The Bluegrass is Greener

Marty Stuart and the Ryman's Revival

This appeared in the Nashville Scene - June 30, 1994

Grand Ole Opry announcer Hairl Henslee's deep, resonant voice seemed richer and fuller than ever as it wafted through the hallowed air of the Ryman Auditorium. "Please give a big welcome to Marty Stuart and the Four Darn Nice Guys!" he bellowed mellifluously. As the 1,300 people packed into the wooden pews exploded in applause, five guys--all of whom seemed darn nice, but none of whom looked anything like Marty Stuart--shuffled across the historic wooden slats of the Ryman stage and into position in front of several tightly arranged microphones.

The guys onstage were acknowledged masters of the acoustic instruments they carried: There were fiddler Stuart Duncan and banjoist Alan O'Bryant of the award-winning Nashville Bluegrass Band, bassist Roy Huskey Jr., flat-picking guitarist David Grier and veteran dobro player Uncle Josh Graves. Uncle Josh wasn't one of the Four Nice Guys, but it wasn't a comment on his congeniality. His standing as a legendary figure in instrumental circles earned him billing as a special guest--he tutored a pubescent Stuart when both were members of Lester Flatt's Nashville Grass Band. Stuart later introduced him by saying, "He showed me an awful lot down through the years, and most of it got me in trouble."

As the all-star quintet adjusted their instruments in front of the microphones, a couple of the onstage experts turned toward the wings, visually acting out what several crowd members were whispering. Hey, where's Marty? About that time, Stuart burst onto the stage, his long, jet-black, high-rise-trademark hairdo bouncing in place as he hurried to join his temporary bandmates.

Wearing a bright blue Manuel blazer with black Western stitching, this most sartorial of hillbilly stars blazed a wide grin and blurted, "Sorry, I was in the bathroom." He laughed heartily, adding, "I was! I swear," as if someone would have disbelieved him and he would have used that as an excuse.

It was the only misstep of a thoroughly memorable evening of acoustic music. From start to finish, Stuart and his special guests provided a fitting tribute to two long-standing American traditions: bluegrass music and the Ryman Auditorium. Both have been through rough times as of late, but they're experiencing a resurgence and seem to be in capable, caring hands. And both likely will last much longer than their flashier counterparts and new-rising neighbors.

The show was the second in a summer-long series of Tuesday night bluegrass shows at the Ryman. (The previous week's rousing debut featured bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe and the music's brightest and best known new flame, Alison Krauss.) As usual, Stuart was both reverent and impishly playful, and he transformed his night into an old-styled vaudeville show, complete with a circus-style stuntman, Michael Frith; a comic banjo picker and twirler, the wonderful Leroy Troy of Goodlettsvile; a down-home Southern gospel family vocal group, the great Tammy and Jerry Sullivan; a talented and under-recognized country veteran, the equally stunning Connie Smith; and the aforementioned all-star band.

In an interview prior to his performance, Stuart kept suggesting he was moonlighting, admitting that the night was an indulgence away from his career as a hillbilly-rockin' recording artist determined to find a new way of injecting fresh energy into traditional forms he loves. Still, when pressed, he acknowledged that he more than dabbles in bluegrass. Listen to his last three albums--including the fine, new Love and Luck--and it's evident that bluegrass continues to inspire his creativity.

"Bluegrass is where I started, and there's something about bluegrass that's always been a part of me and always will," he said. "Playing it always makes me feel better. It's a piece of me that's very much alive and I love it. Playing bluegrass is like going to church. It's as simple as that. It's not a big part of what I do on my records, but it's always there somewhere."

If playing bluegrass is like going to church, then Stuart shows knows how to testify. His mandolin work shined throughout the night, goaded on by what he described as "a dream bluegrass band." He tore through fleet, inventive solos as the band blazed through such standards as "Lee Highway Blues," "Little Maggie," "Soldier's Joy" and "Salty Dog." The group highlighted the blue part of bluegrass on a strikingly beautiful rendition of Hank Williams' "My Sweet Love Ain't Around." Just as good was a Stuart original, the haunting "Oh, What A Silent Night," a standout track from Love and Luck, co-written with Harlan Howard that was made even better by Stuart and his gang of nice guys. But the night's highlight came when Connie Smith joined the acoustic band for a scorching mournful duet with Tammy Sullivan on "Wayfaring Stranger." It will be a crime if someone doesn't record Smith singing a similar version of this song.

That Stuart parlayed his moonlighting indulgence into such an unforgettable night underscores what makes him so special--and so different from the majority of current country music stars, most of whom wouldn't take time away from their busy, high-profile careers to enjoy a low-profile night of music that didn't include any promotion of their hits. "This night wasn't about promoting Marty Stuart, it was about music and paying something back to a tradition.

The show was also part of a blitz of local activity by Stuart, who seems to be staking ground as the hardest-working man in country music. His June schedule thus far has included an omnipresent role in the network television tribute to the Ryman Auditorium, an afternoon signing autographs at Fan Fair, performing there the following night and, the same evening, rushing across town to present a radio award to Johnny Cash.

Stuart released Love and Luck three months ago, and it's smack in the middle of the summer concert and fair circuit season, which means he should be obsessed with promoting his album and raking in as much money as possible. But he's not that kind of guy. "Anyone who knows anything about me knows I started here on this spot when I was 13 years old," he told the Ryman crowd. "It feels awfully good to be back here."

I sounded awfully good for him to be there too.

By Michael McCall

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