Does anyone else in the world have as much fun with music as Marty Stuart? You wouldn’t think so watching him preside over his annual Late Night Jam that began at 11 p.m. Wednesday (June 8) at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. The man obviously feeds on rhythms, melodies and the inspired few who fashion them.
The lineup for the jam kept changing, even after the show began. Travis Tritt and Miranda Lambert, who were originally scheduled, failed to appear. But Raul Malo (of the Mavericks), Randy Scruggs, Connie Smith, Stuart Duncan, Jessi Colter and Jessi Alexander, who weren’t previously announced, did. Showing up as advertised (and rocking as anticipated) were Earl Scruggs, Dierks Bentley, Shooter Jennings and Holly Williams.
Stuart and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, kicked open the doors with “Now That’s Country,” a 1992 hit. The pummeling electric guitar riffs rolled through the historic auditorium like a summer storm, asserting the hard-driving tone for the evening. One of the minor delights was seeing Stuart’s subtle but joyful interactions with aptly named Superlatives, drummer Harry Stinson, guitarist Kenny Vaughan and bassist Brian Glenn.
By his second song — “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin'” — Stuart had the crowd singing along and otherwise thoroughly engaged in the proceedings. While there were plenty of middle-age faces in the audience, there were also sizable clusters of noisy 20- and 30-somethings, who were inclined to scream every time Bentley’s or Jennings’ names were mentioned.
After his sixth song, Stuart told the crowd, “When I was 5 years old, I got my first record. It was Flatt & Scruggs’ Greatest Hits. The second was The Fabulous Johnny Cash. The only two jobs I ever had were with Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash.” With that, he asked the audience to stand and welcome the surviving half of Flatt & Scruggs, “the great Earl Scruggs.”
Scruggs came to the stage, accompanied by his son Randy and fiddler Duncan. With Stuart and his band picking along, Scruggs and company breezed through “Cry, Cry, Cry” and the theme from The Beverly Hillbillies, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.” On the latter, Stuart called the ever-cooperative crowd to its feet to sing along. Duncan then led the musicians in the hoary — but always amusing — showoff piece, “Orange Blossom Special.” By this time, people were pushing out from both wings of the stage to watch the instrumental fireworks.
Randy Scruggs calmed things down by singing a song called “Passing Through” that he wrote with Johnny Cash. Just as it reached midnight, Earl Scruggs closed his set with his classic “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” a choice that earned him a standing ovation.
“Let ’em know you love ’em,” Stuart urged as the applause rolled on. “Ain’t that cool?” Stuart beamed. “That’s the way it ought to be.”
It was a hard act to follow, but Williams did so with grace, aplomb and poetry. One doesn’t quite know what to expect from the granddaughter of Hank Williams and the daughter of Hank Jr., but she made it clear from the first line of the first song — and without any of the characteristic Williams bluster — that her voice is distinctly her own.
Accompanying herself on acoustic guitar and backed by an electric guitarist, Williams sounded something like a throwback on the folk singers of the 1960s — but with none of their annoying buoyancy and self-consciousness. Her lyrics were introspective without being narcissistic, honest without being brutal.
A physically imposing figure with a strong, breathy vocal delivery, she opened with “I’ll Only Break Your Heart” and followed with “Between Your Lines,” “Sometimes” and “Would You Still Have Fallen,” all densely worded, novelistic selections from her album, The Ones We Never Knew.
Stuart joined her to sing and play mandolin on her grandfather’s bone-chilling “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” They sang it with such wistfulness and conviction that it was almost like hearing it for the first time. If Williams doesn’t have a great career before her, it won’t be for lack of talent.
Up next was the cheerful Malo, who confronted the applauding crowd with only his acoustic guitar and angelic voice. He started with one of his own recent compositions, “Just Because,” which sweetened the air like a pop song from the 1930s. He even whistled a portion of the tune. “I’ve always wanted to sing this at the Ryman,” said Malo, as he launched into “Sweet Dreams,” straightaway lifting the rafters of the old tabernacle.
There was an awkward 10 minutes or so while the stage was reset for Jennings’ band, but the crowd kept its relative cool. Stuart led Jennings’ mother, singer Jessi Colter, out and introduced her as the setup dragged on.
Jennings made his bow with “Let’s Put the O Back in Country,” a rather tiresome manifesto for those who have witnessed such other momentary messiahs as Jennings’ own dad, Waylon, and Dwight Yoakam ride in to save Nashville from itself. But to give the lad his due, he did exhibit an endearing earnestness that transcended what occasionally sounded like Waylon berating indifferent radio from the grave. And the audience unquestionably loved him. Jennings and his band, the 357s, wrapped up their five-song set with his current single, the infuriatingly catchy “Fourth of July.”
After the Superlatives returned to the stage, Stuart told about one of his three upcoming albums, Badlands, which, he explained, is a tribute to and defense of Native Americans. “I want to sing you a song,” he said, “about when George Custer got what was coming to him.” The party-prone crowd did not cheer at this suspiciously anti-establishment intro, but it was properly appreciative of the band’s stellar performance of the song itself, “Trip to Little Big Horn,” which repeats the line, “The general’s still dead.”
Staying in the socially conscious vein, Stuart brought his wife, Grand Ole Opry star Connie Smith, to the stage to sing “Farmer’s Blues,” a song the two of them wrote and which he and Merle Haggard recorded.
Stuart then announced that Miranda Lambert would not be appearing and introduced her substitute, Jessi Alexander, who did two cover songs — Patty Loveless’ “I Wanna Believe” and her namesake’s (Jessi Colter), “I’m Not Lisa.” Alexander invited Colter out to sing with her, but that didn’t happen. Let it be noted, however, that Alexander’s version of Colter’s 1974 hit stood shoulder to shoulder with the original.
The last act up — and the one that the loudest elements of the crowd had been waiting for — was Bentley, who, Stuart pointed out, had flown in early from a TV taping in Jamaica just to do the jam. The tousled-haired singer did two of his three songs seated on a stool and accompanied himself on acoustic guitar. He began with “How Am I Doin'” and then introduced his next single, the written-to-elicit-screams “Come a Little Closer.” It elicited screams.
Stuart emerged from the wings with his mandolin to back Bentley on a scorching romp through Bentley’s current hit, “Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do.” Then Bentley contributed the lead vocals for the old bluegrass standard “Doin’ My Time” as Stuart and the Superlatives propelled it along.
As the clocked ticked closer to 2 a.m., Stuart called all the performers who hadn’t left back to the stage and coerced Colter to sing “I’m Not Lisa.” Her voice was stronger and even more sensual than when she first recorded the song some 30 years ago. With Colter, Jennings, Smith, Alexander, Bentley and the still enthusiastic house providing the background vocals, Stuart and the Superlatives rang down the curtain with “The Weight” and “Amen.”
Three hours in and sweating copiously, Stuart was still grinning like a kid who’d just mastered his first chord.