These were recorded several years apart but represent a great portrait of all the forms of country music. Emmylou Harris and Marty Stuart are giants in the country field, to the extent that they have escaped the gravy ghetto and are true pop stars as well. Their pedigrees demonstrate their value and importance to the world of American music. Emmylou broke out of coffeehouse obscurity with her partnership with Gram Parsons, a short-lived relationship that set the course for her career as the Byrd shared his love and knowledge of country music with her. She still honors the relationship, co-executive producing a tribute album to Parsons in 1999. Marty started younger, appearing on the same Ryman stage in his debut at the age of 13 with bluegrass legend Lester Flatt. Over the course of their careers the two have worked with notables of almost every genre: Dylan, the Staples Singers, Elvis Costello, Ricky Skaggs, Travis Tritt, Dolly Parton, the inevitable Willie Nelson, Ralph Stanley, Mark Knopfler…if people are judged by the company they keep, these two are some fine musicians. Emmylou’s half of this bill was her last album on the Reprise label, but it exhibits none of the bitterness or boredom sometimes found in the contract-fillers. Instead she brings a band of rock-solid players like Sam Bush and Roy Huskey, Jr. and offers a look at country—no, American—music from Stephen Foster to the present day. By holding the show in the Ryman, which had been little used since the construction of the new Opryhouse in 1974, she was deliberately pointing up how country had lost touch with its roots, despite cowpunk, alt.country, and psychobilly, among other flare-ups of interest in the old music. Country has long been called the most popular music in the world. I like to think that Emmylou and Marty share my thoughts that it’s too bad what is called ‘country’ is so often putrid, watered-down pop with a steel guitar or fiddle fill and an overgrown teen idol in a cowboy hat. Here, you get the real deal. Instead of track-by-track analysis, I’ll run down the setlist: Steve Earle’s ‘Guitar Town’, the real Hank’s ‘Half as Much’, ‘Cattle Call’ (Eddy Arnold, Slim Whitman), Johnny Cash’s ‘Guess Things Happen That Way’, Foster’s ‘Hard Times’, Springsteen’s ‘Mansion on the Hill’, Bill Monroe’s ‘Scotland’, Ray Park’s ‘Montana Cowgirl’, the Everly Brothers’ ‘Like Strangers’, John Fogerty’s ‘Lodi’, the O’Kanes’ ‘If I Could Be There’, the traditional folk ‘Calling my Children Home,’ a Bill Monroe double shot in ‘Walls of Time’ and ‘Get Up John’, a medley of Nanci Griffith’s ‘It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go’ and Dick Holler’s ‘Abraham, Martin and John’, and ending with Stonewall Jackson’s ‘Smoke Along the Track’. That’s a syllabus for Country Music 101, right there. A lot of Bill Monroe? Maybe, but no more so than using three Beatles songs in a comparable course on pop. To distinguish what country music is from what the CMA Awards would have you believe, one needs a strong dose of Uncle Pen. The somewhat surprising choices—‘Lodi’, ‘Mansion’, ‘Abraham’—serve here to show how some songs maintain sentiments associated with the country genre. Fogerty’s lost innocence, Springsteen’s yearning, and the recognition of folk heroes in the song Dion and others made famous all fit the mold of traditional country. The other kind of music—Western—isn’t ignored, either, since Emmylou includes ‘Cattle Call’ and ‘Montana Cowgirl,’ and ‘Calling My Children Home’ fills the Carter Family/spiritual role here. Is it a perfect country album? Well, there’s no Jimmie Rodgers. Otherwise, I’d have to say it’s purt near.
Marty and his band of Fabulous Superlatives deliver what he calls ‘(their) version of bluegrass.’ Knowing that some of you here have expressed no interest or out-and-out dislike of bluegrass, I won’t try to change your minds here. I will say that this is more traditional country with an edge that Emmylou didn’t much explore, the 1950s and ‘60s phenomenon known as honky-tonk. Here’s Marty’s set: the fiddle classic ‘Orange Blossom Special,’ ‘No Hard Times Blues’ from Jimmie Rodgers (there he is), ‘Homesick’, Flatt and Scruggs’ ‘Shuckin’ the Corn’, Marty’s own ‘The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’ Anymore,’ ‘John Henry’, the Stanley Brothers’ ‘Train 45,’ ‘Great Speckled Bird,’ and some more from Marty: ‘Sure Wanna Keep My Wine,’ ‘Walk Like That,’ and ‘Hillbilly Rock.’ ‘Hillbilly Rock’ is a great way to summarize this show in general; it’s country taken to town, electrified and soaked in neon and whiskey. Overall Marty’s show is more upbeat and faster, making for a shorter show, but I think that’s the kind of show he was shooting for; an old-fashioned country show with no filler, no slow points. He introduces stellar guests: Charlie Cushman, Uncle Josh Graves. He performs songs the crowd knows and songs they love, gets in a joke from a guest, and leaves them wanting more. It’s what being at the Opry should be.
That Hillbilly Rock thing…sometimes people ask the big What If questions. There will never be another Elvis; it was a once in a lifetime circumstance. Well, I’m not so sure. If Elvis had never kept up his tenacity and met Sam Phillips, if Johnny and Jerry Lee and Carl had never ridden the wave and if Elvis had never played in front of Buddy Holley and so on and so forth…well, somebody would have, and if it had taken this long I think Marty could have done it. He was Johnny Cash’s son-in-law for a while, played with the best in the world and knew what he wanted to do and be. If he had to go from the Opry to the Ritz, I think he could have been the Hillbilly Cat if the position hadn’t been filled several decades earlier.
Back on track–these two albums can sound even better and lend each other greater depth with a little fun in sequencing. A simple alternation between instrumental tracks can open your eyes and ears with Emmylou covering Bill Monroe’s fiddle tune ‘Scotland,’ then Marty’s ‘Shuckin’ the Corn,’ a workout for banjo but with all the band contributing. ‘No Hard Times Blues’ is an upbeat track meant to lift your spirits in the face of strife, but followed by Emmylou’s version of Stephen Foster’s ‘Hard Times (Come Again No More)’ it is a joyful spiritual followed by what could be a preacher’s message. When Emmylou says, ‘All right—it’s time for a little train music’ to introduce Stonewall Jackson’s ‘Smoke Along the Track,’ let it play through but then follow it with Marty’s ‘Orange Blossom Special’ and then his show closer ‘Hillbilly Rock.’ Honestly, you can’t sum up the feel of the two sets better than that anyway.