SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — Marty Stuart gave his wife, Connie Smith, a kiss onstage Tuesday night (July 8) as the couple celebrated their sixth anniversary.
“Welcome to a parking lot in San Bernardino,” Stuart laughed. “That’s a country music romance right there.”
Country is precisely what Stuart is delivering. His new album, released July 1, is audaciously — and, by the way, accurately — titled Country Music. And the Electric Barnyard Festival — which brought Merle Haggard, Stuart and Smith, among others, to the Orange Show Fairgrounds in Southern California for the tour’s second date — is absolutely country in both content and intent.
Sponsored by Waffle House, CMT and Nashville’s WSM Radio, the tour is designed to bring the performers closer to the music’s rural geographic roots by passing over large cities in favor of smaller venues. Thus, the Electric Barnyard opened Sunday in Sierra Vista, Ariz., instead of Phoenix or Tucson, and favors Dixon, Calif., over Sacramento; Tama, Iowa, over Des Moines; and Medina, Ohio, over Cleveland.
Haggard has characterized the tour as an effort at “remembering the forgotten.” At a time when country has embraced so many outside influences that some critics charge it has lost its uniqueness, Haggard made a point on stage Tuesday at underscoring the rootsy nature of the Electric Barnyard.
“It’s a thing called country music, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Been a long time since you heard it, I’m sure.”
Country came in spades on Tuesday. Haggard is, of course, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Stuart and Smith are card-carrying members of the Grand Ole Opry, and even the Old Crow Medicine Show — whose members appear to be predominantly 20-somethings — weighed in with mountain music that’s more closely aligned to O Brother, Where Art Thou? than with contemporary country radio.
Collectively, the Barnyard musicians’ backgrounds include work with such figures as Ernest Tubb, Lester Flatt, Lefty Frizzell, Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam and Lucinda Williams. And not one line of the nearly 60 songs performed mentioned a soccer mom, the current target of mainstream country.
Instead, the material embraced such classic country themes as alcohol, finances, death, fidelity, faith, broken hearts, trains, desire and the highway. It wasn’t all positive and shiny, but don’t think for a second that it was depressing, either.
More than a quarter of Haggard’s 55 minutes was spent paying homage to two of his largest influences. His vocal style appropriates phrasing from both Frizzell and former Texas Playboy Tommy Duncan, and his set included two songs written by Frizzell (“That’s the Way Love Goes” and “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time”) as well as three titles associated with the Playboys’ Bob Wills (“Ida Red,” “Milk Cow Blues” and “Take Me Back to Tulsa”). Haggard even threw in an extra Jimmie Rodgers-like yodel for extra classic country effect.
Wearing sunglasses, even though the sun had already dipped below the horizon, the Bakersfield native threaded the set with songs that have appropriate California ties. “Big City” was written in frustration over Los Angeles, “Rainbow Stew” was recorded at Anaheim Stadium when cowboy Gene Autry still owned the baseball team that played there, and “My Favorite Memory” and “Okie From Muskogee” reference Lake Shasta and San Francisco, respectively.
Haggard passed instrumental solos among his band, the Strangers, in Western swing fashion, with one musician’s spotlight segueing to the next player. And, in another swing tradition, key instrumental lines were often performed in unison by as many as five instruments.
Stuart, with his puffy hair and a lime green scarf, brought an energetic showmanship to a dozen numbers, ranging from rockabilly shadings to a haunting version of the Frizzell standard “The Long Black Veil.” Guitarist Kenny Vaughn copped Chuck Berry lines on “Hillbilly Rock” and squeezed in a Beatles riff on the opening “Back to the Country,” in which Stuart threw in a touch of Buck Owens’ instrumental “Buckaroo.”
Stuart’s re-working of the Porter Wagoner hit “A Satisfied Mind,” the opening track on his new release, put a loping, nigh-western spin on the standard, while “Farmer’s Blues” poignantly put a lyrical focus on the hard-working rural figures who once formed the backbone of the country audience.
“I’m lovin’ the fact that we get to carry traditional country music across this great nation,” Stuart told the crowd, although not everyone in attendance placed the same priority on that pursuit. One woman with a pierced navel rode a mechanical bull at the back of the makeshift arena instead of focusing on Stuart’s tribute to the agricultural working class.
Like the late Tammy Wynette, Smith belted her songs out with both power and grace. She rarely embellished the melodies, suggesting an inner belief in both the depth of the pieces and in her ability to convey them with directness. In fact, while she could have easily blasted her audience from the start, she demonstrated an admirable restraint, holding back the full strength of her gift until one final gut-busting note at the close of her last number, “How Great Thou Art.”
The Old Crow Medicine Show’s string band approach resulted in a scratchy rhythmic cauldron, and singer-songwriter Bobby Pinson brought a gruffy presence to songs about small-town frustrations and human fragility.
Stuart, who initiated the Electric Barnyard Festival (which features BR549 and Rhonda Vincent in some cities), joined his fellow artists on several occasions. The most appropriate, obviously, came when he appeared on stage to wish a happy anniversary to Smith. He then joined his wife in a version of the Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn classic “After the Fire Is Gone.”
Stuart was not, however, alone. His group, the Fabulous Superlatives, subsequently surprised him as well, serenading the couple with one re-worded verse of the Johnny Cash and June Carter chestnut “Jackson.”
As a result, the San Bernardino lot was perfect not just for a country music romance but also for a romance with country music.