Marty Stuart smiled to himself, played some bluegrass, and surprised us in the crowd by bringing out Johnny Cash to sing a few numbers. Then Cash introduced his good friend Waylon Jennings who really raised the roof. After George Jones and Lefty Frizzell shocked us, Hank Williams came out and asked us to forgive his only son for being such an asshole. Next came Gram Parsons and when we all shouted for him to bring out Emmylou, he leaned into the microphone and said, “Emmy hasn’t joined me up here yet, but, ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce, Tammy Wynette!” Oh, it was a glorious night!
Then I woke up.
The Marty party really began as soon as he strode on stage with his aptly-named band, The Fabulous Superlatives: drummer Harry Stinson, guitarist Kenny Vaughan and bassist Paul Martin. Stuart had trusty Clarence The Guitar with him, named after Clarence White [1944-1973] of The Byrds. The quartet, from their very first note, turned the Musikfest Café in Bethlehem, PA into The Grand Ole Opry circa 1962 by dishing out the kind of real country music that’s not heard anymore on radio or television. My +1, Mike McIntyre, a classic rock guy with an open ear, whispered to me almost immediately, “Wow, what year are we in?” Astute observation. It didn’t hurt the feel that the four were wearing Nashville-styled rhinestone-studded suits.
Opening with the Buck Owens smash “Stop The World,” the band’s pristine sound and retro visual created the overpowering illusion of being transported back in time when country music mattered. I had all I could do to refrain myself from getting too demonstrative within the cardboard audience. Soon, though, especially when Marty started blasting his guitar—and then mandolin—on incredible speed-zip solos that would’ve given Clapton, Page and Beck a run for their money, more and more people started coming to life and the black ‘n’ white miasma in the seats turned into Technicolor. Whoops and more whoops could be heard. This emboldened me to rise up and bop down to the lip of the stage Jackie Gleason-style for but for a precious moment…just enough to make Marty smile. The song was his Travis Tritt duet, “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’,” but on this night, it sure was.
Then he brought out Roger McGuinn.
I swear, go listen to Bob Dylan singing “Mr. Tambourine Man.” It hasn’t aged well (and that’s being nice). In McGuinn’s hands, this psychedelic anthem, as McGuinn rewrote it in The Byrds in 1965, sounds as jangly delicious as it ever did, with Roger’s still strong voice and 12-string Rickenbacker leading the way. McGuinn always sang Dylan better than Dylan and it was swoon time to hear such beloved Dylan fare as “My Back Pages,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “He Was A Friend of Mine.”
The obvious love and respect that Marty Stuart has for Roger McGuinn was in full flower as he let McGuinn take over the show with more Byrds classics like “Easy Rider,” “Spaceman,” “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star,” “Feel A Whole Lot Better,” “Chestnut Mare” and, of course, McGuinn’s rewrite of Pete Seeger’s “Turn Turn Turn.” (I could’ve done without the two new songs McGuinn wrote with his wife but that’s only because I wanted more Marty.)
Marty’s a post-rock ‘n’ roll Hank Williams, a living legend in his own right, a musicologist and historian who not only owns Clarence White’s guitar but a guitar once owned by Hank himself. Marty’s a larger-than-life character who doesn’t make it up to these parts too often and the overall effect was mesmerizing. I noticed the great Leon Redbone gazing on in appreciation too at a table up front. So when Marty and Roger did Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” it all came to fruition. There was nowhere else I would’ve rather been. I’ll tell my grandchildren about this one when they get a little older.