The new book by Arthur Plotnik called Better Than Great: A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives reminds us how many ways there are to assert something’s magnificence besides the tired old amazing, incredible and of course awesome. We music writers need to specialize in superlatives, because we strive, in the face of futility, to come up with new ways to communicate the brilliance of the brilliant and the sublimity of the sublime. But if I had that book next to me I’d still have trouble finding the words to convey how I felt during the climactic moment of Marty Stuart’s closing set last night. Full of life and hope and wonder, I’d say. Blown away, in common parlance.
Of course when an artist is brazen enough to name his band the Fabulous Superlatives, he’d better throw down. And yet even with the high bar Marty Stuart sets before himself everywhere he goes (those outfits, that hair), three decades of performing and honing his craft have left him in the Olympic shape he needs to clear it – in high heeled boots. I’ve seen Marty and his band a lot, and they’re always excellent. But something about the atmosphere in the Loveless Barn last night, most potently the ramp-up sets by Fab Superlative Kenny Vaughan and Living Legend Connie Smith, put our host band in a place of perfect poise and focus. Where generally our show bounces merrily from one genre and mood to another, last night built on a theme. And by the time the cast cooked through the final choruses of “I’m Satisfied,” we all had that old time religion.
This special evening was nearly two years in the making. Our fearless talent honcho Todd put invitations out to Marty Stuart as soon as he began booking the show in 2009. He always encouraged us to keep trying, but it was never the right time. And then, thanks to a confluence of record releases, it was. Kenny Vaughan is making his debut as a recording artist next week with the spanky, twangy album V. And Connie Smith, Marty’s wife and musical soulmate, recently put out Long Line of Heartaches, her first solo album in almost 15 years. It made for a night of longer-than-usual sets that built momentum to the last note.
Kenny V didn’t need to struggle to find a backing band. The opening set simply thrust him to the front of the FabSupervs, with Marty playing support guitar. The twin Telecaster assault was particularly sparkly and dazzling on “Stay Outta My Dreams” and particularly old-school rocking on Kenny’s tribute song to Opry legend Carol Lee Cooper. Captivating Chris Scruggs came all the way out to play electric steel on “Hot Like That,” and it was more than worth the trip. His solo was searing and outrageous. Kenny made the most of his own solos, in his understated but rocking way. And even his spiritual set closer “Don’t Leave Home Without Jesus” was a shack shaker. The ballads would have to wait.
But not for long. Connie Smith opened with upbeat, uptown material but soon she was making us swoon with “I’m Not Blue” and “Run Away Little Tears,” a flowing river of song that let Smith open up her remarkable voice all the way. Her phrasing is so easy and spot on, and she doesn’t just sing the lyrics, she clarifies them, letting them sink in and reach their emotional potential. Her band the Sundowners were consummate pros, nailing their parts so Connie could achieve hers. Their very spare accompaniment on “Looking For A Reason” made that one special. Staccato guitar against the languorous steel provided a glistening backing for the iconic hit “Once A Day,” and Smith rounded out her set with a sacred yin and yang – a yearning “Amazing Grace” and a rollicking “Sing, Sing, Sing.” She sure did that.
So Marty got to bring things home, and he did so with flair, panache and trunks full of twang. “Stop The World” got things started with a Bakersfield sugar rush, the beat kept by a widely smiling Harry Stinson. “Country Boy Rock & Roll” let Marty and Kenny shred in tandem like a fusion of Chuck Berry and the Allman Brothers. They did “Tempted,” one of the first Marty songs I ever fell for, and somehow that inspired an off-set-list idea to gather around a mic and sing Marty Robbins: “We All Have The Right To Be Wrong Now And Then.” Which brought the house down.
As good as that electric first set was, it was the second all-acoustic set that really tipped the night into memorable magic. Marty took the stage alone with an acoustic guitar and dialed up “Dark Bird,” an ode to Johnny Cash. And as if his picking on that one wasn’t dazzling enough, he picked up the mandolin for “Mando Rip,” a tour de force solo that alluded to “Old Joe Clark” and “John Henry” and other old-time tunes while becoming something cosmic unto itself. His pick zipped like a hummingbird’s wings, yet the melodies came punching through. Then the band returned for a bluegrass version of “Working On A Building” with Handsome Harry playing a snare drum around his neck as he joined in the vocal attack.
And that flowed seamlessly into “Heaven,” which carried its impact in its title. The harmony singing here took me to the most attentive, peaceful place I can be experiencing music. The jam-packed Loveless grew even more hushed and riveted as a trio of Superlatives arced through an arrangement that would have impressed Duke Ellington of Leonard Bernstein. Yet it was pure country music to it’s deep heart’s core. The place seemed suspended in time. It was a clear, perfect moment. And after the Loveless Jam brought us nicely back to earth with snaking solos by Kenny, Marty and a returning Chris Scruggs, I heard folks calling it among the best shows of any kind they’d ever seen. Hard to argue with that. There really are no words.