Country music, perhaps more than any other genre, has become constrained by boundaries imposed by record labels and fans expectations. However, every so often comes an artist who refuses to be shackled and breaks those chains like Houdini bursting from a tea chest. Marty Stuart (along with his Fabulous Superlatives) is one such artist, defiantly country, yet open to new ideas, Marty’s career has been categorised by an intrepid exploration, while staying to his roots, and his latest record, Altitude is very much in that vein. At once fresh and familiar, just a cursory spin will tell you that this is one album that will still sound vibrant many years hence.
After touring with Lester Flatt, and then as part of Johnny Cash’s road band, Marty Stuart became his own man in the early ‘80s and releasing a string of Grammy winning albums. The Fabulous Superlatives were formed in 2002, and since then it has been full steam ahead. Now comprising of Kenny Vaughan on guitar, Harry Stinson (drums), Chris Scruggs (bass and steel guitar) and, of course, Marty. With all four members providing vocals, a rich, textured sound is created, and it renders Altitude a multifaceted listen. Opening with the slightly surreal instrumental ‘Lost Byrd Space Train (Scene I)’, things really hit top gear with the following ‘Country Star’, a track of supreme quality that sets the bar high for the rest of the record. ‘Country Star’ is an all-out rocker that’ll not only appeal to his target audience, but also to psychobillies, rockabillies, fans of bluesgrass, or indeed, anyone with an ear for good music. Listening to tracks such as ‘A Friend Of Mine’, you get the impression that they’d slot in well on the soundtrack of a Tarantino flick, and would make the perfect accompaniment to a fist fight in an outlaw saloon.
Altitude is bursting at the seams with rockers, but Marty and the boys sure aren’t one trick ponies. With the guitar surrounding suspiciously like a sitar, ‘Space’ has a psychedelic affair and conjures up mescaline dreams under bruised-coloured desert skies. Despite the vast gap that exists between the uptempo ‘Vegas’ and the more sedate ‘The Sun Is Quietly Sleeping’, they flow together exceptionally well, and these sonic shifts only serve to make this album more of a rumbustious ride. ‘Nightriding’ creeps like a nocturnal cat and steps, light footed, with a cool bluesy shuffle that’d make Muddy Waters proud before the big guns are pulled out on ‘Tomahawk’. The interplay between Stuart and Vaughan is spellbinding, and the two conspire to tie the listener up in all kinds of knots. ‘The Angels Came Down’ makes for a thoughtful conclusion before the band perform the ultimate magic trick with an eerie epilogue, and it is the inclusion of the three ‘Lost Byrd Space Train’ instrumentals that turns Altitude into a kind of country version of Pet Sounds (and I hope it is garnered similar plaudits).
Americana in its purest definition, Altitude has really captured the essence of Marty Stuart’s native environment. Without really trying, the band have created a “crossover” album that’ll appeal to fans old and new. Now well into his sixth decade, Marty is showing no signs of slowing down, and amen for that!
- Lost Byrd Space Train (Scene I)
- Country Star
- Sitting Alone
- A Friend Of Mine
- The Sun Is Quietly Sleeping
- Lost Byrd Space Train (Scene II)
- Time To Dance
- The Angels Came Down
- Lost Byrd Space Train (Epilogue)