hear, and played the expected two songs the crowd shouted out: His biggest hit, “The Whiskey Ain’t Working,” a stomping country song (he affected Travis Tritt’s voice on the appropriate parts of the 1991 hit).

Stuart then closed with the great rockabilly swing of his 1990 Top 10 breakthrough, “Hillbilly Rock.”

It was both wildly loose, and wildly talent-filled.

By John J. Moser

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