in performance: marty stuart and his fabulous superlatives

Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives. From left: Chris Scruggs, Kenny Vaughan, Marty Stuart and Harry Stinson. Photo by Alysse Gafkjen.

In prefacing a segment of songs from his 1999 album “The Pilgrim” that encompassed nearly half of an engagingly comprehensive Opera House performance on Saturday night, Marty Stuart recited a list laundry list of career accessories. All were items he knew, prior to the album’s release, would be lost should the record tank commercially.

They included his band, his record label, his management and so on. Shoot, if he threw in a truck and jilted girlfriend and made a song out of it, he might have had enough of a conventional radio hit to keep his star status intact.

Instead, the record fizzled on the charts and Stuart, one of the prime Nashville celebs of the 1990s, was sent packing from the airwaves. “How many of you remember the ’90s?” he asked the Opera House audience. “Well, congratulations. I don’t.”

But “The Pilgrim” signaled a turn away from corporate country maneuvers into music that was darker thematically, richer musically and more in line with the country traditions that first placed Stuart on the road with Lester Flatt as a teenager. Not coincidentally, the Fabulous Superlatives, the backing combo that ignited the Saturday performance with an acreage of rootsy fire, fun and attitude, was in place within three years following the commercial dismissal of “The Pilgrim.” The band members – guitarist Kenny Vaughan, drummer Harry Stinson and, most recently, bassist Chris Scruggs – have been Stuart’s indie-minded, country roots accomplices ever since.

The material from “The Pilgrim” has certainly weathered the years well, displaying a cumulative narrative of reckless love, reckless death and unexpected redemption. Sometimes the tunes encapsulated Stuart’s own weary world view, as in the cool agility of “The Observations of a Crow” which can best be categorized, thematically and musically, as country noir. In other instances, the “Pilgrim” music went straight to tradition – most notably in a duet version of the standard “Mr. John Henry, Steel Driving Man.” The tune was played with Stuart on mandolin and Earl Scruggs on banjo for the 1999 recorded version. On Saturday, grandson Chris Scruggs helped rewire the song as a mandolin/bass showdown full of rhythmic fortitude.

But the music from “The Pilgram” was merely a portion of a Stuart performance that surveyed much of his career, from the famed ‘90s hitmaking days (“Tempted,” “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’”) to tunes from 2017’s psychedelic inclined, Western-tinged “Way Out West” album (the Byrds-meets-Beatles twangfest “Time Don’t Wait” and the harmony rich “Old Mexico”) to works highlighting each of the Superlatives culminating in a transformation of “Orange Blossom Special” from a fiddle tune into a scorching showpiece for Stuart on solo mandolin.

There were fascinating curveballs, too, including the surf-inspired instrumental “Mojave” that highlighted feisty guitar play from Vaughan and the show closing premiere of a new work, “The Angels Came Down,” that pondered death and rebirth with the same narrative grace that marked the “Pilgrim” tunes.

Topping it all was a highly audience-friendly performance attitude that made the music sound effortlessly natural, from Stuart’s “bandstand request” for Scruggs to take a crack at “Blue Moon of Kentucky” to the gospel-esque fervor and alertness that drove “Tear the Woodpile Down.”

It all amounted to a country show for the ages presented by a pack of roots-savvy scholars who were all too eager to go reeling in the years.

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