So here he is again, almost four decades strong, in the very space where so many Elvis Presley smash hits were recorded as were classic sides by Charley Pride, Connie Smith, Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings, only to name a few. As the new Sugar Hill Records album title says, it’s also where the latest Marty Stuart release, Ghost Train (The Studio B Sessions), has just been recorded.
“The first recording session I ever participated in was in this room,” Marty Stuart says, looking around Nashville’s legendary RCA Studio B, “playing mandolin, in Lester Flatt’s band, when I was 13. Lester walked over and said ‘Why don’t you handle the kick-off on this one?’ This place has a profound pedigree; it’s where so much of American music’s legacy was forged, certainly country music’s. And sonically, this is a room that welcomes music. It seemed to me that in order to authentically stage a brand new traditional country music record we should bring it home to Studio B. Even though Studio B is now regarded as a museum of sorts, I had a feeling that all it would take to bring the place to life were songs and a good band. I just happened to have both. The Country Music Hall of Fame, who operates the facility, gave me permission to come here and work. It is indeed an honor.”
Since starting out singing gospel as a child, the bluegrass stint with Lester Flatt in the ‘70s, the six years with Johnny Cash in the ‘80s, and coming up with his smash “hillbilly rock” hits of the ‘90s, the four time GRAMMYwinner, platinum recording artist, Grand Ole Opry star, country music memorabilia preservationist, stylist, designer, photographer, songwriter, all around renaissance man, charismatic force of nature, and (first of all, perhaps), leader of the extraordinary, versatile touring and recording band The Fabulous Superlatives, Marty Stuart has shown a showman’s zest for every conceivable flavor of country music. Not to mention, a missionary’s zeal for bringing the importance of the music and its themes home to longtime fans and newcomers alike. Musicologist Peter North cites, “Marty Stuart seems wrapped in his destiny at this point in time. Not only as country music’s most notable ambassador/caretaker, but as its main archetypical crusader. He has without question evolved into one of the most important roots musicians and visionaries in America.”
“I’m always on the prowl for the kinds of recordings that can inspire and potentially make a difference,” Stuart says. “What inspires me now, is traditional country music. It’s the music I most cherish, the culture in which I was raised. It’s the bedrock upon which the empire of country music is built, the empowering force that provides this genre with lasting credibility. It’s beyond trends and it’s timeless. With all that being said, I found traditional country music to be on the verge of extinction. It’s too precious to let slip away. I wanted to attempt to write a new chapter.”
That new chapter is Ghost Train (The Studio B Sessions) which includes such unmitigated country (and Studio B style) staples as the male-female duet (the gorgeous, heartfelt "I Run to You," written and sung with Connie Smith), the dramatic recitation (fittingly, as part of "Porter Wagoner's Grave," a story song written by Stuart that raises the ghost of the late, great country icon, whose final album Marty produced, in the dramatic style Porter mastered), the chugging, bluesy—and spooky— fellow Mississippian Jimmie Rodgers-like train song "Ghost Train Four-Oh-Ten," and such steel guitar driven, hardcore heartbreak ballads such as "A World Without You," (another co-write with Connie) and "Drifting Apart."
Track nine is Marty's straightforward, outspoken new salute to the "Hard Working Man." The conditions of everyday working life in the 21st century, are addressed once again, as they have needed addressing so often throughout country's history. Marty comments, "When country music is doing its job, it reports on the good, bad and indifferent of our human condition. When times are good, we have tunes to dance to; when times are tough, we’re supposed to talk about it. That’s country music."
That no-flinching directness is also front and center in the premier of “Hangman,” a pointed, harrowing tale of an executioner's job and life that Stuart co-wrote with Johnny Cash just four days before the Man in Black passed away.
As the Ghost Train project unfolded, Stuart notes, “I referred to the original blueprint of country music for the subject matter…those were my standards. I wrote about love, marriage, heartaches, trains, home, work (or the lack of), vagrancy, the law, jail, rivers, death, sin, redemption, drinking and goodhearted women. Those words and melodies are wrapped around rounders, ghosts, lovesick fools, the tortured soul of a grim executioner, a wino, a preacher, the working man, rocking and rolling country boys, weary tearstained travelers, gamblers, thugs, thieves, and the likes of me. The stories are staged from locations that vary from San Francisco to Texas, Heaven, Hell, a graveyard, hanging gallows, Nashville and on to Mississippi where all of those places somehow slowly morph into railroad tracks that disappear into the middle of nowhere. Now that’s my kind of story and a pretty honest reflection of the last few years of my life. It’s pure language from the Old Testament side of country music. And according to the newspaper I read this morning, all of the above mentioned are alive and well…still valid.”
This is, nonetheless, the new "Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives" recording, and the interpretation of that blueprint leaves room for Marty's
The instrumental sounds captured tend toward those of that Studio B blueprint as well, from the steel guitar mastery of the legendary Ralph Mooney on “Crazy Arms,” the classic written by Ralph in the mid 1950s to an appearance by piano master Hargus “Pig” Robbins, and the subtle string section that turns up behind Marty and Connie on their co-written duet “I Run to You.” New country instrumentals are rare. “Hummingbyrd” which is Stuart’s homage to guitar genius Clarence White (which he played on White’s original B-bender guitar) dances out of the speakers and touches down like an instant classic. The outing finishes off with a mandolin solo from Marty, with a title that says it all in terms of country music, Stuart’s hypnotic “Mississippi Railroad Blues” in D major. But front and center throughout Ghost Train (The Studio B Sessions) are those astoundingly versatile Fabulous Superlatives, with Kenny Vaughan’s stabbing, boogying guitar solos, and the band’s rock steady rhythm section—Harry Stinson on drums and Paul Martin on bass, both providing those trademark, celestial, Superlative harmonies.
“In reality,” Marty recalls, “our band started on this record years ago when we first formed. In the beginning, we’d listen to blues giants like Muddy Waters and Little Walter and then go play traditional country music. We’d watch Jimmie Rodgers films —and then go play bluegrass. Or we’d listen to Buck Trent, who played electric banjo with Porter Wagoner, and then go sing gospel songs. All music mattered to us. Everyone’s music seemed to contribute to the founding of the Superlatives. We were encouraged and inspired by so many people when we were gathering our power and locking in our own identity. Those influences continue to follow us to the bandstand. One of our main goals has always been to bring the bandstand along with us to the recording studio, every time we go.”
That live on stage, alive on records presence is also seen regularly by TV viewers these days, on RFD-TV’s The Marty Stuart Show, which adds a new chapter each week to the tradition of simple, electrifying country TV with varied live sounds, and top level guests. The Marty Stuart Show is currently the number one program on the network, as it has been for the last two years. “It gives me a good feeling to know that country music is alive and well on television on any given Saturday night,” states Stuart. “After people work hard and cope with the pressures of life throughout the week, going out to a show or tuning in to watch some characters in cowboy clothes, singing and playing songs about real life is something I relate to. The show is not only a staging ground for legends and icons, but it especially welcomes a new wave of kids coming along in need of a place to sing and play authentic country music. Personally, it’s been helpful to have that show to go to as I developed Ghost Train. Most of the songs on this record were presented on the air before they were recorded. I’d invite the audience to respond and they did.”
“Developing Ghost Train (The Studio B Sessions) was a life changing experience in many ways,” Marty adds while strumming on a guitar from his celebrated, lovingly assembled collection of country music treasures (a flat top that once belonged to Hank Williams Sr. no less). “These songs have been lived through and this project comes from the heart. I’ve said it many times, it’s amazing what happens when you fearlessly follow your heart, whatever the cost. It always leads you to the right place. This time, it led me home to traditional country music and the result is the music of Ghost Train (The Studio B Sessions). I’m comfortable with that, as a matter of fact, I’m very proud of it…it’s truly who I am.”