I’m completely thrilled and grateful to have been in the audience for the recent concert by country music performers MARTY STUART and the FABULOUS SUPERLATIVES. They were adorably, charmingly, and rightfully cocky, they were hot-shots, they were cool cats, they knew their way around a stage or two, but let me just say, they could NOT have put on a better show. I was inspired by the singing and musicianship of the group, and by their totally kicking teal Nudie suits and their fancy white boots (both of which show they care!). I was fortunate enough to observe their sound check, where the singing gave me chills, and the presence of the guitarist’s little child on stage with daddy made me smile. I couldn’t wait to come back for more, and they gave me all I wanted and more.
MARTY STUART, a five time Grammy-winner, Grand Ole Opry star, country music archivist, Southern culture historian, photographer, master of charisma, genuine country music fan, and husband of one of my all-time favorite singers, CONNIE SMITH, (also known as the “Rolls Royce of country vocalists.)” Stuart began singing gospel as a wee child, and still shows a mark of respect to that genre of music, and went on to tour as a teenager with LESTER FLATT’s bluegrass band. I saw them in the 70’s at the old Princeton High School gymnasium and, myself being a young thing then, knew that little spitfire mandolin player was going somewhere. He went on to be part of JOHNNY CASH’s band for 6 years, which would have to have been life-changing. He is now a sort of caretaking ambassador, promoting and preserving everything from vintage gospel to honky-tonk to twang to the most tasteful hillbilly music that he can make. Backing him up in this realm of overseeing the old and the new is his amazing band, The Fabulous Superlatives: guitarist “COUSIN” KENNY VAUGHAN, drummer “HANDSOME” HARRY STINSON, and bassist “the APOSTLE” PAUL MARTIN.
Paul Martin, Kentucky born and bred, made his way into the music scene by playing steel for Kathy Mattea, playing bass and singing with the Oak Ridge Boys, and as bassist for Steve Wariner. He’s an amazing singer, and is the perfect backbone to the Superlatives. Nashville native Harry Stinson toured with Dottie West back in the day, and went on to become one of Steve Earle’s Dukes, after which he became the one of the most sought-after session guys in Nashville . He has worked with Etta James, Lyle Lovett, and Mark Knopfler, to name but a few. And then there’s Kenny Vaughan. His variety of music styles and his expertise in all of them is vast. Blues, Country, Rockabilly, Western Swing, Soul, and Jazz, He has studied with the jazz great Bill Frizell, (who appeared at Carnegie a while back with Charleston ’s Bark-O-Loungers opening, allowing me in as guest vocalist on one tune, an honor.) Vaughan knocked our socks off with his comically dead-pan rendition of Bo Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge a Book by Looking at the Cover” with his delivery of the line, “I look like a farmer but I’m a lover, you cant judge a book by looking at the cover…” Other crowd pleasers featuring Vaughan included “Walk Like That”, Bonanza (with Marty singing the little known lyrics), and La Tingo Tango (the theme song from Stuarts’ RFD television show). He reverently removed his hat when they sang the hymns, an act of respect certainly not unnoticed by myself and others near me.
The band eased through two of the smoothest sets I’ve ever heard, EVER, and smoothly moved from Stuart’s “hits” to some new songs, from fiery instrumentals beyond perfection to songs pared back to the very limits of hollow sparseness, their musical aptitude and effortless stage presence more evident and the evening went on. Their homage to the old songs that speak to our American lives, and to the old performers who brought us this music, was pretty emotionally stirring. They featured each Superlative to show us his stuff; Paul Martin’s vocals on Ernest Tubb’s “One Dime at a Time” and Harry Stinson’s vocals on Johnny Horton’s sad old “Whispering Pines” were excellent, really moving, showing us what they are made of.
I was familiar with this band through years of my own musical participation and camaraderie, but I was really turned on to their exuberantly fun side by watching their musical variety show on RFD TV. Now, RFD TV is not something I watch often because I don’t really need to know the latest fad in swine confinement systems or how to rid your bovines of intestinal flukes. Nor do I particularly get my inspiration from a prayer meeting where the preaching is from a man on the back of a horse (though that did hold a curious fascination for a few brief moments). And Molly B’s Polka Show makes me a little bit embarrassed to be of such white ethnicity, as it presents perhaps the least soulful of all dancers of any genre anywhere.
However, Marty Stuart’s show is one fascinating view, one amazingly put-together presentation, old-school in attitude and appearance, and definitely worth watching week after week. Stuart’s homage to the old chiefs and chief-tesses of country music is to be celebrated. I had tears when I watch the touching final appearances of first Charlie Louvin and later Kitty Wells, both shortly before their passing. I’ve watched this show faithfully since it began, and it’s the best music show on TV anywhere. Past guests include the amazing fiddling and singing Quebe Sisters (youtube has some great videos of their appearances), Riders in the Sky, Old Crow Medicine Show, the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, new singer/songwriter Brandy Clark,(who has written some killer gems), to name but a few. Upcoming guests include Tommy Emanuel, Sheryl Crow, and the great Merle Haggard. Every week they bring out CONNIE SMITH (recently she was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame), and she blows the roof off the place without fail.
Marty also has a penchant for photography, as did his mama, and has published an amazing book of his photographs of great folks in music he has encountered, including a haunting a beautiful cover shot of Johnny Cash. The book, called “Mississippi Pilgrims: Sinners, Saints & Prophets”, can be purchased, along with a myriad of great recordings, through his official website at http://www.martystuart.net/index.html. (And also, check out his duet album called “Compadres: an Anthology of Duets” that has a beautiful duet with Connie called “Hearts Like Ours”.)
As musicologist Peter North states, “Marty Stuart seems wrapped in his destiny, …not only as country music’s most notable ambassador/caretaker, but as its main archetypical crusader.”
Stuart’s recipe cooks country music the way it should be, with class and dignity and perfection of tone and arrangement, mixing in the right amounts of humor, silliness, and heartfelt tributes to the old ones, while rendering the palpable contagiousness of just plain joy. Good job, Carnegie, this one was a winner.
– Susanna Robinson-Kenga, LBSPY 29 (March 25-April 8)