If You Go Barnstorming

Stuart enlists Haggard for small-town tour

This appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader - August 17, 2003

Marty Stuart journeyed to the Kentucky State Fair last year not to perform, but to put a plan in motion.

A major country hit-maker in the '90s with traditional roots that go back much further, Stuart was designing an outdoor road show that would bypass major cities to bring country music to smaller, rural towns neglected by many concert acts. Playing at the state fair was a country legend he wanted to recruit for his adventure: Merle Haggard.

"So I drove to Louisville," Stuart said during a recent phone interview. "I said, 'Merle, I've got this idea that you're an important part of.' I laid it all out to him. Then he said, 'Sounds like a good dream.' He got it right off the bat."

But the seeds for the Electric Barnyard Tour, which brings Stuart, Haggard and veteran country singer Connie Smith (Stuart's wife) to Brooksville and Somerset next weekend are rooted as much in career renewal as they are in banner-waving for country traditionalism.

The tour continues Stuart's gradual return to life on the road after a three-year absence. After 1999's critically lauded and double-Grammy-nominated album The Pilgrim earned only lackluster sales, the singer called a career timeout.

"By the end of The Pilgrim, everything pretty much came to a standstill," Stuart said. "I took that as my cue. You know, any good band member knows when to lay out. I thought it was time to call intermission. So I did."

When the itch to perform returned, Stuart plotted his course almost from the shadows. Before anything could be done, a new band had to be assembled.

To sharpen the upstart edge of his roadhouse-style music, Stuart found players with experience earned under a newer country tutelage. Drummer Harry Stinson recorded and toured with Steve Earle on his two finest '80s albums (Guitar Town and Exit 0), while guitarist Kenny Vaughan was a key member of Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road band. Bassist Brian Glenn rounded out the group Stuart dubbed the Fabulous Superlatives.

While the band played a few major cities on its coming-out tour (including a Lexington show at Cadillac Ranch on the night of a December snowstorm), Stuart stuck mostly to smaller cities that seldom get to experience major country stars in a live setting.

"After I put the band together, my request to the booking agent was to hide me in small towns across America," he said. "One idea was we wouldn't have to compete so much with other acts. But we also just needed a way to find our way and become a band.

"So we played places like Somerset, Lynchburg (Virginia) and Tupelo (Mississippi). And people started coming out. Lots of people. I fell in love with the small-town atmosphere. I fell in love with country people. I fell in love with playing country music in the middle of country towns."

After Haggard signed on for the Barnyard tour, Stuart cut an album with the Superlatives titled Country Music. It included "Farmer's Blues," a duet he and Haggard could play at their shows. But no one could predict just how hot -- literally -- things would get once the tour kicked off in July.

"When you're part of a traveling carnival show like this, you're at the mercy of the elements," Stuart said. "One of the things we got into were temperatures of 105, 106, 103. The crowds were all good. But when I came home, I thought maybe we would be smarter to pull this thing down a bit and make a fall show out of it."

But even under roasting temperatures, Stuart said, getting to perform alongside a country icon is undeniably cool.

"It's a stock answer I give everyone, but it's still true. Playing with Merle is like going to Yankee Stadium and having batting practice with Babe Ruth. Every time he swings, it's a great song and a great vocal. He doesn't miss."

By Walter Tunis

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