Review: Marty Stuart – Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions (Sugar Hill, 2010)
Like ex-presidents who turn the mantle of their former office into opportunities to improve the world, talented musicians can turn the freedom of their post-hit years into explorations of that which really moves them. And such is Marty Stuart, whose baptism in bluegrass led to a run on Nashville in the mid-80s and, more successfully, in the early 90s with a four year chart run that included Hillbilly Rock, Tempted and This One’s Gonna Hurt You. His subsequent releases kept his core fans, but provided only middling commercial returns. But as his chart success waned, his artistic vision expanded. 1999’s song cycle The Pilgrim was his most powerful and coherent album to that date, showing off both his musical range and his ability to write songs that are literary, but still communicate on an emotional level.
Throughout the current decade he’s explored gospel (Souls’ Chapel), Native American struggles (Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota), and country and folk standards (Cool Country Favorites). And this time out, Stuart salutes the classic country of his youth, but other than a couple of well selected covers, he uses all new originals to conjure the sounds that inspired him in the first place. What will really ring in listeners’ ears is how natural and heartfelt this is. Like a dancer floating through his steps, Stuart plays songs as an extension of his soul, rather than as a performance of words and music. Recording in the legendary RCA Studio B, Stuart amplifies the echoes of performances past, much as John Mellencamp has on his recent No Better Than This.
Stuart is a country classicist, and his new songs resound with the spirits of Waylon, Merle, Buck and Johnny. The instrumental “Hummingbyrd” recounts the playfulness of “Buckaroo” and the Johnny Cash co-write “The Hangman” retains the Man in Black’s gravitas and frankness. The opening “Branded” splits the difference between Haggard’s “Branded Man” and Owens’ “Streets of Bakersfield,” tipping a musical hat to the piercing guitar of Roy Nichols. Don Reno’s “Country Boy Rock & Roll” gives Stuart a chance to roll out his rockabilly roots, and show off the glory of his band, the Fabulous Superlatives. Stuart and guitarist Kenny Vaughan sing a duet and duel on their electric guitars as drummer Harry Stinson and bassist Paul Martin push them with a hot train rhythm – this one’s sure to leave jaws hanging slack when played live.
The album’s ballads are just as good, not least of which for the emotional steel playing of Ralph Mooney (whose own “Crazy Arms” is covered here as an instrumental). Co-writing with his wife, singer Connie Smith, Stuart sings tales of romantic dissolution and regret. Smith joins Stuart for the exceptional duet “I Run to You,” drawing together threads of Gram and Emmylou, the Everly Brothers and classic Nashville pairings of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The album’s saddest song, however, is “Hard Working Man,” which questions the soul of a nation whose work ethic is undermined by globalization. There’s personal salvation in “Porter Wagoner’s Grave,” but the questions raised in “Hard Working Man” is what will really haunt you.
The album ends with “Little Heartbreaker,” the best Dwight Yoakam song that Yoakam didn’t actually write lately, followed by a short mandolin solo that brings things back to Stuart’s bluegrass roots. The sounds of Stuart’s influences are immediate throughout, but as someone obsessed with country music from his teens, and a protégé of both Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash, this is less a nostalgic interlude than a heeding of his mother’s words: “When you find yourself, if in the middle of nowhere, go back to Jerusalem and stand. Wait on divine guidance. It’s the only guidance worth having.” The recent neo-redneck movement may position themselves as modern-day hellraisers, but this rockabilly, Bakersfield twang and heartbroken balladry are the true sounds of rebellion, or as Stuart describes them, “sounds from the promised land.”