Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives

This appeared in the Washington Post - January 2006

Marty Stuart's a better singer than he is a songwriter, and he's a better guitar picker than he is a singer. It's also true, however, that he's better at guitar-picking than almost anybody is at almost anything.

Yet Thursday at the Birchmere, where the 47-year-old Mississippian brought his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, to promote his three (!) recent CD releases, Stuart wore his genius quite comfortably.

He spent much of the night talking up his musical heroes. Stuart, who worked as a backup for Johnny Cash early in his career and married one of Cash's daughters, introduced "Black Crow" as a tune he'd written for the dearly departed former boss and father-in-law. Stuart rearranged some words to the Man in Black's 1959 track, "Luther Played the Boogie," to boast of the abilities of Superlatives guitarist Kenny Vaughan, and briefly let his bandmate take over lead duties to prove him right. Stuart plucked several guitar lines simultaneously and still had enough musical brainpower to join his band in crooning a bluegrass version of "Somebody Saved Me," a 1960 spiritual he got from Roebuck "Pops" Staples and put on his new gospel disc, "Souls' Chapel."

Stuart's dedication to his craft is obvious in his choice of garb and guitars. His all-black ensemble of studded slacks and overcoat -- a sort of Nudie funeral suit -- was less garish than some attire he's worn in previous local appearances, but it was nevertheless an outfit only a country gentleman could get away with. And to country-rock fans, Stuart's weathered 1954 Telecaster, to which Byrds guitarist Clarence White affixed the first "b-bender" mechanism and thereby made steel guitar sounds accessible to six-string players, is the Holy Grail of musical instruments.

Some songs he introduced from "Badlands," a new collection of Stuart tunes inspired by his longtime relationship with the Lakota tribe of South Dakota, suffered from the sort of overearnestness that occasionally bogs down Rodney Crowell, another former son-in-law of Johnny Cash. An exception is the title track, which flaunted a riff as catchy and twangy as anything Stuart recorded back when country radio paid attention to him.

By Dave McKenna

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