Do you like American music?
Country music legend Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives melted faces at the Orpheum.
When Marty Stuart was 12 years old, he talked his mother into buying him a sharp yellow shirt; he had a ticket to see Miss Connie Smith live and in person, and he wanted to make a good impression. After the show, he vowed that he would one day marry Smith — 17 years his senior — and some 37 years later, he did. What better way to cement an enduring reputation as the foremost curator of the legacy of traditional country music than to become family with one of its living legends?
By the time of the wedding, it should be noted, Stuart had spent the entirety of his adolescence and adulthood standing in the shadow of living legendry. By age 14 he was employed as mandolin player in the touring band of Lester Flatt, an architect of bluegrass, probably most widely known as the singer of the "Beverly Hillbillies" theme song. In the wake of Flatt's death in 1979, Stuart joined Johnny Cash's band (and was even married to Cash's daughter Cindy for a time). Since his earliest days as a professional, his stage axe has been a Gibson F5 mandolin into which many of the biggest names in country music have carved their names over the years, starting with Cash, who puckishly scratched a cross and the initials JRC into its top without being asked to.
Stuart has assembled one of the most enviable and remarkable collections of iconic country music ephemera in any private hands; his catalog of Hank William's personal possessions alone would stagger the mind of most any museum director. Tune into his television show on RFD-TV and see him play a Gibson acoustic guitar previously owned by both Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, as well as the handmade prototype B-bender Fender Telecaster assembled by Clarence White and Gene Parsons of the Byrds some 45 years ago — an object in guitar worship roughly akin to the Holy Grail.
All this being said, Stuart's importance as a link to the roots of American music goes much deeper than his prowess at assembling collections of physical artifacts; his own work, especially that produced over the past several years with the Fabulous Superlatives, his crack squad of ringer musicians, renders him unchallenged as the standard-bearer for traditional country music.
Stuart, after all, appeared on classic rural TV programs such as Hee Haw, The Porter Wagoner Show and The Wilburn Brothers Show before he could shave. He was there, onstage and in the wings, soaking in it night after night at a time in his life when most of us were trying to get a learner's permit. Though Stuart's strong Christian faith is obvious in the sincere humility and breathtaking beauty of his gospel arrangements, it is clear that he was washed not only in the Blood of the Lamb, but just as thoroughly in the muddy waters of the Mississippi, its rhythms pulsing through his work in the purest possible expressions of the DNA of American music: the blues, country and western, rock and roll.
I saw Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives almost exactly a year ago, at the Stiefel Theatre in Salina, and though I knew from having seen many episodes of his TV program that the band was without peer, experiencing them live, up close and personal, was intense. Every member of the group — world-class Telecaster shredder "Cousin" Kenny Vaughan, versatile bassist "Apostle" Paul Martin, multi-instrumentalist/drummer "Handsome" Harry Stinson and Stuart himself — is a top-shelf musician, and witnessing them effortlessly conjuring forth such soulful, vibrant, heartfelt music is little short of astonishing, regardless of whether any particular viewer thinks he or she likes "country" music.
So when I heard the band was returning to Kansas, this time appearing at Wichita's own Orpheum Theatre, I was the first in line to buy tickets. My-three-year-old son and I attended the show last Saturday night, with seats right in the front row, and both were mesmerized for nearly two straight hours.
Before the show even started, I was excited to note Chris Scruggs' steel guitar was set up onstage; grandson of banjo legend Earl Scruggs (who was himself longtime partner of Lester Flatt), Chris has been a guest on "The Marty Stuart Show" numerous times, and as it happens, is substituting for Paul Martin on this Superlatives tour. It was a treat throughout the evening to see him play not just the steel, but both electric and standup bass, acoustic guitar, drums — not to mention providing lead and backing vocals.
The Superlatives are a group of equals, not just some guys backing up Marty Stuart; any of them is beyond qualified to lead his own group. It is to Stuart's great credit that he is comfortable taking his turn backing up each talented member of the band; many stars of his caliber (or far lower) suffer from too-easily-bruised egos to do likewise. Every Superlative, in fact, took turns leading the band over the course of the show, and there was much swapping of instruments. Kenny Vaughan sang not one, but two, tunes from his 2011 solo album "V," Scruggs accompanied himself with acoustic guitar on an original song and even Stinson was called forward to sing lead on a number.
Stuart, an engaging raconteur, set the mood before each song with a bit of backstory, filligreeing the old folk tale form with just enough rock & roll attitude to keep from straying into cornpone territory. Just as is the case with his TV show, he has a knack for knowing exactly which elements of the culture resonate in people's hearts, and his rapport with his audience is genuine and almost entirely unique, even in the down-home, fan-friendly world of country music in general.
Through uptempo rockers ("Stop the World and Let Me Off"), No-Hat Country classics (Stuart's own chart hit "Tempted"), Western swing workouts ("Chris Scruggs Boogie") and lush, spine-tingling harmony gospel jewels ("Angels Rock Me to Sleep"), the Fabulous Superlatives earned their over-the-top moniker in spades. I cannot name a group performing any variety of popular music today that is better at what it does than this one.
And just to be clear: If you are in the room when Kenny Vaughan and Marty Stuart double up on Telecasters, you run the very real risk of having your face melted off your skull. There is not a metal guitar god on Earth that can show these guys anything, and the vast majority would in fact learn much of value from them.
At the end of the show, when the encore was over and the audience was on its feet, Stuart looked right at me and walked toward the front of the stage, holding one of his personalized Fender guitar picks in his hand. He and the other band members had clearly been happy to see my little boy up front in the audience, and had winked and waved at him during the show; deducing his intention, I held my son up and Marty Stuart put that pick right into his little hand. I thanked him and shook his hand myself, and told him we were big fans who watched him on the TV all the time.
And that's what's great about Marty Stuart: He's the real deal, all the way. He writes as well as anybody in the game, plays better than most, has the most killer backup band imaginable — and is genuinely kind and humble and down-to-earth. He knew what a cool moment he was creating for a pair of father-and-son fans, and that will stick with me, and hopefully my son, always.
Then, as the Orpheum crowd drained out into the dark street, Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives stood around in the lobby and shook hands with and signed autographs for every single person who wanted to meet them, just like they do at every show they play.