Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives (Photo courtesy Q Prime)
“When we started this band,” said Country Hall of Famer Marty of His Fabulous Superlatives, “we didn’t have a lot of backing from Music Row,” the Nashville establishment of the heart of mainstream country music.
Yet on the first of two nights at The Barns at Wolf Trap, the band played tribute to country music in the most expansive way, covering classic songs and playing instrumentals along with originals from across their extensive catalog.
Stuart’s roots in country go back a very long way. An instrumental prodigy, specializing in the mandolin, which he busted out a few times at Wolf Trap on April 6, Marty hit the road with Lester Flatt’s band before he’d even reached adolescence. (He once remarked on being a “product of the Mississippi public education system with an 8th-grade education.”) After his time with the bluegrass great, he joined an even larger figure in the history of country music, Johnny Cash, whose signature black attire he adopted. It was with Cash he first visited the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Stuart asked Cash, “Why are we here?” to which Cash replied, “This is the poorest county in America. These people need our love and our hope.”
When he went out decades later with the Fabulous Superlatives, he returned to the reservation, “one of the first places to welcome us.” Marty married his wife, fellow country singer Connie Smith, there, and he was adopted as a member of the tribe. One of the first records he released with the Superlatives was Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota, a project clearly influenced by Cash’s Bitter Tears, released some four decades previously. Thursday night’s set included the title track.
Watch Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives perform “Badlands” live on The Marty Stuart Show via YouTube:
“When we first got together,” Marty explained, “we started by playing old gospel songs,” like “Get Down On Your Knees and Pray.” Gospel has remained a major part of their oeuvre, with two records, Souls’ Chapel and Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, dedicated to it.
While Cash may be Stuart’s most significant influence, he’s named for another country music legend, Marty Robbins. Years ago, Marty and his band were invited to take part in a tribute to Robbins, and they chose to play his best-known number, the western ballad “El Paso.” After they finished playing it at Wolf Trap, Marty remarked on how many words the song has — over 400!
The show started with the band displaying its instrumental prowess. “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan, on lead guitar, is a student of Bill Frissell who has played on countless sessions and toured with Lucinda Williams. Drummer “Handsome” Harry Stinson has had a long career, including serving as an inaugural member of Steve Earle’s band, The Dukes. Marty described bassist “Professor” Chris Scruggs, the grandson of Earl Scruggs (the onetime partner of Stuart’s former boss, Lester Flatt) as “country music royalty.”
After the instrumental introduction, the set continued with the lead track of Nashville, Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down. Then they went deep into Stuart’s back catalog, playing a tune from before the Superlatives days, “Tempted.” Moving on, he mentioned how Merle Haggard died seven years on March 6, which was also his birthday; this year, he would’ve been 86. Everyone knew exactly what was coming, and they weren’t disappointed as they were treated to a fantastic cover of “Mama Tried.”
Several years ago, Stuart and the Superlatives toured with original Byrds Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the seminal country-rock album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The Byrds’ influence was already apparent on Stuart’s last album, Way Out West, especially on the psychedelic track “Time Don’t Wait,” which closed the main set. It’s come even more to the front of what they did in material from their upcoming album, Altitude, songs like “Sitting Alone” and “Space,” which closed the show. (Altitude, a “cosmic country” album, is due for release on May 23 via Snakefarm Records.)
Watch a visualizer for “Sitting Alone” by Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives on YouTube:
Each member of the Superlatives got to take a turn as a featured performer, beginning with Vaughan, who played “Country Music Got A Hold on Me” and “Nights Like That.” After “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin'” and “Wipe Out” (Marty declared Vienna “the surf music capitol”), Scruggs took his turn with Bob Wills’s “Brain Cloudy Blues,” which was, he noted, originally sung by Tommy Duncum. Stinson played McGuinn and Bob Dylan’s “The Ballad of Easy Rider” and Woody Guthrie’s populist outlaw ballad “Pretty Boy Floyd,” emphasizing the line, “Some will rob you with gun, some with a fountain pen.”
Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives are one of the tightest bands I’ve seen, and not just in country music — in any genre. Most bands wouldn’t attempt the variety of music they play, especially not the well-known instrumentals. They do what they do at the highest level of proficiency, but it’s never pretentious: Thursday night was, as are all of their shows, a really great, fun time, with the audience clapping along with many of the songs. There’s a lot of joy in what these guys do, a true love of the music and performing.