Don’t buy the hype that this is Stuart’s “first bluegrass record.” History confirms that he recorded two bluegrass-oriented LPs, With A Little Help From My Friends for Ridge Runner and Busy Bee Cafe (with Doc Watson) for Sugar Hill, in 1978 and 1982 respectively. A 1992 CMH collection showcased Stuart’s 1970s recordings as a member of Lester Flatt’s Nashville Grass.
This 2003 concert at the Ryman, conceived as a bluegrass show, was cobbled together at the last minute when Stuart, who’d committed to the date, forgot about it. He had to improvise, enhancing his band the Fabulous Superlatives (guitarist Kenny Vaughan, bassist Brian Glenn and drummer Harry Stinson) with A-team sidemen including fiddler Stuart Duncan, banjoist Charlie Cushman, and legendary Flatt & Scruggs dobroist Josh Graves. There were no plans to release a recording of the show.
That changed after a soundboard tape convinced Stuart the night was one of those unplanned moments that, through sheer happenstance, produce something special. The sound was bluegrass, the songs a freewheeling blend of old and new, delivered so unpretentiously that he and the band could be jamming on a back porch.
They revive plenty of classics: Jimmie Rodgers’ “No Hard Times Blues”, Graves’ instrumental classic “Shuckin’ The Corn”, the traditional “John Henry”. A Graves showcase on Roy Acuff’s “Great Speckled Bird” morphs into Graves’ bluesy composition “Sure Wanna Keep My Wine”, and everyone makes short work of the bluegrass standard “Train 45”. Vaughan’s country boogie original “Walk Like That” would please the Delmore Brothers, even with Duncan’s bebop guitar licks. Stuart adds effective renditions of his hits “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’ Anymore” and “Hillbilly Rock”.
For nearly 25 years on Epic and MCA, Stuart sought to reconcile Music Row reality with his deep traditional roots. He succeeded for a time, though overshadowed by the Garths, Billy Rays and other detritus of that sorry era. Impressive recent efforts such as The Pilgrim, Badlands and Soul’s Chapel ratify his success in carving a niche beyond the mainstream.
During that long-ago phase, MCA titled a hits collection The Marty Party Hit Pack. This comes closer to the real Marty Party.