Gospel Country Music, Without Being an Asshole About It
Marty Stuart is… well, he’s a little strange. In the last 10 years, he’s been a big huge Grammy-winning Nashville singer/songwriter, duetted with Travis Tritt and Willie Nelson, performed at the White House and toured with Merle Haggard, and served as president of the Country Music Foundation. (Oh, and he sports one of the finest mullet-pompadour combos in the history of all music. Damn, just LOOK at that thing!)
But he’s also duetted with B.B. King and the Staples Singers and Bob Dylan, which are not necessarily fast-track strategies on Music Row right now. He’s released two great and critically-beloved but just eh-selling concept albums (The Pilgrim and Country Music), married a much older woman (legendary singer Connie Smith), and who the hell does that anymore? He’s studied Native American history and culture in North Dakota, scored several indie films, and released a book of photography. This is not your typical hat act, people. This is a man with ambition, which means of course that he is highly suspect to a lot of Nashville people and country music fans.
And, maybe, suspect to himself. Last year, Stuart got himself arrested for Driving Under the Influence. To a lot of country music people, this would be no big deal. But it had a huge effect on Stuart, who was shamed beyond belief. But old friends Mavis and Yvonne Staples came to visit him, and brought him a gift: a guitar that belonged to their father, ultra-gospel-soul pioneer Pops Staples. In that moment, truly, Marty Stuart saw the light. Hence, this album, which is deep-fried country-tent-revival gospel music all the way, and which is the finest piece of country music I’ve heard this year.
There are 12 songs here, all of which celebrate the Judeo-Christian ethic in their various ways. Some songs are about how you’ll find Jesus at the bottom of your heart, others are about Noah and the Ark or holding God’s invisible hand or how you don’t have to be John the Baptist in order to testify. He’s relieved two of His Fabulous Superlatives, his amazing backing band, of their need to play instruments on many cuts, and turned them into a backing vocal group like they’re the Jordanaires, and even given them cutesy names (Handsome Harry, Cousin Kenny, Brother Brian). He wails on spirituals and Staples Singers songs (even duetting with Mavis on “Move Along Train,” and setting a world record for goosebumps while doing so) and originals. He’s on a damn mission to save all our souls.
Now, I’m a former Catholic altar boy who has gone through several religious phases and am now mostly a semi-agnostic Buddhist Jew; ordinarily, I’d be all like “Dude, we don’t really need any more God-talk in the country music world, that’s just tacit support for the powers that be, opiate of the people, it’s a plot,” etc. But this music just overwhelms me. I don’t know why my natural defenses against this don’t come into play… I guess the music and the singing must be that damned good.
Souls’ Chapel is powerful, it’s cool-sounding (no shoddy production for Marty Stuart, this shit is crisp like morning lettuce), and it’s kind of sexy, like the snakey boogie of “Give Me Just a Little More Time” and “Come Into the House of the Lord”. Stuart hits the 6/8 blues of “There’s a Rainbow (At the End of Every Storm)” like he’s John Henry driving a nail, and he pulls off a John Lee Hooker/Dave Alvin musical mindmeld on “It’s Time to Go Home” while he’s paraphrasing First Thessalonians and urging all the dead true believers to “Get up outa that ground!”. It’s God-music, to be sure, but it’s cool as hell.
Maybe part of it is the fact that Stuart truly believes what he’s singing, or the fact that he knows that true religion is not shot through with doom but with a sense of happiness. Maybe another part is that, at the end of the day, Marty don’t hate anyone. (Even the record cover says “Compatible With All Denominations”, which isn’t strictly true but a nice gesture anyways.) But it’s also that he’s been doing this music thing for many years—he has been onstage as a guitar/mandolin prodigy since he was a pre-teen—and he knows how to make anything fun… even a religion that is being used as a bludgeon by our current presidential administration and many of our legislators.
There is nothing wrong with Christian worship, or with celebrating one’s true religious beliefs in music. Most religious music is soft and soggy though; it takes a brave soul to make it bold and brash and fun. That is what Marty Stuart has done here. (He’s also connected with an African-American tradition that many country singers have tried to deny until the last couple of years, but this review’s too long already.) It’s top-drawer musical entertainment, and will be played by this semi-agnostic Buddhist Jew for years to come.
Also: Stuart has two more albums coming this year. He’s back, kids, and he’s better than ever.