Country Hero

Johnny D's, Somerville, MA - July 18, 2007

This appeared in The Boston Phoenix - July 24, 2007

Two of the coolest guys in country music were on stage at Johnny D’s July 18: Johnny Cash (in spirit) and Marty Stuart (in person). Cash died in 2003, but Stuart, his longtime friend, erstwhile guitarist, and collaborator, played the last song he and Cash wrote, “Hangman’s Blues,” penned four days before Cash’s death. Stuart, playing a rare solo gig, performed that unrecorded song for only the second time, and it brought a chill. “ ‘Who killed who?’ I ask myself time and time again,” he sang. “God have mercy on the soul of this hangman.” A Cash song through and through, with the good/bad line blurred. Near the end, Stuart popped in a subtle “I Walk the Line” guitar riff.

Stuart, 48, is the non-showbiz face of country music, despite one platinum album and five gold; his latest, Compadres: An Anthology of Duets came out last month. He produced Porter Wagoner’s new Wagonmaster (Anti), and has played with everyone from Lester Flatt (when Stuart was 13) to Bob Dylan. By the time you read this, he’ll be back out on the road with His Fabulous Superlatives, his backing trio, playing to thousands. This intimate gig, one of only four solo stops, was done, said Stuart, “for fun, and to search for songs inside myself. I always have to go back to the street to find songs.”

Stuart’s set included the old (“Dark as a Dungeon,” a Merle Travis song about the mining life), the new (“The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’ ”), and the classic (a closing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”). The upbeat songs were fine, but the downbeat ones had deeper resonance. A train-hopper in “Hobo’s Prayer” was “trading sorrow for tomorrows,” but accepting that fate. When Stuart did “Badlands,” about the poorest county in America, he sang of the people’s resilience against all odds. It might have been wishful thinking, but Stuart infused it with real hope.

By Jim Sullivan

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