in performance: marty stuart and his fabulous superlatives

Marty Stuart. Photo by Alysse Gafkjen.

Four songs into a crisply paced, all-acoustic performance at Frankfort’s Grand Theatre on Thursday evening, Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives opted for efficiency. During a spry reading of “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’,” one of the program’s few nods to the headliner’s past hit parade, Stuart, drummer Harry Stinson (who played the entire evening on a lone snare and a pair of brushes) and bassist Chris Scruggs harmonized with old school cool around a single microphone while guitarist Kenny Vaughan added a regal solo drenched in the blues.
“Everything good?” Stuart asked the crowd after the tune wound down. Yes, indeed. Everything was just fine.
This portrait of no-frills country sentiment, traditional in design but thoroughly immediate in delivery, has been Stuart’s M.O. for much of his career, especially in the 17 years that the ultra-resourceful Superlatives have been the singer’s band of choice. For the 90 minutes that followed, Stuart and company played as a thoroughly authoritative combo that took considerable joy in exhibiting their country command. No wonder then that the singer serves as historian/commentator for Ken Burns’ “Country Music” series currently running on PBS.
Stuart and the Superlatives put history into well propelled motion during the Thursday performance. You sensed it when Scruggs’ resilient high tenor vocals ignited a reading of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” that was anything but obligatory. You heard it when Vaughan veered out of the country and into the Shadows for the surf-savvy “Apache.” It also fueled Stinson’s transformation of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” into a gleeful but still moralistic folk reverie.
Stuart had plenty of traditional country snapshots of his own to show off, as well, from the vocal flair that capped off the acoustic psychedelia within “Old Mexico” to a set of piledriving mandolin runs during an instrumental reading of “John Henry” performed as a duet with Scruggs.
Curiously, nearly half of the performance setlist was devoted to songs from “The Pilgrim,” a daring 1999 album of original music that offered a full arc of country themes (love, loss, death and redemption) that is set to be reissued in October. The record was initially a commercial disappointment, effectively ending Stuart’s decade-long tenure at MCA Records. Still, its sense of narrative and stylistic tradition remained as devout as it was diverse, even in the Thursday concert’s acoustic setting, whether it was through the honky tonk mischief of “Red, Red Wine and Cheatin’ Songs” or the sly, surrealistic “The Observations of a Crow.”
This meant the Grand audience was having to process a big chunk of music it was likely unfamiliar with. But in the end, what Stuart was offering were stories. Sure, there was expert instrumentation, effortless harmonies and a very natural blend of tradition and performance animation backing it all up. Still, what sold the songs – be they recognizable or not – was a narrative spirit as big as the Western skies yet as intimate as a campfire. And isn’t that what country music – real country music – is all about?

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