Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions
[Rating: 3.5 stars]
As the most devoted curator of the institution of country music – writing books, hosting a weekly television show, collecting memorabilia — Marty Stuart has dedicated his life to the preservation of the music he has spent his life playing. Given his standing, Stuart is one of the few musicians entrusted with the keys to Nashville’s famed RCA Studio B, the legendary room that is operated as a tourist attraction by the Country Music Hall of Fame where Stuart first recorded with Lester Flatt as a 13-year-old. Not surprisingly, Stuart has used that opportunity to commune with the ghosts who hang around the mixing board.
Inspired in part by Stuart’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina, Ghost Train is an album spread across a variety of locales and over a rowdy cast of down-and-out drunks, heartbroken lovers, and lonely ex-cons that are torn from the canon of great country archetypes. And while playing spot-the-reference is an entertaining exercise, it only tells half the story. Sure, it’s hard not to hear Charlie and Ira Louvin harmonizing behind Stuart on the hymn-like “Drifting Apart” or catch echoes of Don Rich and Clarence White in the flurry of riffs fired off between Stuart and Kenny Vaughan on the spirited “Hummingbird.” But few artists can sew together these pieces as seamlessly as Stuart and his impeccably tight Fabulous Superlatives, and the album is as much a tribute to their mastery of the last 50 years of country music as it is a meticulous reanimation of another era.
Split between heartbroken ballads, traditional cuts, and twanged-out rockers, Stuart’s sixteenth studio release is a departure from his recent spate of theme-centered albums, though he remains, first and foremost, a craftsman. Opening cut “Branded” is the brand of hillbilly rock that earned Stuart his name as a solo artist, and his cover of Warner Mack’s classic “Bridge Washed Out” and Don Reno’s “Country Boy Rock & Roll” are similarly run through the glitterbilly machine. If Stuart can lay claim to a signature sound, this is it, and he and the Superlatives reserve their most vivid showmanship for these moments.
Just as impressive is Stuart’s soft touch with “A World Without You,” a bleary-eyed ballad co-written with Connie Smith, and “I Run to You,” a string-touched ode to devotion and commitment where Stuart and Smith’s voices blend beautifully on a sweetly sighing chorus. Similarly moving is “Porter Wagoner’s Grave,” a surreal spoken word tribute to the song’s titular character in both style and content, with Wagoner sent back to earth by God to give a conflicted man the courage to go back to his wife. And while the album clearly favors timelessness over timeliness, Stuart captures the current zeitgeist with “Hard Working Man,” voicing the frustrations of those who lost their livelihoods as their jobs went overseas. Like Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” or John Rich’s “Shuttin’ Detroit Down,” it’s a simple and straightforward anthem, one that is disarming in its everyman immediacy and potent in its threadbare arrangement.
Best of all is “Hangman,” a song written with Johnny Cash only four days before the legend passed away that brings to life a haunted executioner as he tries to shake off the memories of all of the men he led to the gallows. With little more than an acoustic guitar and a darkly enveloping atmosphere hanging over Stuart’s rich baritone, it’s a track that would have fit perfectly on any of Cash’s American Recordings albums, and it’s the sober centerpiece of an album that walks a balance between joy and despair.
Ultimately, Ghost Train doesn’t quite measure up to the most memorable albums in Stuart’s catalog, as it lacks the overriding conceptual pull and stylistic unity of his greatest works. That said, it’s a thoroughly listenable and endlessly replay-able affair, a snapshot of where Stuart is as a performer and proprietor of traditional country music in 2010. He’s not quite a museum piece yet, but albums like Ghost Train prove that Marty Stuart has earned the right to stand beside his heroes.