For a few years during the early nineties, Marty Stuart was a prominent fixture of New Country. By then a veteran of 20-plus years in the business- first as a bluegrass sideman with Lester Flatt and Curly Seckler, then as part of Johnny Cash’s band, and finally out on his own- Stuart was never blessed with more than a passable voice: calling it ‘thin’ may be giving it more credit than it deserves. Rather, his career has been forged from flair, personality, and a deep-rooted understanding of and respect for the traditions of country music.
Despite his success during the country video heyday, Stuart never had a number one song or album and had only a single top 5 song of his own (1991’s “Tempted”) although he went to number 2 the same year with Travis Tritt and “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’.” Still, he hit the top 10 a half-dozen times, filled medium-sized venues, was (and is) a festival favourite, and had a few gold albums. Interestingly, Stuart consistently charted better in Canada than he did south of the border.
As his black pompadour faded with gray, so did the Marty Party. While his albums and songs performed increasingly poorly on the charts, Stuart’s critical acclaim didn’t suffer and his last few releases, notably 2010’2 Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions, have been among the most favourably reviewed of his thirty-year recording career.
Stuart celebrates forty years in Nashville with Tear the Woodpile Down, an album that goes a long way to prove his slightly exaggerated assertion that “Today, the most outlaw thing you can possibly do in Nashville, Tennessee is play country music.” While the industry may have lost its way, with no fewer than seventeen albums under his bedazzled belt, Stuart knows well what it takes to create country music- strong, sometimes sentimental, material, inventive musicianship, a bit of trouble in mind and just a dab o’ polish.
Along with his Fabulous Superlatives and a few guests, Stuart has created another outstanding album. Over a chugging rockabilly beat, honky tonk chords are punctuated by weeping steel guitar. Tear the Woodpile Down is less ambitious than some of his other albums, but with ‘classic country’ sounds serving as its unifying theme the disc soars.
On the title track, Stuart captures the mood of much of his country when he sings, “Taxpayer dollar ain’t worth a dime, governments got us in a bind.” While the album isn’t politically motivated, Stuart- who wrote the majority of its songs- touches on events and moods that should resonate with country music’s base.
“Truck Driver Blues” is essentially “Hillbilly Rock” reset in an 18-wheeler, and on “Going, Going, Gone” Stuart gets in touch with his inner Merle (and George, Stonewall and Buck).
“Sundown in Nashville” captures the loneliness and heartbreak of those trying to make it in “a country boy’s Hollywood.” The guitars of Kenny Vaughn and Paul Martin ring throughout most of the album’s ten songs. Both “A Matter of Time” and “The Lonely Kind” are more subtle, countrypolitan performances that find Stuart and his band at their best.
Connections to legends are apparent. Porter and Dolly’s 1968 hit “Holding on to Nothing” gets a stylish rendering. Lorrie Carter Bennett sings with Stuart on “A Song of Sadness” and Hank III drops by to close things out acoustically on his grandfather’s “Picture From Life’s Other Side.”
Too brief at just over 30 minutes, Tear the Woodpile Down brings with it promise that Marty Stuart is going to continue to make the music he wants to create no matter how far it takes him from the charts.
Originally published in the Red Deer Advocate, May 04, 2012