April 5 found country music royalty holding a raucous revival meeting in Ships of the Sea Museum’s spacious yet intimate North Garden Assembly Room, as Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives blew the proverbial doors off that covered outdoor showcase venue during the Savannah Music Festival.
The razor-sharp quartet of Nashville’s top players delivered a high-energy headlining set of old-school country and western tunes, Southern gospel numbers, roots-rock rave-ups, vintage protest-folk songs and yes, even psychedelic-tinged surf-rock instrumentals to a sold-out crowd.
Decked out in bespoke, complementary-but-not-in-any-way-matching Nudie or Manuel-style stage outfits replete with flashy embroidery, shimmering rhinestones, flowing fringe and Cuban-heeled cowboy boots, the 59-year-old frontman and his compatriots (all of whom sang impressive lead vocals throughout the brisk-paced show) clearly came to conquer.
The seeming ease with which they tossed off complex, multi-layered arrangements in a wide variety of genres was an in-your-face testament to the sheer magnitude of talent and history filling that small, low stage. Stuart's lengthy career and masterful abilities on the guitar and mandolin have posited him as one of the last remaining true exemplars of bluegrass and country-heavy Americana music with a legitimate connection to its golden age.
A musical prodigy, Stuart got his real start at the age of 14, joining bluegrass legend Lester Flatt’s band. Over the next decade, he’d serve as a key sideman to another country and western top act, Johnny Cash, before branching out on his own for a series of successful solo albums, as well as numerous guest appearances on other stars’ records.
Since 2002, when he formed the cheekily named Fabulous Superlatives (think Nashville’s answer to Clapton, Bruce and Baker’s Cream), Stuart has used this almost brazenly geeky supergroup of good-natured pickers and grinners to push the boundaries of what defines contemporary Americana and roots-rock, while unapologetically leaning hard on the bedrocks of those stylistically fluid genres.
The flat-out stunning dexterity and versatility of Kenny Vaughan allowed the axeman to turn on a dime. A real-life Roots Rock Action Figure (seriously, look it up) who first came to national prominence in the Lucinda Williams’ road band for her 1998 “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” tour, he could go from blistering electric blues-rock soloing to the light touch required for replicating the late, great session musician Grady Martin’s famous Spanish acoustic guitar part from Marty Robbins’ Grammy-winning Best C&W Recording of 1961 (which Stuart and company delivered with reverence and precision at this concert), to the ethereal, reverb-drenched twang-bar stylings required for much of the material from the group’s latest LP, “Way Out West,” produced by Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.
Veteran session drummer and singer “Handsome” Harry Stinson (formerly of the earliest incarnation of Steve Earle’s Dukes) held down the beat on a vintage early ‘70s Rogers drum kit (and occasionally strolled to the front of the stage with a shoulder strap-mounted snare drum), while adding high vocal harmonies to most tunes. He also took a star turn on lead vocals for two numbers: “All For the Love of a Girl” from his latest solo CD; and a pointed, slyly politically relevant cover of Woody Guthrie’s Depression-era outlaw ballad “Pretty Boy Floyd,” which seemed to be aimed squarely in righteous protest of the current presidential administration.
Chris Scruggs, the youngest and newest member of the group (he’s been on board since 2015) happens to be famed banjo player Earl Scruggs’ grandson, and this generation’s Scruggs more than held his own on electric bass, standup acoustic bass fiddle, acoustic guitar and vocals. The lap steel guitar which bore his engraved name remained at the rear of the stage, untouched, but his animated presence and easygoing rapport with his bandmates showed him to be a perfect addition to their vaunted lineup.
The glue that held everything together, though, was clearly Stuart, who radiates both confidence and kindness. He clearly relishes his longstanding role as a sort of international ambassador for the totality of traditional country music and roots-rock, and takes that role extremely seriously. His mission, and, by extension, his band's, is first and foremost entertaining the crowd. They do it with such determination and (occasionally goofy) zeal, that one cannot help but be converted by their approach to old-fashioned, hayride showmanship.
This was easily one of the most enjoyable shows I have ever had the pleasure to attend at any Savannah Music Festival since it was relaunched under that moniker and under the direction of curator Rob Gibson. By the smiles on the faces of those around me and their rapturous applause, it seems I may not be the only one who feels the same. One can only hope this show was professionally recorded for possible inclusion in the popular Savannah Music Festival Live concert series (which can be heard locally on Georgia Public Radio), as it was truly a night to be revisited and savored.