In 2017, Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives won the Americana Music Association Award for Group of the Year. It was easy to see why at an appropriately fabulous show at The Birchmere recently.
This incredibly talented group of veteran musicians continues to release high-quality albums, and they put on a fun, dynamic live show full of variety; their set ventured into surf music, gospel, Western swing, rockabilly, bluegrass, and folk. While Marty’s name is on the marquee, all four members of the band can write, sing, and play, and they each had a chance to shine at Thursday’s concert at a sold-out performance for The Birchmere. With Marty dressed in rhinestones and the three other band members clad in classic Nudie suits (named for designer Nudie Cohn), the group looked to the past while going back to the future.
A middle-aged gentleman, “Governor” James H. Hill, introduced the band, who opened with a hot cover of the rockabilly instrumental “Baja,” by the Astronauts. Who else in country music even plays instrumentals? This lead to “Tear the Woodpile Down,” the lead track from 2012’s “Nashville, Vol. 1,” a workingman’s honky tonk emboldened with the spirit of progressive country and Americana and silky three-part harmonies on the backing vocals.
Marty parlayed with the audience, explaining that the “Governor,” a Maryland resident, was the band’s original merchandise and tour man. One night, when the band visited the White House, someone said “Governor,” and James quickly replied, “Yes!” “There were,” Marty recalled, “20 governors at there that night, but he was *the* governor.”
After the chitchat, Marty and the band launched into “Matches,” written by Charlie Craig and Keith Stegall. Marty originally recorded “Matches” in 1987 or 1988 for Columbia, but the label shelved the album after he got into a heated argument with the head of the label over the decision to drop Johnny Cash, whose backing band he played in from 1980 to 1985. After Marty had hits with his next label, MCA, like the title track of 1991’s Tempted — the evening’s next song –Columbia released the shelved album. He followed this with the title track of 1992’s “This One’s Gonna Hurt You (for a Long, Long Time),” originally recorded as a duet with Travis Tritt.
In 2017, Marty and His Fabulous Superlatives released the critically acclaimed album Way Out West, which Marty described as a “psychedelic journey through the Mojave Desert.” Marty continued, “It took us to places we’d never been, and places we never want to go back to,” eliciting chuckles from the audience. Gathering around a single mic, Marty and the band played two tracks from the record, “Mojave” and “Old Mexico.” Between the songs, a woman shouted out at Marty, demanding to know if he remembered her. Without missing a beat he said, “Of course I remember you.” She kept going, and Marty, who is on his fourth marriage, deftly took control of the situation of the situation, joking, “Think of the divorce we could’ve had!”
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A cover of George Jones’s “This Old House” provided a break between the songs from the Way Out West and two songs from guitarist Kenny Vaughan. “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan’s Telecaster work stood out early in the show. I looked him up and discovered that he won the AMA’s Instrumentalist of the Year Award in 2006. A student of the legendary Bill Frissell, Kenny toured with Lucinda Williams behind her landmark album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Kenny then sang lead on two country-rock songs from his solo album, V, “Country Music Got a Hold On Me” and “Hot Like That.” I recommend checking out Kenny’s album and, if you find yourself in Nashville, you should look to see if the Kenny Vaughan Trio is playing.
Marty introduced the next song by saying that his all-time favorite album is Johnny Cash at Folsom Prisom. He related the story of how inmate Glen Shirley’s song “Greystone Chapel” ended up in Johnny Cash’s hands, and how Glen later secured an early release. Next, he played he played an unreleased track he made for his 1999 concept album, The Pilgrim, a country opera.
Bassist Chris Scruggs, the grandson of bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs, provided lead vocals and played upright bass on a cover of Bob Wills’s Western swing number “Brainy Cloud Blues.” Before joining The Fabulous Superlatives, Chris first played bass, then took over lead guitar and vocals for the superb alt-country band BR5-49. After Chris’s song, Marty spoke of the passing of surf rock legend Dick Dale, and the band played “Wipeout” in tribute, only with mandolin on lead.
Harry Stinson, a multi-instrumentalist noted for his work as a session drummer and tenor vocalist, sang lead on Woody Guthrie’s Oklahoma outlaw ballad “Pretty Boy Floyd.” Harry played on Steve Earle’s classic album, Guitar Town, and toured as a member of Earle’s band, The Dukes. He has collaborated with Jimmy Buffett, Elton John, Bette Midler, Faith Hill, Leon Russell, George Jones, Lyle Lovett, Bob Seger, and Peter Frampton, among others. He’s co-written with Earle, Hill, and Ricky Skaggs, in addition to the songs The Superlatives wrote with Marty. Playing all acoustic, the three Superlatives sang Johnny Horton’s “North to Alaska” while Marty looked on approvingly. The Superlatives then left stage, leaving Marty alone, holding his mandolin.
Marty started in bluegrass. As a 14-year-old prodigy, he joined Lester Flatt’s band Nashville Grass in 1972 at the invitation of Roland White. Marty spoke of his memories of playing at Georgetown’s legendary Cellar Door in 1973, and of his longest bus ride, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Florida, to a festival in Florida. When he arrived in Florida and got off the bus, he met Ervin T. Rouse, the composer of the legendary test of bluegrass fiddle-playing skill, “Orange Blossom Special.” Marty demonstrated his talents, rather, on the mandolin, although he’s played both instruments.
The band finished their set with “Country Boy Rock ’N’ Roll” from 2010’s Ghost Train: The Studio B sessions, another strong entry in their excellent catalog. After receiving a standing ovation with plenty of “hollers,” the band came back for an encore.
Marty made this show truly unique, asking for requests. Someone asked for Merle Haggard, and the band played “Mama Tried,” which is not a Merle Haggard song that they’ve recorded. Next came “Air Mail Special” and the psychedelic “Time Don’t Wait” from Way Out West. Finally, they gathered around a single mic sent the audience home with an a capella prayer: “Angels Rock Me to Sleep.”
The audience gave Marty and the Superlatives three standing ovations by the time the concert had ended, and they were more than well-deserved. These guys really know their stuff, and they can play with the best of them. If you have even a passing interest in country music, you should absolutely catch Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives. You’ll have a great time, and you’ll probably come away from the experience appreciating the breadth and quality of country music at least little more.