Album Review of
Live at the Ryman

Written by Joe Ross
April 29, 2014 - 12:00am EDT
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It's been a number of years since I caught Marty Stuart live at a bluegrass festival at the Frontier Ranch near Columbus, Ohio. At the time, I thought his show was a little too country with its electric guitars and drums, but he was still very well received by the large crowd in attendance. This live bluegrass album is a very welcome acoustic treat that takes the consummate entertainer back to his professional bluegrass roots that first began after he heard Bill Monroe & The Sullivan Family at the Natl. Guard Armory in Jackson, Alabama in 1970. By 1972 (at age 13), the Mississippi native was playing mandolin and lead guitar with Lester Flatt & the Nashville Grass. Lester affectionately called him "Little Marty Stuart." After seven years with Lester, he spent six with Johnny Cash. Marty's also worked with Bob Dylan, Crystal Gayle, Anne Murray, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Jackson, The Sullivan Family, Travis Tritt and many others. 

Since joining the Grand Ole Opry in 1992, you might catch Marty with his own band, with "The Opry Bluegrass Band" (with Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill & Earl Scruggs), or with the old-time "Tennessee Mafia Jug Band." The versatile Stuart has found his niche on Hillbilly Rock Road that traverses both bluegrass and country territory. On this album, his signature "Hillbilly Rock" closes the set that took place on July 24, 2003 at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Marty had just finished touring the nation with his "Electric Barnyard Tour," and he'd somewhat forgotten that he'd agreed to doing a bluegrass show at the Ryman. No matter because fiddler Stuart Duncan, banjo-player Charlie Cushman, dobro-player Josh Graves, and emcee Eddie Stubbs were only a few phone calls away and more than willing to join Marty's Fabulous Superlatives with Kenny Vaughan (guitar), Harry Stinson (snare drum), and Brian Glenn (bass). Marty admits to not having the time to rehearse much or get serious about anything so the group agreed to pick and sing "marquee level songs with a built in fun factor." It wasn't planned for the sold-out concert to be recorded, but after the fact Marty felt that it was magical from the first note to the last. Thus, it was decided to share it with us on this 43-minute CD. Maybe that's why "Live at the Ryman" followed so closely after his "Soul's Chapel" and "Badlands" album releases. 

"Live" conveys a great deal of bluegrass spirit and drive. Often, the very best 'grass is played in jam sessions, and these Nashville cats knew exactly how to light the fire. That's where chutzpah kicks in. Marty was clearly in charge, directing the arrangements, and encouraging his sidekicks. The real treat is in hearing the individual instrumentalists tear up standards and impart their own personalities to the likes of Orange Blossom Special, John Henry, Shuckin' the Corn, Train 45, and The Great Speckled Bird. Some of Stuart's hits such as "The Whiskey Ain't Workin' Anymore" and "Hillbilly Rock" are given hard-drivin' bluegrass treatment. Great pickers also know how to impart drive to slower-tempo'ed tune, and mandolin players should really enjoy Marty's licks on "No Hard Times Blues." I was surprised that the liner notes don't credit Marty with any vocals. The notes are remiss in not acknowledging songwriters. A few little things aside, "Live at the Ryman" is a sturdy, confident project with raw energy and brash attitude. Marty and his buds keep the bluegrass coming at full throttle. Kudos to Les Banks for a fine job with recording this show. (Joe Ross)