Marty Stuart And His Fabulous Superlatives
Peace Love And Ham jam – Night ONE
October 13, 2023 @ 8:00 PM
Tickets: $65 - $150
Altitude, Stuart’s exhilarating new album, is proof of that. Recorded in Nashville with his longtime band, The Fabulous Superlatives, the collection finds Stuart picking up where he left off on 2017’s Way Out West, exploring a cosmic country landscape populated by dreamers and drifters, misfits and angels, honky-tonk heroes and lonesome lovers. There’s a desert flare to the music here, a sweeping, spacious feel that conjures up wide-open horizons and endless stretches of two-lane highway, and the production is raw and cinematic to match, tipping its cap both to Bakersfield and Laurel Canyon as it balances jangle and twang in equal measure. It would be easy for an artist as accomplished as Stuart to rest on his laurels at this point in his career, but Altitude instead showcases the work of a searcher with an insatiable appetite for growth and reflection, one whose ambition, much like his keen wit and rich imagination, only seems to grow with each and every release.
“I’ve always loved songs that feel like old friends but still sound new and fresh,” says Stuart. “The beautiful thing about country music is that the blueprint Jimmie Rodgers laid down—rambling, gambling, sin, redemption, Heaven, Hell—it’s all just as relevant now as it ever was. It’s the human condition, and if you’re honest about it and you’ve got a real band around you, you can make something that’s uniquely yours and stands the test of time.”
A Country Music Hall of Famer, five-time Grammy Award-winner, and AMA Lifetime Achievement honoree, Stuart knows a thing or two about standing the test of time. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Mississippi, he landed his first big gig in Lester Flatts’ band at the tender age of thirteen, and by twenty-one, he was working on the road and in the studio with Johnny Cash. Though Stuart built his early reputation backing up country and bluegrass royalty, it wasn’t long before Nashville recognized him as a star in his own right, and over the course of forty-plus years as a solo artist, he would go on to release more than twenty major label albums, scoring platinum sales, hit singles, and just about every honor the industry could bestow along the way.
“If country music had a president, it would be Marty Stuart,” famed documentarian Ken Burns once proclaimed. “He is the embodiment of the culture.”
Stuart emerged as an unofficial caretaker of the culture, too, spending much of his career rescuing and collecting country music artifacts from throughout the genre’s history. The first piece he picked up? Patsy Cline’s makeup kit, which he bought from a junk shop for $75. These days, Stuart, who Rolling Stone calls “one of the world’s foremost country experts and archivists,” has roughly 20,000 pieces in his collection, including a handwritten copy of Hank Williams’ “I Saw The Light” and Johnny Cash’s first black performance suit. While select items have been exhibited everywhere from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to the Louvre, Stuart is hard at work building a dedicated arts and cultural center to preserve and display it all in his hometown of Philadelphia.
“I’m calling it The Congress of Country Music, and I want it to serve as an inspirational spot,” says Stuart, who’s raised funds for the center with annual late night jams at the Ryman featuring everyone from Emmylou Harris and Sheryl Crow to Tyler Childers and Billy Strings. “I want it to be a touchstone where younger generations can learn about this stuff and figure out who they are and embark on their own musical journeys.”
It’s that last part that particularly excites Stuart, whose musical journey came full circle on Altitude. Written primarily on the road, the collection was inspired in large part by Stuart’s 2018 tour supporting Byrds co-founders Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, who reunited for the 50th anniversary of their seminal Sweetheart Of The Rodeo album.
“I bought my first copy of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo for $2.99 at the discount bin in a shopping mall record store in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, and it became the blueprint for my musical life,” Stuart recalls. “Revisiting it on the road with Roger and Chris put me back under its spell all over again. I was writing songs in dressing rooms and soundchecks and on the bus, and then one day, I looked up and there was enough to make an album.”
Stuart and his band spent much of 2019 breaking in the new material live, and by 2020, they were raring to get into the studio. COVID, however, had other plans. Not wanting to lose any momentum, Stuart moved the sessions from the temporarily shuttered Capitol Studios in Hollywood, CA to East Iris Studios in Nashville, TN, where he and his bandmates were still able to perform live on the floor (albeit masked and six feet apart).
“We knew if we didn’t find a way to make the record in that moment, we might never recapture the same circle of fire around the songs we had going for us,” Stuart explains. “If we waited for COVID to pass, the album might very well have passed us by, too.”
The electricity in the room is palpable on Altitude, which opens with the blistering and trippy “Lost Byrd Space Train (Scene 1).” Played on Byrds guitarist Clarence White’s original B-Bender Telecaster (another prized possession in Stuart’s collection), the instrumental track chugs along at a breakneck pace, flirting with country, bluegrass, and even psychedelic rock as it sets the stage for the wide-ranging sonic journey to come. Stuart keeps the energy high here—the scorching “Country Star” squeezes a lifetime’s worth of absurdist imagery into a three-minute tour-de-force, while the ecstatic “Time To Dance” is a slice of pure honky-tonk joy, and the rousing “Friend Of Mine” even offers hints of Link Wray and The Ventures—but he never loses sight of the emotional core of the music, even amidst all of the instrumental fireworks. The ringing 12-string and bittersweet harmonies of “Sitting Alone,” for instance, only serve to heighten the song’s sense of distance and isolation; the hypnotic sitar line on “Space” amplifies the uneasiness and longing that simmers just beneath the surface; and the spare acoustic delivery of “The Angels Came Down” underscores the raw vulnerability in Stuart’s deeply autobiographical lyrics.
“‘The Angels Came Down’ is probably the most truthful song on the record,” Stuart reflects. “There have been times in my life when I’ve felt like a lost and wandering soul, just chasing all the wrong things. Some people lose their lives to that, but sometimes the angels offer you a hand up out of the darkness.”
It’s that big picture perspective that guides Stuart on the album’s old-school, shuffling title track, which takes a bird’s eye view of what really matters most in this life. “To get to go and stay, must give all your love away,” Stuart sings over what turned out to be one of the final performances from late piano legend Pig Robbins.
“I like to say that the most outlaw thing you can possibly do in Nashville right now is play country music,” Stuart says with a laugh. “This album is a reminder to me, and to anyone else out there who’s interested, that there’s still a few of us left who know how to do it. This music is in our hearts.”