A review of new music, plus a dip back to ’05 for some older music. Guest starring the Byrds, a Mule, a holiday celebration, and the power of the internet. Sometimes those dang rock critics can be useful.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN AND FRED MILLS
Ed. Note: To mark Marty Stuart’s brilliant new album Way Out West (Q Prime), recorded with his band the Fabulous Superlatives, we thought it appropriate to republish our Stuart appreciation, originally published in 2014, alongside Lee Zimmerman’s album review. Enjoy.
Like George Jones, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson, Marty Stuart is an American original, part of an older breed of tattered troubadours whose obvious affection for the essence of true and traditional country music is part and parcel of his inherent musical repertoire. So it’s no accident that his 18th studio album, Way Out West, becomes an unblemished token of his appreciation for the music’s timeless heritage.
Produced by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, the album is brimming with the vivid imagery of wide open spaces, stark landscapes and the classic visage of the great American west. Not surprisingly, much of it unfolds as a sprawling soundtrack that invokes that last great frontier, a dazzlingly orchestrated melange that would serve well as a Sergio Leone classic of the western cinematic variety. In fact, after opening with a brief Native American invocation, “Desert Prayer,” Stuart and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, launch straight into “Mojave,” a surf instrumental with overt spaghetti western flavorings.
When Stuart veers away from that format, he does so discreetly. The title track pits cowboys and Indians against outer space aliens in an eerie narrative laced with psychedelic suggestion. The staunch south of the border sounds of “Old Mexico” is stirred with authenticity and rugged romance, while the unfettered stomp of “Quicksand,” the rollicking rhythms of “Torpedo” and the robust delivery of “Time Don’t Wait” add their own air of authenticity, all of which affirm Stuart’s diehard devotion to his subject and his stature as one who has never lost faith in the form.
Incidentally, if you happen to be a vinyl aficionado, Stuart’s own Superlatone imprint is offering the wax version of the album—autographed, at that. —LEE ZIMMERMAN
Ed. note: Go HERE to listen to a hugely entertaining interview between Stuart and Teri Gross on a recent episode of her NPR program “Fresh Air.” You won’t learn all you need to know about Stuart, but it’ll work nicely as a primer if you aren’t intimately familiar with the dude.
On December 16, 2005, I wandered into Asheville (rhymes with Nashville) venue the Orange Peel, primed and pumped for that year’s Warren Haynes Christmas Jam pre-Jam, part of the annual Haynes Jam ritual; I faithfully attended every one of those events during the 10 years I lived in Asheville, from 2002 through 2011, and I was honored to be a member of the attending media for most of those years at the pre-Jam festivities held at the Peel the night before the official event at the Asheville Civic Center. (Important note: I faithfully purchased my Jam ticket each and every year as it was a benefit for the local Habitat For Humanity chapter, which I felt strongly about supporting.)
Marty Stuart was to be among the special guests for the ’05 Haynes Jam, and as these things tended to work out, he arrived a day early in order to participate in the pre-Jam. The evening unfolded on schedule, with friends and associates of Haynes, along with already scheduled Jam (proper) artists who were in town, getting up onstage at the Orange Peel for a kind of preview-and-icing-on-the-cake of the Jam (proper); the concert was also broadcast, as per tradition, over local public radio station WNCW-FM (Spindale, NC), and listeners were encouraged to make donations to Habitat. Pretty soon Stuart was up there with Haynes, members of Gov’t Mule, Widespread Panic and others, steaming through a ragged-but-right version of the Byrds’ “Mr. Spaceman.”
Not long afterward, during a break in the festivities, I was backstage talking to Haynes as Stuart himself came wandering up. Warren introduced us, and I congratulated him on the Byrds song, long one of my favorites, and that if he heard anyone singing loud and out of tune from the audience during it, that was probably me. I added that I’d always loved the version from the Untitled album era, and that he’d hit some pretty mean guitar licks while performing it.
“I really appreciate that,” Stuart replied. “And since you mentioned Untitled, you might like to know that I was playing Clarence White’s old guitar during the song.”
Well, damn. Clarence is one of my heroes, I tell him. He was one of the giants. To which Stuart nods vigorously. “I picked that guitar up a few years ago. When I play it I can really feel something special.”
“But,” he continued, “I really screwed up the lyrics on that song. Just couldn’t remember ‘em off the top of my head. We’re thinking we might do it again [at the Jam] and I need to figure ‘em out so I don’t embarrass myself.”
I mentioned it would be easy enough to get the lyrics off the internet, and at that he quickly shot back, “You think you could print them out and get them to me in time for tomorrow night?”
That I could indeed do, Marty. I will be backstage and downstairs at the Jam tomorrow night and can bring ‘em with me. “Oh wow, if you could, I thank you in advance. Just come find me.” Stuart then turns to Haynes, nodding at me: “You can always count on a journalist when you need something like that.” This may be the first and last time a superstar musician has endorsed the career known as “rock critic,” considering the general legacy of tension that exists between artists and writers, but I’ll still take the endorsement.
Saturday morning: log onto computer; find “Mr. Spaceman” lyrics; print out.
Saturday evening: head to the Asheville Civic Center for the 2005 Warren Haynes Christmas Jam; present my ticket plus backstage pass to Civic Center security; head downstairs to the artist area.
Sure enough, it’s not long before I spot Stuart wandering around, talking to folks and availing himself of the buffet. He spots me heading his way and turns in my direction, smiling. I smile back, produce the page of lyrics, and simply say “As promised.”
Stuart scans the paper, grinned a Cheshire Cat-worthy grin, then grabs my hand and pumps it hard. “Man, how can I thank you?” he says. “Well,” I reply, “How about signing this for me,” showing him my CD cover to his ’99 album The Pilgrim.”
He snatches it plus the Sharpie pen I’d smartly thought to bring from me and, as he inscribes the booklet, asks if I have his latest album Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota, which earlier. “Listen,” he says, “C’mon over here with me to my tour bus so I can get you a copy of it.”
So I’m walking through the bottom of the Asheville Civic Center, Marty Stuart’s arm around my shoulder, leading me to his tour bus, talking about how cool it is to be playing the Haynes Jam (“Everybody I know who’s played it says they had the best damn time of their lives!”), and then ushering me into the bus and sitting me down while he gets a copy of Badlands for me.
“You said you were a fan of Clarence last night—you wanna see his guitar?”
Holy shit. Here I am, sitting on Marty Stuart’s tour bus, and he’s handing me one of Clarence White’s guitars, and I’m somehow managing to form a “D” chord then a “G” chord then an “E” chord on it without shaking uncontrollably. Marty Stuart is telling me about his guitar collection, and his country music memorabilia collection, and how awhile back he decided somebody had to start collecting all this stuff in one place and could be archived carefully so it didn’t all wind up in places like eBay and the Hard Rock Café. He shows me a few other guitars, although if he tells me they belonged to famous people, I don’t hear him because…
Holy shit. Here I am, holding Clarence White’s guitar and strumming chords on it in front of Marty Stuart.
Luckily I come down to Planet Earth before I take an interstellar piss in my pants, and I make some kind of semi-intelligent comments in Stuart’s direction. (Memo to music fans: this is where being a rock critic comes in handy. You can dredge up all manner of semi-intelligent music comments on command, even when you’re essentially speechless.)
Well, soon enough I am getting up and thanking Stuart for his autograph, the CD, and the hospitality, and descending down the stairs of the bus back into the bottom of the Asheville Civic Center and, it seems, to the real world. Stuart thanks me one last time for the “Mr. Spaceman” lyrics, then stays behind on the bus to stow the guitars away.
A couple of hours later, onstage for his Haynes Jam set, Stuart plays a tune or two then is joined by Haynes plus Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools on bass and Gov’t Mule’s Matt Abts and Danny Louis (on drums and keys). They do rousing versions of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” then as set-closer, you guessed it, “Mr. Spaceman.” Stuart nails the lyrics this time—no doubt having closely scanned a certain piece of paper before his set—and the Civic Center crowd roars its approval while singing along. As the song comes to its anthemic conclusion, Stuart steps to the edge of the stage to nod and wave a thank-you to the audience. (As it turns out, he’ll be back next year for the 2006 Jam, this time with his band The Fabulous Superlatives in tow.)
Me, I’m out there in that Civic Center crowd too, and while I’m in no way vain enough to think for one moment that he was up there waving at me, well… rock ‘n’ roll’s always been a little about dreaming and wish fulfillment, so….
Thanks, Marty. You are the real deal.
Photos Credit: Alysse Gafkjen