Marty Stuart

This appeared in The Bluegrass Journal - June 2006

Marty Stuart has had a lot of those moments in his life, and with a career spanning over three decades, he is able to easily decipher what is and what isn't "magic." With the recent release of Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives: Live at the Ryman, he has also come full circle to a point at the beginning of his career -- performing bluegrass music onstage at the "Mother Church of Country Music."

Any armchair historian of country music knows how important Stuart's role is to the genre. He has lived it most of his life, and it is not only in his upbringing, but it is also in his blood. By the time most teenagers are just learning to drive, Stuart had already spent three years performing and recording with bluegrass legend Lester Flatt, a tenure that lasted from 1973 to 1979. From there, he worked with other country and bluegrass performers, including Vassar Clements, Doc Watson, and The Sullivans, as well as guitarist for Johnny Cash's band. Beginning in the mid-1980s, his solo career has garnished six top-10 hits, one platinum and five gold albums, and four Grammy awards. In 1992 he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. For six years he served as president of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's board of directors. He also has one of the largest private collections of country music memorabilia (numbering over 20,000 items), and his photography work has appeared in numerous books and album folds.

In 1999, Stuart made one of his most passionate albums with The Pilgrim. It won the hearts of many critics (as well as legendary performers such as Bob Dylan) with its concept storyline as well as guest performances from Cash, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs. The album was not a commercial success, but it helped Stuart decide to pursue more traditional themes and values in his music rather than attempt to battle for the Billboard charts. Stuart founded his own record label in 2005, Superlatone Records, to have more artistic control over his own releases.

After a brief hiatus from recording and touring, inspiration rewarded him with the release of three full-length albums in a span of six months. In late 2005 the Gospel music-laden Souls' Chapel as well as Badlands, which thematically deals with the Native American people, were issued. Early this year saw the release of Live at the Ryman. Although Live was the last release, it was actually recorded much earlier, during a performance in July of 2003. Stuart had scheduled a show at the Ryman, went on tour with his band The Fabulous Superlatives, and then returned to hastily perform the bluegrass concert.

While the band (Kenny Vaughan -- guitar; Brian Glenn -- bass; Harry Stinson -- drums) is primarily an electric-based ensemble, Stuart relied on them to fill the necessary positions for the acoustic performance. "The Superlatives are not a bluegrass band, make no mistake about it," he explains. "However, the core of the band is extremely versatile. We are designed to play a variety of music with authenticity. To define the authenticity of bluegrass, I called on (fiddler) Stuart Duncan and (banjoist) Charlie Cushman, a couple of bluegrass masters.

"I've known Marty since we were teenagers," exclaims Cushman. "I've performed off and on with him for over 20 years." Cushman shows his bluegrass versatility by performing with Whitehouse and Tim O'Brien as well as being on the A-list for many Nashville sessions. "Marty is a well-established entertainer who brings his own personality and vibe to his stage show. It's the Marty experience, uniquely his own. Tim O'Brien equally has his own show. I guess I'm the chameleon, who is fortunate to be able to experience them both."

The album has a healthy mixture of both bluegrass standards as well as Stuart hits rearranged for a bluegrass-band setting. The overall air comes off as a group of excellent musicians getting together for a back-porch jam ("No more than 30 minutes rehearsal time," claims Cushman), having some fun, and allowing the audience to enjoy the experience. Stuart gets everyone into the spotlight, including having Duncan shine on "Orange Blossom Special" and Cushman showcase on "Shuckin' the Corn." "Marty knows his musicians and their talents and abilities, as all great band leaders do. He has confidence in them and the music. The freedom is unlimited," states Cushman.

To give the audience a complete package, Stuart called on WSM radio personality and Grand Ole Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs for the introduction, and included a special guest performance by legendary dobroist Josh Graves, who joked with the audience and kicked into his trademark "Train 45."

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