When it’s all over, when it’s all said and done,” reckons Marty Stuart on the brilliant rockabilly infused, timeless sounds of “Tomahawk”, there’s absolutely nothing new underneath the sun”.
And when it comes to country music, he might be right. Every week, it seems some new artist is putting out a collection of, by and large, the same thing. The same theme. The same sound. The same lyrics. It’s good, too, but it’s identikit.
Stuart is the antidote, in many respects. A veritable legend of the country scene, 5-time GRAMMY winner, Country Music Hall of Famer and AMA Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, 50 years in Nashville, 30 years a Grand Ole Opry member, he’s also got some strident opinions on the state of the music he loves. “The most Outlaw thing you can do in Nashville these days,” he reckons, “is play country.”
So on his first album for six years, he and The Fabulous Superlatives (long time cohorts Kenny Vaughan, Harry Stinson and Chris Scruggs) have got as much of good old fashioned three chords and the truth as they can muster, but they’re clever enough and skilled enough to make it their own.
To that end there’s “Lost Byrd Space Train” an instrumental theme that runs through this (the album was inspired by a stint on the road with Byrds founders Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman and it gets as West Coast as you like sometimes).
Mostly split between the timeless country of “Country Star” and the 60s flavoured jangle and harmony of work like “Sitting Alone”, “Altitude” is to all intents and purposes, the result of those worlds clashing. “Friend Of Mine” is a real highlight, but it comes from an almost surf rock place, while at its most psychedelic, ‘Space” floats.
Yet, this is a collection that belongs in the here and now for all that, on the aforementioned, “Space” he reasons that “I feel so out of the in-crowd” and whether that’s musically, culturally (most likely both?) these feel like anthems for those left behind. Not for nothing, do you suspect, is the title track a full on honky-tonk thing, the sort of warm, welcoming thing, I’ve looked for since I bought a collection called “Elvis Country” which began my love for this stuff.
He’s adept at being timeless. “Vegas” is a relaxed homage to the city of sin (although when I went I discovered the joys of Seinfeld and went to a couple of gigs, as I am a party animal) and there’s something cinematic about “The Sun Is Quietly Sleeping”, On “Nightriding”, finds some laid back blues groove. There’s an inbuilt soul, like he’s really given himself to these songs – and moreover, they could have emerged at any point in music history and sounded like they belonged.
And all of country is in the last two. “Time To Dance” celebrates life itself, the Friday in the dive bar, with the whiskey flowing, and the lovely “The Angels Came Down” to end it. Not being a religious man I’ll just say its reflecting the circle of life- as all great music should.
I’ve always loved songs that feel like old friends but still sound new and fresh,” says Stuart about “Altitude”. “The beautiful thing about country music is that the blueprint Jimmie Rodgers laid down—rambling, gambling, sin, redemption, Heaven, Hell—it’s all just as relevant now as it ever was”.
He’s not wrong. And whilst not many can do it with as much legitimate claim to authenticity, then there’s even fewer that can take the format and do something so different, yet so familiar with it.
“Altitude” hits some incredible highs. There are though, just about enough superlatives left.