in performance: chris stapleton/marty stuart and his fabulous superlatives/brent cobb

Chris Stapleton performing last night at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photograph by Rich Copley.

“I met 1,200 people tonight who claimed they were your cousin,” said Marty Stuart to Chris Stapleton onstage last night at Rupp Arena.

The Lexington-born Stapleton, in town for his first headlining performance as a solo artist, simply motioned to the sold out crowd of 17,000-plus before him and replied, “They’re all my cousins.”

One has to suppose from such a remark that this four-hour, three act country/Americana summit was, in fact, a family affair. Certainly, Stapleton, Stuart and show opener Brent Cobb did their utmost to uphold such a feeling. The lineup had the potential to be the strongest top-to-bottom country bill Rupp has hosted in years, maybe even decades. The good news? All three artists made good on the promise and then some by eschewing the pop-laden concessions and excesses that have, sadly, become standard fare at arena country shows for a roots music mix that upheld tradition without staying anchored to it.

Stapleton’s set was a true embarrassment of riches, beginning with his band, which last night boasted such all stars as guitarist/producer Dave Cobb, steel guitar great Paul Franklin and longtime Willie Nelson harmonica ace Mickey Raphael as well as the return of the singer’s wife Morgane Stapleton as harmony vocalist. But in the end, it was still Stapleton’s ability to craft a sound that struck a hearty balance between country tradition and Muscle Shoals-style soul, whether it was through his own expert songs or a generous roundup of interpretations and covers, that commanded the evening.

Opening with a chunky, electric take on “Midnight Train to Memphis,” Stapleton’s two hour set was a lesson in dynamics. Late into the evening, the program ran through, in succession, a playful cover of “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This” with Stuart, a lone duet with Morgane on “Where Rainbows Never Die” (an unexpected nugget from Stapleton’s bluegrass days with the SteelDrivers), a riveting and unaccompanied reading of “Whiskey and You,” a country-folk flavored “Broken Halos” and a riff-heavy and rockish “Second One to Know.”

That each revealed varying shades of Stapleton’s glorious, soul-scratched vocals is probably not big news. What was surprising, though, was how the show also revealed Stapleton to be a monster guitarist. Cementing that assessment was a lengthy revision of the “From a Room, Volume 1” country torch lament “I Was Wrong.” Performed as a trio piece by Stapleton, bassist (and Elkhorn City native) J.T. Cure and drummer Derek Mixon, the tune and the extended jam that grew out of it sounded less like traditionalist country and more like the kind of elemental psychedelia conjured by Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac.

Though not an extensive talker onstage, Stapleton made clear his excitement at performing at the same arena where he saw Bon Jovi perform in 1987.

Fabulous Superlatives guitarist Kenny Vaughan and Marty Stuart onstage at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photograph by Rich Copley.

Stuart, rightly dubbed a “steward of country music” by Stapleton, preceded the headliner with a 45-minute set that operated as a roots music primer, via expert covers of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard staples, as well as an Americana mix that touched on bluegrass, rockabilly and, remarkably, surf music.

The country veteran sounded fully in charge when on his own, as shown by a riveting take on “Orange Blossom Special” played not on fiddle, but solo mandolin. But what ignited the set was the resourceful and joyous sound of Stuart’s longtime Fabulous Superlatives band. Whether it was through the twin guitar sound created when Stuart locked horns with Kenny Vaughan on the set-opening “Lesson in Love,” bassist Chris Scruggs’ high tenor pleading on an apropos “Blue Moon of Kentucky” or drummer Harry Stinson’s faithful update of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” Stuart and the Superlatives served up a vital history lesson on country roots essentials. Hearing him egging the Rupp crowd on to sing along on the band’s version of “Ring of Fire” gives one a sliver of hope for the music’s future in a Florida-Georgia Line world.

Brent Cobb during his opening set at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photograph by Rich Copley.

Cobb’s half hour opening set was a blast, as well, from the a capella intro to “Diggin’ Holes” through the rural comeuppance of “Down in the Gulley” to the country-funk conclusion of “If I Don’t See Ya.” The Georgia songsmith had no problem playing on Wildcat turf, either. He honored his host audience with a fiery version of Dwight Yoakam’s “Guitars Cadillacs,” a wonderful channeling of one country roots generation by another.

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