After reading Peter Pearson, Ralph Dent and then Geoffrey Himes over the past few days
Norman Warwick is
TALKING ALL THINGS AMERICANA
It was quite exciting recently to throw a firework out into the no man´s land between Ralph Dent and Peter Pearson just as they started their debate on the current status of Americana music, in the PASS IT ON 24 edition of our weekly walkabout supplement. As we watched the sparks fly from this fizzing, jumping cracker we heard names like Marty Stuart being deemed Americana these days.
Really? That was news to me. I mean I love Marty Stuart, but I think I place him in another house altogether, let alone another room.
I loved reading Peter Pearson´s selections of those acts he feels fit the ´definitions´ of the genre and I enjoyed Ralph Dent´s attempts to push the music back to a much earlier birthdate than it is usually given, but Marty Stuart? Really? Really !
I was still pondering all that a couple of days after we had published the piece, and suddenly Paste on-line magazine dropped into my e mail inbox, and there was my favourite writer, Geoffrey Himes, with an article shedding some light on it all. He was speaking about Marty Stuart and The Mavericks and a phenomenon he called The Great Credibility Scare.
He began by discussing the highlights from this year’s Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, and mentioned the Friday night set by The Mavericks and the Sunday afternoon set by Marty Stuart & the Fabulous Superlatives. Both acts, he said, have developed live shows more impressive than those during their hit-making days in the last century. It’s those hits the fans still want to hear, however, and Mr. Himes noted that both groups obliged, but transformed the old material with arrangements more muscular and virtuosic than those on the records.
The singing´, he said, ´was undiminished and the playing much improved´.
The notion that such adventurous acts had country radio hits in the late ’80s and early ’90s may seem implausible in this era of narrowly constricted radio playlists, but that was the brief window of the “Great Credibility Scare,” as Steve Earle apparently called it. It was a time when a Cuban-American band from Miami (The Mavericks), a bluegrass mandolinist from Mississippi (Stuart), a self-described “borderline Marxist” from San Antonio (Earle), a bluegrass singer from Kentucky (Patty Loveless), a country-jazz singer from Texas (Lyle Lovett) and a folkie poet from Austin (Nanci Griffith) could get signed to a major label in Nashville and each have at least two Top 40 country singles.
All six of those acts were signed to MCA Records by Tony Brown, who was the company president—and also the producer on many of the albums. Along with such likeminded outsider acts as Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, Dwight Yoakam and Ricky Skaggs at other labels in town, these artists triggered a creative flowering that Nashville hasn’t matched since.
“I was trying to forge a new thing here in Nashville,” Brown told Geoffrey Himes as long ago as 1996. “Rosanne and Rodney were the pioneers, then Steve. Steve brought Nanci’s name up, so I went to see her and she was incredible. Her folk music sounded like great country music to me. Guy Clark gave me a tape of Lyle. Everyone thought I was a genius, but (these artists) opened my eyes to the notion that there was more to country music than just the Nashville formula, that was a vanilla, generic thing, more mediocrity than you could stomach. In the mid ’80s, when all those guys emerged, people were hungering for something different. I was hungering for something different. Music Row didn’t invite them in but took a lot of their ideas and turned it into a new formula thing.”
Before his recent set in Bristol, Stuart (left) sat on his tour bus, parked in downtown Bristol, Tennessee, between the Piedmont Stage and the Blackbird Bakery, and tried to explain to Himes how it evolved. Even now he shook his head as if he couldn’t quite believe it actually happened.
“Tony had that gift that Sam Phillips had,” Stuart suggested, referring to Brown and the Sun Records founder who discovered Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. “He could predict stardom. Like Sam, he could see the potential in artists that they couldn’t see in themselves. And he was in a position to do something about it. He had a big corporation behind him—and a powerful radio promotion department. When he picked up the phone, people would answer. Getting Reba and George Strait on the radio was easy. Getting Steve and Lyle on the radio was the real triumph
It was more being around Steve, Guy and Rodney.
Stuart first met Brown when the latter was the pianist for the Oak Ridge Boys, back when that quartet was still a Knoxville gospel group. From there, Brown joined Presley’s legendary TCB Band, and then Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill’s pre-fame Cherry Bombs band. Traditional gospel, rockabilly superstardom and cutting-edge country—it was the perfect training for a label executive who wanted to transform country music. Brown kept track of Stuart as the youngster graduated from Lester Flatt’s band to Johnny Cash and his band to the first stab at a solo career.
“Tony always encouraged me,” Stuart remembers, “and even when my deal with Columbia Records fell apart, he kept coming around. He said, ‘Okay, it’s time for you to be a star.’ He hooked me up with Kostas and Emmylou Harris’s husband Paul Kennerley to write some songs. Paul called me and said, ‘I have a song I was going to give to the Judds, but after working with you, I think it belongs to you.’ I didn’t think so, but Tony did, and sometimes you have to rely on outside perspectives.”
That was “Hillbilly Rock,” and it became the first of five Top 10 country singles for Stuart in 1990 through ’92. When he performed it in Bristol, it still crackled with a Buddy Holly-like popabilly energy. Stuart’s gray hair stood up like a rooster’s comb atop his head, and the black fringe on his jacket flew when he twirled back to the microphone after a guitar break. Playing the other guitar was Kenny Vaughan, a beanpole in a big, black cowboy hat, who shook out notes like pepper from a shaker. Moving everything forward at locomotive speed were drummer Harry Stinson and bassist Chris Scruggs, in maroon and blue embroidered cowboy suits respectively.
Brown signed The Mavericks in 1991; they released their debut album in 1992, and in 1994 scored four Top 40 singles off their second album, What a Cryin’ Shame. It was an unlikely crossover for a group that had pioneered a new fusion of Cuban music and country-rock in Miami. But Brown recognized the common denominator that linked that Latin sound to country music: the Mediterranean romanticism that had once launched Presley and Roy Orbison to such great heights.
“For me,” says the Mavericks’ lead singer Raul Malo (right ) , “the lightning-bolt moment was Elvis’ ‘It’s Now or Never.’ I thought that was one of the most impressive rock records I had ever heard. I loved the soaring melody, the mandolin at the beginning, and the Italian feel about it. And lo and behold my mom tells me that’s an Italian aria ‘O Sole Mio.’ I’ve been imitating that record ever since I heard it. So Elvis became the conduit for me—and Orbison too—not only because of the way they sang, but also because of the melodies they latched onto.”
That influence was obvious when Malo sang Rodgers & Hart’s “Blue Moon,” a song recorded by Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Dean Martin before it was adopted by Presley (produced by Phillips), the doo-wop group The Marcels and The Mavericks. In Bristol, employing an extra dollop of reverb over Jerry Dale McFadden’s simmering organ, Malo spun out the “oohs” in the title line into an atmosphere of nocturnal dizziness after a first kiss.
Whilst all this crossover might seem confusing we should perhaps remember that all the best songs lend themselves to wide interpretation, with the afore-mentioned Blue Moon, always a favourite song of mine, being adapted and recorded recently on her album Moon To Gold by Karla Harris and Joe Alterman in the most sublime of all the jazz versions that have been recorded of that song.
The same romanticism, Mr. Himes reminded me, suffused a version of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” and such Malo originals as “There Goes My Heart,” “Dance in the Moonlight” and “Back in Your Arms Again.” Filling out the sound of the basic quartet (Malo, McFadden, guitarist Eddy Perez and the singer’s son Dino Malo subbing for ailing drummer Paul Deakin) were three horn players and button accordionist Percy Cardona. At times, it almost sounded like a big band that might have backed Sinatra in Havana.
“When we recorded ‘All You Ever Do is Bring Me Down,’” Malo points out, “the great accordion player Flaco Jimenez (right who was certainly part of the pre- Americana scene Peter Pearson and I were listening to in the Uk thirty and more years ago) added such a distinctive flavour to a simple country song. When I did a solo tour with a Cuban band, I rearranged the song with horns and percussion to recapture that flavour. That was a ‘light bulb’ moment for me. It really brought new life to that old song and gave me the license to really seek that connection for the whole show. Now that song is the finale of just about every show, and the horns and accordion play the lines Flaco was playing.”
Just as The Mavericks found a backdoor into the country mainstream, so did Stuart. Though he was well versed in country traditions after touring with Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash, he was also a big fan of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris after seeing them perform in Michigan on Parsons’ final tour before his death. Stuart was also a fan of Clarence White’s psychedelic-bluegrass guitar work as a member of the Byrds supporting Parsons and Roger McGuinn. These enthusiasms gave Stuart’s classicism a modern edge that helped push open the door at country radio.
He has been repaying that debt ever since. In 2018, on the 50th anniversary of the Byrds’ ground-breaking Sweethearts of the Rodeo album, Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives joined surviving Byrds McGuinn and Chris Hillman for a tour that played the album in its entirety. And this year, Stuart’s quartet released the terrific album Altitude, which celebrates The Byrds’ country-rock fusion with songs that bridge the gap between Sam Phillips rockabilly and the Byrds’ space-rock period. Stuart even plays White’s B-Bender guitar, which he inherited from the musician.
The album’s 11 vocal numbers are threaded together by three versions of a Stuart-penned instrumental, “Lost Byrd Space Train.” His band played two of the new songs at Bristol: the Johnny Cash-influenced “Tomahawk” and the very Byrdsian “Sitting Alone” with Vaughan’s Rickenbacker conjuring up McGuinn’s jangly guitar style perfectly. At the end of the song, Stuart yanked down on the B-Bender’s guitar strap to modulate the tuning up a step.
“If you go back to 1968,” Stuart explained on his bus, when speaking to the Paste on-line writer, “Johnny Cash was exploring the unfamiliar with the Folsom Prison album, and the Byrds were doing the same with Sweethearts of the Rodeo. Both Johnny and Roger were fearless visionaries, and they opened the door to a generation of people who had never considered country music before. The Byrds opened the door to rock’n’roll for me.”
That was all illuminating and helpful and certainly gives Ralph Dent, Peter Pearson and myself much to ponder as we wander sidetracks and detours in search of a portal to Americana.
The primary source for this piece was written by Geoffrey Himes for Paste on-line magazine. Other sources have been attributed in our text wherever possible.
Photograph of Marty Stuart was taken by Hannah Laney for Vivtory Lap Media. Photograph of Raul Malo was taken by Heidi Holloway of Victory Lap Media
Other Images employed have been taken from on line sites only where categorised as images free to use.
For a more comprehensive detail of our attribution policy see our for reference only post on 7th April 2023 entitled Aspirations And Attributions.