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With the album Ghost Train – The Studio B Sessions, the classiest man in country is saving country music the right way.
The amazing thing about Marty Stuart is that he can be all things to all people. With his background in bluegrass, being an understudy of Lester Flatt for many years, then playing in Johnny Cash’s band, going as far as marrying Cash’s daughter Cindy before eventually landing long-term with his current wife and Grand Ole Opry great Connie Smith, Marty has had his toes in just about every country music creek. He’s a bluegrass legend. He’s a country music great. His 90′s stint of country rock and his honky tonk styles round him out as a living history of all the styles residing under the big country music tent.
And he can shift gears so easily. His gospel music is authentic. He can swing western with The Quebe Sisters, pal around with Dale Watson, make an appearance on a Hank III album, and nobody bats an eye. And with his Marty Stuart Show on RFDTV, he’s bringing all of these styles together and keeping true country on the boob tube alive.
If you’ve watched Marty’s show, you might worry a bit that a new album might be a little hokey: more Hee-Haw than hard country. George Strait might have put out an album called Twang, but Ghost Train is the one that delivers it. This album is heavily guitar-driven from the start, turning the twang on the Telecasters to 10 and leaving it loud in the mix. Its the kind of twang that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Then add some Ralph Mooney pedal steel on top and Ghost Train might be the freshest, funnest and truest traditional country album to come out of Nashville in years.
Ralph Mooney is all over this album like a bad rash, adding a thick, countrified feel to many of the compositions. He co-wrote two of the songs, including one of the standouts, “Little Heartbreaker,” which when I first heard it, sounded so much like Waylon’s “Rainy Day Woman” my rip-off alert started to sound. But of course, that’s because Mooney played on that song as well in 1974, as well as many other Waylon songs for 20 years, as well as all those great early-era Merle Haggard songs and so many others that define what real country fans think of when they think “country.”
Lyrical standouts from the album are “Hangman,” which was composed with Johnny Cash and takes a very stark look into the heart of the executioner, and “Hard Working Man,” which despite the glut of working man songs in country, really makes you think about the impending extinction of people who find fulfillment and soul from working with their hands in a way I had never thought about before.
The Ghost Train was recorded at RCA’s studio B, which in short, is where pretty much every country song from the 60′s was recorded. These days it is mostly a museum piece of the Country Music Hall of Fame, but Marty convinced them to let him borrow it. Some may complain that a few of Ghost Train’s songs like “Drifting Apart” and “A World Without You” deal with tired themes, but these were the themes that made Studio B legendary. The ghost of Studio B is alive in Ghost Train, and should be seen as an underlying theme woven throughout these songs, though they don’t have the stuffy feeling, or the overdubbed strings and choruses that defined Studio B’s “Nashville Sound” and eventually created a ghost of Studio B when Tompall Glaser opened his Hillbilly Central studio and The Outlaws won control of the music back from the old guard.
With an album like this, I was destined to latch on to songs like “Branded,” “Country Boy Rock & Roll,” “Ghost Train Four-Oh-Ten,” “Hummingbyrd,” and “Little Heartbreaker;” the more, twangy, high-energy numbers. But there really isn’t a weak track in the bunch, and the diversity of songs keeps it fresh. “Porter Wagoner’s Grave” is a little hokey, but a gospel element adds that legitimacy to the project, just like the gospel number Marty does on every episode of The Marty Stuart Show.
When I first heard “Hummingbyrd” I remember thinking after the song started, “Man I hope there’s no singing on this song, just driving guitars,” and Marty had that same thought. It is a tribute to Clarence White of The Byrds (and the reason for the ‘y’ in -byrd.) Marty’s primary telecaster guitar was White’s. He died in 1973. Marty also pays homage to the old time music that country came from, and the bluegrass world that he came from with the last song “Mississippi Railroad Blues” where he shows off his mastery with the mandolin.
I really want to pound the pavement for my individualism from being from Mississippi and the heritage from which I step out from. It’s a record about a train, I’m a mandolin player from Mississippi, and it just seemed like the final brush stroke on a portrait of a music and a culture that I love. It was a simple way to say, “Thank you very much, friends and neighbors.”
You get a sense with this album that Marty feels he has plenty of money. He just wants to make good country music the right way and have fun doing it. Damn the commercial success, though if the “take a case a beer and a four wheel drive out to the lake” pop country crowd overlook this album it is their mistake, because songs like “Hummingbyrd” and “Country Boy Rock & Roll” are as fun and accessible as any.
And this album is important. It reminds us that Ralph Mooney is still around, and just how important this one man has been to the formation of the country sound. It reminds us too that not all is lost in Nashville. There are still great artists making great music, despite the influence and desires of suits in tall buildings. Marty doesn’t fight the musical gentrification of Nashville with songs filled with four letter words, he does it by example. He puts out great songs with a wide appeal, served with a friendly smile and a appreciation and respect for all.
I give Ghost Train two guns up!
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Today is the 4th of July: the birthday of The United States. It is also arguably the birthday of the Outlaw movement in country music.
Nailing down an exact date when the Outlaw movement started depends on who you talk to, but a popular one is when Willie Nelson’s legendary 4th of July Picnics started in 1973. The Dripping Springs Reunion happened the previous year, but this was held in the Spring, and was marked by classic country performances from people like Bill Monroe, Loretta Lynn, and Roy Acuff. 1973 is when native Texans Willie, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson famously reunited to headline the festival.
There’s been a lot of questions on what really makes a country music Outlaw swirling around lately, especially with the controversy surrounding the “New Outlaws” (Eric Chruch, Josh Thompson, Gretchen Wilson, etc.) Misconceptions abound. That is why the original Outlaws hated the term, and why new artists as well as fans use the term incorrectly. So I thought I would clarify:
Being a country music Outlaw has nothing to do with having tattoos. It has nothing to do with motorcycles, or how much you cuss in your music or reference drugs. It has nothing to do with rock influences in your music, nothing to do with if you “party” a lot or live an “Outlaw” lifestyle. Being an Outlaw has very little to do with the music itself. You can play traditional country, neo-traditional country, country-rock. There is NO definable Outlaw country sound. As long as it is country music, it can be Outlaw music.
“Outlaw” is a business term more than anything. Yes, all the above can be and have been elements of the overall Outlaw culture, but neither Willie, Waylon, or Kris had tattoos, rode motorcycles, and none of them were big drinkers. What they had in common with Outlaws that WERE big drinkers like Johnny Paycheck, or that rode motorcycles and had tattoos like David Allan Coe, was that they had all fought for creative control of their music from the country music establishment, and won it. THAT is what makes a country music artist an Outlaw.
And just for the record, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and George Jones were never considered Outlaws, though you could say that Cash became an Outlaw near the end of his life with The Highwaymen project, and the Rick Ruben American Recordings later on, and he did have many dealings with The Outlaws over the years.
The original Outlaw was Bobby Bare, who was the first to fight for creative control of his music, and the first to open up new themes that before were taboo in country. This is typified by the 1966 song Streets of Baltimore, which very subtly is about a woman leaving her man to become a prostitute. The song was written by Tompall Glaser. Another taboo hurdle was cleared by Kris Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down, which references wanting to be “stoned.” But Tompall started the Outlaw revolution in earnest when he built a renegade recording studio called “Hillbilly Central” on 19th Ave in Nashville.
At the time almost everything in Nashville was controlled by a few men: mainly RCA producer Chet Atkins, and the Acuff-Rose Publishing Company. Nearly all music coming out of Nashville was recorded at RCA’s “Studio B”. The songs recorded by artists were written by dedicated songwriters, and selected and arranged by record label producers. All studio musicians were selected by the producer, and were unionized so as no outside musicians (say from an artists touring band) could be used.
Enter not a musician, but a slick lawyer from New York named Neil Reshen. Reshen helped two disgruntled RCA artists, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, break their RCA contracts and wrestle control of their music. (You can read more about Reshen HERE.) Willie and Waylon were inspired to do this by watching Bobby Bare and rock musicians have almost unilateral control over their music. Willie left RCA, and eventually singed with Atlantic, a rock label, with complete creative control. Waylon stayed with RCA, but established control over his music the likes of which had never been seen inside Music Row.
The first thing Waylon did was record an album in 1973 of Billy Joe Shaver songs, Honky Tonk Heroes, at Tompall’s Hilllbilly Central. This was one of the most significant moves in country music history, because after Reshen’s legal maneuverings, it broke the back of the Music Row monopoly, and opened a floodgate for artists to be able to record their music outside of RCA’s “Studio B” (or Studio A) and without using union studio musicians. It also ushered in a period where label-owned studios became virtually extinct, and independently-owned studios thrived.
The next significant move was Willie Nelson releasing Red Headed Stranger in 1975, considered by many as the greatest country music album ever. It was done in a small studio in Garland, TX with Willie’s own musicians on a shoestring budget. The next year RCA released Wanted! The Outlaws, which became the first million-selling album in country music history. All the songs on those two albums were recorded with the artists having the final say.
So when Josh Thompson says to blame his Outlaw ways on Waylon, meaning his college-style coed drinking antics and pop-style “partying,” I have to object. Waylon’s “Outlaw Ways” would be to insist on not putting out music that was tooled from beginning to finish by industry producers. I also have to object when someone thinks being an Outlaw means getting a skull tattoo and interjecting devil and drug references into their music.
“Outlaw” is a state of mind; an approach based on strong-willed principles. Anything beyond that is lesser qualifying points based on opinion or simple elements of culture.
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