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Marty Stuart: Bluegrass Meets Rock-a-billy in White-Hot Set

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

At some point during the pandemic, as we were savoring the 16-hour binge that is Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary, Mary and I became obsessed with Marty Stuart.

If you watched it but don’t remember the names, he was the guy with the stylish neck cloth, the thick mane of feathered gray hair, and the encyclopedic knowledge of country music history, much of it shared in first-hand accounts from a professional career that goes back to 1968, when he was 10.

We finally got to see him in concert, a white-hot set with his Fabulous Superlatives at Chattanooga’s Walker Theatre. It’s always nice when high expectations for a show are not only met but exceeded.

Stuart is one of those artists who stands in his own musical place; a weathered stage floorboard somewhere between bluegrass, honky tonk, California surf riffs, Laurel Canyon folk-rock, 90s country pop, and old timey gospel.

A child prodigy who began touring with Lester Flatt when he was 14, Stuart is arguably the best mandolin player in the world, and no slouch on the guitar. And this high standard carries over to his choice of bandmates. Kenny Vaughan, whom Stuart introduces as “the best guitar player in the world,” joins on the six-string. Handsome Harry Stinson is on drums. And Gary Scruggs, grandson of bluegrass banjo legend Earl Scruggs, plays bass. Everyone sings.

Everyone in the band is good at what they do. And it would be easy to offer a cliché like a well-oiled machine to describe the overall presentation. But it is more like a bootleggers getaway car, careening through the show in a precise blur of riffs and rhythms. Stuart and Vaughn trade solos, and sometimes solo together in harmony. And they do it so effortlessly, and at such high speeds, that whoops and gasps from the audience are part of the show.

They manage to show off their licks without appearing self-indulgent, following the prime directive of Nashville music that everything must be played in service of the songs.

I found an interview with Vaughan in which he was asked by guitar journalist Zac Childs why he enjoys playing with Stuart.

“It’s fun!” he said. “We have a solid four-piece band and we throw it down. We have over 100 songs that we can do at the drop of a hat. We can play anything from a performing arts hall to a honky tonk, to a church on Sunday morning. We just press go.”

This versatility also helps the pace of the show, which slows down occasionally so everyone can catch their breath. One moment in the show we saw was a tribute to the late Marty Robbins, whom Stuart was named after by his mother, a fan. All four members came to the center of the stage to harmonize a pitch-perfect cover of Robbins’ cowboy classic, “El Paso.” Later they also brought their voices together for “Get Down on Your Knees and Pray,” a Bill Monroe song.

While Stuart is the star, each of the band members was given a few songs to show that they are more than just background players. Vaughan led the crowd through two of his own songs, “Country Music Got a Hold on Me,” and a lively call-and-response number called “Hot Like That.” Stinson paid tribute to Woody Guthrie with “Pretty Boy Floyd.” And Scruggs somehow conjured the iconic Ventures “Wipe Out” guitar riff on his stand-up bass, then offered a nice version of "The Ballad of Easy Rider.”

Also in the spotlight was Marty Stuart’s famous guitar - a battle-scarred Fender Telecaster from the 1950s. It was purchased by Stuart from the widow of Clarence White, the Byrds’ original guitarist who died in a tragic car accident in 1973. As the seminal 60s folk-rock band was exploring a more country-influenced sound, White worked with Byrds bandmate Gene Parsons to modify the guitar, creating a pull-string rigged to the strap that allows the B-string to bend a full note, suggesting the distinctive twang of a steel guitar. It is known to guitar nerds as the original "B-bender." You can hear Stuart talk about acquiring it here. And you can hear Gene Parsons talking about making it here.

If you want to see Stuart playing the B-bender, this video from an appearance on David Letterman is a good example, and also captures the energy of his show. You can see Stuart operating the mechanism by looking at the spot where his strap connects to the top of the body of the guitar. When he shrugs his left shoulder, you can hear the note bend.

I also found an interview with Vaughan about this appearance, in which he remembered that someone in the Letterman band made fun of the group, offering an impromptu "yee haw" cowboy side kick when they appeared for rehearsal. Vaughan said some of his bandmates were bothered by the joke. As the song kicks in, hitting breakneck speed in seconds, it seems to me that Vaughan turns and plays straight to the Letterman band for a moment, as if to say: "How this?"

Speaking of the fancy suits, it's impossible to talk about Stuart and his band without talking about their stage clothes. They fully and without irony embrace the flashy country look of the 50s and 60s, when fine-tailoring, sparkling rhinestones and bold colors were the order of the day. They were known as “Nudie Suits,” after Los Angeles tailor Nudie Cohn. And they were favored by everyone from Hank Williams to George Jones to Gram Parsons. Not everyone can pull off the look. But they can.

Bottom line: It was a great night of music, and it won't be our last Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives show.

Check out our review of the Night Train to Nashville performances at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

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