Marty Stuart did a masterful job Wednesday night (May 17) at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, serving as promoter, producer, ringleader, lightning rod and premier picker for a program of music recalling a time when country music lived closer to its folk roots than it does today.
To kick off an art exhibit at the Ryman featuring the work of Thomas B. Allen, illustrator of 17 album covers for Flatt & Scruggs, Stuart gathered some of his friends and musical heroes, including banjo legend Earl Scruggs, for an evening labeled “The Great American Folk Boom.” The title refers to the nation’s embrace, in the late ’50s and ’60s, of mountain stringband music and other indigenous traditional forms as pure “folk music.”
“All the walls melt tonight between music and art,” Stuart said in his opening remarks. Walls also came down between generations. Allen’s 20-something daughter, Hillary Allen, sings in a Kansas City-based, punk-oriented band, The Gadgets. She opened the night with a performance of the Carter Family classic, “Wildwood Flower,” accompanied by Stuart and bassist Kent Blanton.
A collector of folk art and country music-related memorabilia, Stuart also keeps on the lookout for folk-based musical talent. A chance stop at a church on New Year’s Eve led to his discovery of Minister Evelyn Hubbard, who came Wednesday night to perform a stirring a cappella version of “Amazing Grace.” LeRoy Troy, from Goodlettsville, Tenn., played the banjo in a clawhammer style that predates Scruggs’ innovative three-fingered technique. He delighted the audience by twirling and spinning his instrument in the manner that late Grand Ole Opry star Uncle Dave Macon once did. Stuart and the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band joined Troy for two songs. Pete Kirby, known as Bashful Brother Oswald during his days with Roy Acuff, watched one song from a wheelchair on stage.
Janette Carter, daughter of A.P. and Sara Carter, accompanied herself on autoharp and Stuart played Mother Maybelle-inspired guitar as she performed “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” “Little Moses” and “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” all from her parents’ famous repertoire.
Stuart devoted the second half of the evening to Scruggs and his musical legacy. Supported by a band that included Dobroist Jerry Douglas, bassist Gary Scruggs, guitarist Brad Davis, fiddler Glen Duncan and Stuart, the famous banjo player kicked off songs, stepped out for solos, sang harmonies and performed showcase numbers such as “Earl’s Breakdown.”
“Something about having Earl Scruggs at the Ryman feels just right,” Stuart said following “Salty Dog Blues,” a Flatt & Scruggs standard. Throughout their set, the instrumental masters played brilliantly. Duncan and Scruggs performed “Sally Goodin'” as a duo. Stuart teamed with Scruggs on “John Henry.” Stuart nearly overheated playing guitar on “Black Mountain Rag.” Douglas took the spotlight on “Fireball.”
There were vocal highpoints, too. Stuart and Duncan ended the mournful “In the Pines” singing harmonized, wind-like “woo-hoos” into the same microphone (Stuart’s mandolin intro was also stellar). Scruggs, Stuart, Douglas and Duncan formed a gospel quartet for “Paul and Silas” and “Precious Memories.” The evening closed with an encore sung by Stuart’s wife, Grand Ole Opry star Connie Smith, of the Carter Family song “Storms Are on the Ocean.” Stuart, Scruggs, Janette Carter and bassist Blanton joined her.
Allen, the evening’s honoree, received a citation from Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist proclaiming May 17 “Thomas B. Allen Day” in the state. His exhibit continues through Oct. 27. On stage to receive his honor, Allen marveled at the evening, calling it “a renaissance happening in Nashville, Tenn., led by a hillbilly picker from Mississippi.”