Marty Stuart's Bluegrass Finds Greener Pastures

This appeared in the Washington Post - January 25, 2006

Marty Stuart has been on a roll lately and we have country radio, at least indirectly, to thank for it. Relegated to the ranks of "heritage" acts that are no longer prized on the commercial country airwaves, Stuart has seized upon his marginalization as an opportunity to pursue his muse.

In the past 12 months, Stuart has launched a custom record label to issue overlooked Southern gospel and roots music, and, with his Fabulous Superlatives, a blazing band that actually lives up to its name, has released three terrific albums.

Involuntarily retired from the radio, Marty Stuart remains ardently prolific. The first, Souls' Chapel, was a de facto tribute to the Staple Singers and the other sanctified shouters whom Stuart heard while growing up in rural Mississippi. The second, a bracing collection of ballads from late last year called Badlands, pays tribute to the Lakota Sioux who were massacred at Wounded Knee. The third and latest, Live at the Ryman, is an exuberant bluegrass set recorded at the mother church of country music, the stage that Stuart first played as a 13-year-old member of Lester Flatt's band, the Nashville Grass. Taken together, these three records testify to Stuart's emergence, over the past decade or so, as a country music renaissance man after the heart of his onetime father-in-law, the late Johnny Cash.

The 15 tracks on Live at the Ryman began as a bootleg recording made by Stuart's sound engineer of a bluegrass night the singer hosted in Nashville. Largely unrehearsed, Stuart and his Superlatives -- plus fiddler Stuart Duncan, banjo player Charlie Cushman and legendary dobroist "Uncle" Josh Graves (of Flatt & Scruggs fame) -- roar through a repertoire consisting mainly of old bluegrass and string band numbers, some famous, others familiar only to aficionados.

High points and high jinks abound, notably the unhinged and all-but-reinvented version of "Orange Blossom Special" that opens the show and Josh Graves's nimble slide guitar work on the old Grayson & Whittier showpiece "Train 45." From the banjo breakdown "Shuckin' the Corn" to Graves's wry, bluesy "Sure Wanna Keep My Wine" to Stuart's juking neobilly manifesto "Hillbilly Rock," spirits run high throughout. Indeed, apart from the three-part blue-and-lonesome moaning of "Homesick," the evening's moment of tragic relief, this installment of the Marty Party proved to be one rampaging good time.

Most telling as it relates to where Stuart's head and heart are at these days, though, is the chorus that he adds to the Jimmie Rodgers standby "No Hard Times." "I got hard times waitin' for me in Nashville town," Stuart begins. "They say, 'We don't want no hillbillies hangin' around.' " Coming from any another castoff from the country charts, such a profession might sound like a lament -- or, worse, might smack of resignation. Yet judging by how ardently prolific Stuart has been since his involuntary retirement from commercial radio, he definitely hears what "they" have to say as a challenge. Indeed, as a source of inspiration.

By Bill Friskics-Warren

Return To Articles Return To Home Page