[21 September 2010]
Many fans believe country music in America hit its heyday during the sixties, when individualists like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Porter Wagoner put their idiosyncratic stamps on the hard driving rhythms and soft spoken truths of that era. To some people, like Marty Stuart, the glory of that sound still lives on, like a ghost train that barrels through the backwoods of the nation. Stuart’s not just nostalgic, he brings that music back to life through his exuberance and talent. In fact, he even recorded his latest album in the old RCA Studio B in Nashville where so many classic albums were recorded, including those he made with Lester Flatts’ band when Stuart was a prodigy at a mere 13 years of age. The new disc is a peach, the sweet and juicy kind where one sucks on the pit because one cannot bear to part with its rich flavor.
Stuart pays tribute to Cash, Haggard, and Wagoner directly on his new album. Stuart’s association with Cash goes way back. Stuart played guitar, mandolin, and fiddle in Cash’s band for many years and even was married to the Man in Black’s daughter for a few years. Here Stuart sings a song he co-wrote with Cash just four days before the great man died. “Hangman” tells the tale of an executioner with a troubled conscience about his job. Stuart lets the tale resonate and lets the sound of his guitar do the talking as he seeks g-d’s mercy for the last minute of the tale. The effect is hauntingly unresolved.
On “Hard Working Man”, he takes on Haggard’s “Working Man’s Blues”, directly citing the song as he notes that the one thing sadder than a working man with no time for his family and fun is one that has nothing to do with his hands. Stuart and Haggard have sung together in the past, most notably on “Farmer’s Blues”. On this track, Stuart preaches pride and dignity rather than politics as he asks, “What will become of the hard working man?” Stuart cannot answer, but feels compelled to raise the issue in a voice that echoes Haggard’s original anthem.
Stuart’s tribute to the Wagonmaster is the album’s eeriest track. The two men had become close in Wagoner’s final days, and Stuart produced the man’s final record. “Porter Wagoner’s Grave” concerns a stranger who seeks shelter from the storm in a cemetery. Stuart offers a spoken word recitation about an apparition that drives the man from the graveyard to the church as he finds salvation in the ghost of Porter Wagoner. Amen, brother, amen.
But these are only three of album’s 15 cuts that evoke the spirit of country music past in a variety of styles, from sweet love songs such as “I Run to You” (sung with his wife, Connie Smith) to jaunty instrumentals like “Hummingbyrd” (a tribute to the Byrds’ guitarist Clarence White in which Stuart plays White’s old guitar) to hot pickin’ standards like “Country Boy Rock & Roll” (with Kenny Vaughn) to… well, it seems silly to name every single song, because they all vary in style and each one’s a winner. Stuart makes the music come alive and feel as current and topical today, even as he captures the passion of a bygone era. Themes of love, death, work, and fun will always be timeless, but not everyone can make them seem so. Stuart is the real deal.