Now, THAT’s Country

Close your eyes. Go on.

The kick drum and electric bass hit together, right in your chest. The guitars swirl in a savage spin; they kick, knit, unfurl.

It’s 1966, and the Count Five’s psychedelic-thrash classic explodes out of the radio.

No, it’s live, and it’s now – from the stage in The Egg Sunday night.

It fills your ears so powerfully, they over-rule your eyes and you can’t believe it.

That glorious noise blasts from an Opry-worthy country band, 1957-style. 

Most country-looking: guitarist Kenny Vaughan, a full-on rhinestone cowboy from sequined sky-blue stetson and gleaming white spangled suit to stiletto-toed white boots. A veritable blade of a man, he looks like a fork when he smiles. To his left rocks the only cat onstage in black, like his former boss Johnny Cash; Marty Stuart packs the charisma kick of a compact Elvis with swaggering confidence that he’ll entertain and maybe knock you on your ass. Behind him drums Harry Stinson, lean as Vaughn, and as propulsive. Far stage left, taciturn Chris Scruggs welds bass lines to drumbeats with no fuss or frills.

It’s a country band, maybe the best on the road today – but pitching curve-balls. Authentic as the Rocky Mountains, they’re deep as the Gulf of Mexico.

Sunday in The Egg’s Hart Theatre, they started with the hypnotic 1960s “Outer Limits” TV theme and pushed the limits of country music WAY out there in a slick, strong show. At times, they sounded as country as they looked; as when Vaughan harmonized with Stuart on one mic in “Ghost Train,” their actual opener. Then Stuart quipped “Thank you, and good night” into the applause, but then lit up “Tempted” in somber honky-tonk neon; another Vaughan guitar solo salting the wound. 

The singalong in “This One’s Gonna Hurt You For a Long, Long Time” never caught fire: awed audiences don’t sing that well, and Vaughan again riffed the heart and soul of the song. Stuart did get everybody clapping on the one in his new pandemic paean “Sitting Alone,” tracing a suspended life. 

Citing the weather, they declared Albany surf music capital of the world and went all sunny-twangy, but their riff force was no joke. Neither was the rueful “Matches” – first tune when Stuart and the boys grabbed up acoustic instruments but managed to sound menacing anyway. They borrowed George Jones’s “Old Old House” but paid it back with interest; a slow waltz capped with an a cappella coda. In the faster trucker saga “Tombstone Every Mile,” they stretched out, jazz-wise; as they later did in “Me and Paul.” Both “Country Music’s Got a Hold on Me” and “Hot Like That” grabbed and held, rocking hard as Vaughan’s solos – he also sang both – pulled those tunes this way and that.

Stuart proved country’s hold by reaching for familiar touchstones, including “I’ve Always Been Crazy,” “The Whiskey Ain’t Working Anymore,” with a zippy coda, and Bob Wills’s “Working Man’s Blues” in a real Opry sequence.  

Then things got both sillier and more serious, as drummer Harry Stinson came to the front with a small snaredrum strapped on.

As the band surged into another surf-rock detour with “Wipe Out,” Stinson played the famous tom tolls, on his cheeks. Stinson stayed center stage and sang Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd.” And in case anybody missed its business-suited villains “some rob you with a fountain pen” accusation, he repeated it. 

Things turned serene with the Dylan/Byrds “Flow, River Flow,” and they stayed in tribute mode for Willie Nelson’s sentimental “Me and Paul.” Stuart sent the band off, becoming again the hot-rod mandolin player he first became in his teens, soloing on “Orange Blossom Special.”

He then summoned the band back on. He calls them the Fabulous Superlatives for good reason, and I’ll be surprised to hear any band, any band, play better than they did Sunday night at The Egg. The driving “Time Don’t Wait” was both warning and celebration, a terrific rocker whose reprise ended the set.

Encore time was both a rocking romp with “Psychotic Reaction” – a left field zinger that came and went via outer space – and deeply comforting in “Ready for the Times to Get Better.” Vaughn and Stuart both went riff crazy in “Psychotic,” Stuart launching its roar with harmonica, tearing into a trebly clatter with his guitar, dancing the Nervous Hair while Vaughan steered the song, with HIS guitar. Both played with great tone all night, lots of notes at times, and all in the right soulful places.

After all that uproar, “Ready for the Times to Get Better” brought things home. Stuart dedicated this Allen Reynolds tune (a late-70s hit for Crystal Gayle) to the late, great Nashville pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, who’d died that day. 

Offering pandemic-era consolation while paying tribute to a fallen elder, now that’s country. 

Postscript:

My Nashville musician brother Jim Hoke had told Kenny Vaughan that I’d be at the show. So afterward, I went to the stage door; when Harry Stinson peaked out, I introduced myself and asked him to let Kenny know I was there. Soon, Kenny appeared, asked, “I hear Jim Hoke’s brother is here” and looked around. I stepped up and he drew me inside and offered a nice welcome. He led me to the dressing room where everybody but Chris Scruggs was doing the meet and greet and a few fans were shyly hanging out. Kenny said, “Hey, everybody, I want to introduce this guy. He’s Mike and he’s Jim Hoke’s brother.” Appreciative, welcoming words from all around the room. As others greeted Kenny, I went over to Marty and thanked him for a hot one. “We NEEDED that!” I told him.

Postscript Two

As the coolest show to hit town for months, Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives was well covered – kinda like in the old days when we music writers were all friends and would meet up at all the cool shows: Greg Haymes, Steve Webb, Debbie Snook, Don Wilcock, Carlo Wolff, Michael Eck and me. We were a club, and helped and supported each other, even while competing to do the best job possible because we knew other sharp eyes, ears, minds and pens were aimed at the same show.

But I digress.

For now, let me suggest you check out the words and photos of others who hit The Egg last Sunday including Don Wilcock, aforementioned, and Jim Gilbert in Nippertown; and Ed Conway on his Facebook page.