The Eagles Club, Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Marty Stuart gave his backing trio the most boastful name in country music, calling them his Fabulous Superlatives. The thing is, they live up to his claim on every tune they play! “Handsome” Harry Stinson can be a powerful drummer, but is also capable of the lightest of percussion on the group’s acoustic numbers. Kenny Vaughan is a remarkable electric guitarist, whom Stuart called “the best in the world.” I won’t dispute it. Vaughan’s solo lines were clean and appropriate to each tune. His chord work accentuated the rhythm section.
The Fabulous Superlatives were featured throughout the night. Perhaps this generosity towards others is partly why Marty Stuart himself has often been in the shadows of commercial country music. A prodigy, he began his career as a sideman in Lester Flatt’s touring band while still in his teens. Stuart told the audience of his history with Wisconsin by recalling a mid-1970s Lester Flatt gig in Mole Lake, Wisconsin — “the drunkest place I’ve ever been.” (Having attended that festival, I concur.) If there was any doubt about the current abilities of this veteran performer, they were immediately dispelled as the band took the stage and kicked into a fiery version of “I Know You Rider.” Stuart’s guitar playing on this number reminded one of why this guy is sought out for studio session work.
Marty Stuart’s acknowledgement of other performers extended to the departed. He explained that he had been asked to honor guitar legend Grady Martin for a recent Nashville ceremony. The logical choice for demonstrating the guitar abilities of Martin was to perform Marty Robbins’ hit, “El Paso.” Stuart said he gulped hard when accepting the challenge. “There are 469 words in that song!” he said in mock alarm. “And the guitar part!” But as Stuart spoke, his Fabulous Superlatives readied themselves on the Milwaukee stage: Vaughan strapped on an acoustic guitar and Stinson came forward from his drum set.
The four musicians then recreated “El Paso.” This sad story song has lost none of its power since 1959, and the performance was as effective as it was precise. Collective jaws at the Eagles Club hit the floor is unison as Vaughan played perfectly the challenging guitar lines that are as recognizable as the song’s words. The harmonies of these men exactly recreated the Marty Robbins record of decades before.
The harmonies were beautiful on “El Paso,” as they were throughout the set. Vocals play a large part in Stuart’s newest CD project, Way Out West. Some of the songs speak to the singing cowboy music traditions associated with the Old West, to be sure, but also included is an instrumental rave-up honoring the surf sound of California, and other unexpected western stops. The group mixed this new material with high points of Marty Stuart’s own catalog, including “Tempted” and “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’.”
At one point, a solo number was performed by the newest member to join the band, bassist Chris Scruggs. Stuart called him “royalty,” and with good reason. Chris is the grandson of banjo master Earl Scruggs. Talent runs deep in those veins. Scruggs provided a solid electric bass and was also excellent on his upright instrument for the acoustic numbers. But what impressed most came at the end of the concert, when the leader chose a request from shouting fans for the last encore. He settled on Lefty Frizzell’s murder ballad “The Long Black Veil.”
As Marty Stuart told a personal story about Frizzell, Scruggs hastily unpacked and assembled his steel guitar. The unplanned addition of a steel to the group’s sound at this gig was clearly as much a surprise to the musician as it was to the audience. Scruggs played so beautifully that it made me wonder if the steel guitar was his primary instrument.
The main set closed with a song from Way Out West that urged the audience to get going at what they want to do in life, because “Time Don’t Wait.” In true country music tradition, this song simply states a fact. I began by calling Fabulous Superlatives a boastful name for a group. It’s not: It, too, is simply a fact.
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