IN TUNE: Good thing Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives played Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors – they’d have blown the roof off if they were inside. And although it would be convenient to define the 80-minute set by its nightcap, “Hillbilly Rock,” it would be like calling Avery Fisher a honky tonk.
There’s a lot to like about John Martin Stuart: He’s a showman – at ease, engaging, making the more than 2,500 people stretched out in front of the bandshell in Damrosch Park feel as if they were picnicking in the park.
There’s his superb songwriting, as well as the musical masterpieces that Stuart handles so delicately, so respectfully – among them, several tunes from what he called his favorite album, Johnny Cash’s “Live at Folsom Prison.”
A five-time Grammy winning superstar in peacock finery, Stuart has played behind Vassar Clements, Doc Watson and, for six years, the Man in Black himself (who was once his father-in-law). He drives a long black Cadillac and collects remarkable memorabilia, including Hank Williams’ handwritten lyrics to “Your Cheating Heart.”
But Stuart is also a down-home kind of guy – Don King-accented mullet notwithstanding – who genuinely cares about such quaint notions as faith, hope and charity. And unlike most country singers, he doesn’t wear a hat.
“When nobody wants you, follow your heart,” the 52-year-old musical missionary told the Lincoln Center crowd.
There’s also something about Stuart that those who aren’t familiar with him don’t know: He’s an incredibly skilled, self-taught musician. In case there was any question, Stuart performed not one but two mandolin instrumentals – alone onstage – one of which hit breakneck speed, the fingers of his left hand moving like (I don’t care if you don’t believe me) Segovia’s.
In a word: breathtaking — literally. No one was cheering or clapping: We were enrapt.
Small wonder that Stuart managed to get his lightning-fast fingers on the guitar that Cash used to record “I Walk the Line.”
“Someone found it under a bed somewhere,” he told the crowd, to which someone down front shouted, “Put it on eBay!”
Stuart laughed. “You think I’d get fifty dollars for it?”
He handled the instrument like fine crystal.
Then, when he was through, he gave it to a stagehand, saying, “Take this before I wind up stepping on it.”
Today’s scheduled finale of this closing weekend of the 2011 Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors series promised as much 60s-styled fun as the 50s-flavored Saturday show: A pair of symposiums at 2 o’clock at the David Rubinstein Atrium were to feature the multi-talented Melvin Van Peebles and members of the North Mississippi All Stars, scheduled to perform in the bandshell at 6, with the Bar-Kays at 7 and, at 8, Steve Cropper and “friends,” including soul great Bettye LaVette. All free. As of 1 o’clock, however, rain was still pouring down.
Saturday’s festival included legends Sonny Burgess and Cowboy Jack Clement, along with Hayden Thompson, who, like Burgess, was one of the original rockabilly wild men.
Burgess, who turned 80 this spring, had fun with his 55-year-old hit, “We Wanna Boogie,” as well as “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” “Wooly Bully,” “Great Balls of Fire” and others.
Thompson was a pleasant surprise, grabbing the back of his guitar and thrusting it toward the crowd – one of old-time rockabilly’s signature gestures. Burgess and his band, the Legendary Pacers, shed their yellow jackets and backed Thompson, who had a blast with several chestnuts, including “Ring of Fire” and “the one that started it all,” as he put it: “That’s Alright, Mama.”
Clement’s set relied mostly on mournful country laments, before he surprisingly kicked into Billy Lee Riley’s “Red Hot.”
It was the perfect setup for Stuart and his band, who immediately ripped into the popular pop number, “Little Things.” Everyone down front (including your author) then sang along so lustily on “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’ (Anymore)” that Stuart stepped from the microphone a couple of times to let the midtown Manhattan amateur choir take over.
Although there were scattered drops, the rain held off. And although the clouds blocked the stars, a steady breeze blew throughout the evening. Parents brought their children – one of them a boy no older than 5 or 6 who called his very first concert “really cool.”
Those old enough to recall Sun Records’ mythical origins mixed with younger aficionados in hats and tatts, one of whom wore a Social Distortion t-shirt – fitting, given bandleader Mike Ness’s affinity for footstompin’ music.
Like Stuart, his fabulous trio (indeed, worthy of superlatives) are an eclectic bunch. They rocked out hard. They eased into the deeper cuts of “Live at Folsom…” They threw in a hoedown, some bluegrass, and even mixed things up, with extraordinary guitarist Kenny Vaughan and bass player Paul Martin (remember the band Exile?) each singing lead on a few tunes.
Then they all huddled together around one microphone, harkening back to the halcyon days of bluegrass pioneers Bill Monroe, Del McCoury and one of Stuart’s mentors, Lester Flatt, at their respective peaks.
“I have never in my life seen a crowd that needed a gospel song the way y’all do,” said Stuart, who has dates booked nationwide into next summer.
Sure enough, they broke into Monroe’s classic “Working on a Building.”
For someone who has followed Marty Stuart for more than 25 years, it’s thrilling to see him so strong and vibrant. It’s a blast to watch people suddenly surge to the stage to clap, stomp and sing along with “Hillbilly Rock,” at the point in the Marty Party when it was useless for security to even consider trying to herd them back – not with Stuart coaxing everyone on.
It’s also comforting to know that someone so immensely talented reveres the giants who made his career possible as much as, if not more than, those who admire him.
Ask any musician who’s walked the line: When it comes to American roots music, Stuart is as authentic a figure in our shared cultural heritage as Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Steve Earle, Tom Russell, Dave Alvin, Willie Nelson, Randy Newman, Robbie Robertson, Dolly Parton, Mavis Staples, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Waits and a scant few others.
There was a genuine beauty in Burgess and others still playing their music into their 70s and 80s for a similarly appreciative crowd. That Marty Stuart has hit so perfect a stride in middle age promises that the circle will remain unbroken.
Stuart has a terrific website, with music, information and loads of extras: MartyStuart.net Check out this short documentary: “Marty Stuart in Philadelphia, MS” (That’s right: His MISSISSIPPI hometown).