Live Review: Marty Stuart, Ardmore, PA, Feb. 28, 2020

Though the show was advertised as Marty Stuart Is The Pilgrim—a tie-in with the recent reissue of his 1999 career-redefining concept album—Stuart And His Fabulous Superlatives were having too much dang fun ripping through whatever they wanted to, from classic country covers to Stuart’s own hits and deep cuts, to get around to playing a four-song selection from The Pilgrim until more than two-thirds of the way through their show.

And that was just fine with the crowd at the very sold-out Ardmore Music Hall. Hell, it was divine. Fabulous, even.

From the thunderous instrumental intro that kicked off the set to the equally powerful instrumental outro that ended it a couple dozen tunes later, Stuart and his aptly named band—guitarist Kenny Vaughan, bassist Chris Scruggs and drummer Harry Stinson—peeled off career highlights like “Tempted,” “Whole Lotta Highway (With A Million Miles To Go)” and “Hillbilly Rock.” They traded turns in the spotlight for a lively stretch that included Vaughan singing lead on his “Country Music Got A Hold On Me” and “Hot Like That”; Scruggs at the mic for Bob Wills’ “Brain Cloudy Blues” and Merle Travis’ “Nine Pound Hammer” (after Stuart reminisced about a version Travis released on a live album recorded just a couple miles up Lancaster Avenue at the old Main Point in Bryn Mawr); and Stinson taking a bow with Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” and Willie Dixon’s “My Babe.”

Stuart shared irreverent memories both of Johnny Cash (his former hero, boss, neighbor, friend and father-in-law) to introduce “The Wall” and of Ervin Rouse before showing why he’s the boss now with a blistering solo on “Orange Blossom Special.”

Yet after all that, Stuart dutifully recounted the real-life story of love, madness, suicide, despair and redemption in his hometown of Philadelphia, Miss., that inspired The Pilgrim and the effect making the album had on his own life and career. “It was my way out of the butt-wigglin’ ’90s,” he said. Though it flopped at the time, putting the brakes on his mainstream success, “20 years later, it’s become a victory record.”

Thematically, the Pilgrim section was by far the darkest part of the show. But musically it was incandescent: “Sometimes The Pleasure Is Worth The Pain,” “Reasons,” “Love Can Go To…”/“Red Wine And Cheatin’ Songs” and, especially, “The Observations Of A Crow” (preceded as it was by a glimpse into Stuart’s process and augmented midsong by a verse his wife made him cut from the recorded version and only restored when he was compiling the 20th anniversary rerelease).

In a way, it’s a shame the band didn’t play The Pilgrim in its entirety; even without high-profile album guests like Emmylou and Johnny, too, it was tantalizing to hear the songs and stories in context. But if that meant missing out on the masterfully played country, rock and pop that constituted the rest of the night—including a fun take on Monkees hit “I’m A Believer”—that would’ve been a shame, too. One night is not enough to contain the greatness that is Marty Stuart And His Fabulous Superlatives.

Zephaniah OHora opened with a middling set of Bakersfield via New York City tunes. “I Do Believe I’ve Had Enough” and “High Class City Girl From The Country” had a certain snide appeal, but his “All-American” both-sides-ism left a sour taste.

—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich

Zephaniah OHora