On Saturday, Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives were in the house — the legislative chamber in the Old State House.
The Observer and spouse have caught Stuart in concert before and come away impressed. But Saturday's show was almost otherworldly. Like the best televangelists, the man looked like someone who deserved to be up front, which is to say fairly outrageous. But when he spoke, in the deep, dulcet twang of someone from Mississippi, his aw-shucks charisma made us forget that he was wearing black leather pants, more foundation than Joan Rivers and a mullet-pompadour combo that looked less styled than shocked.
Stuart's collection of country music memorabilia --“Sparkle and Twang” — is on exhibit at the Old State House, and he added to that history by telling stories between nearly every other song. Stuart, like any good storyteller, knew his audience. He called out “silver-haired beauty” Maxine Brown, famous for singing in the Browns and someone he said treated him like family when he was a teen-ager playing mandolin in Lester Flatt's band. Later, he dropped the word “Tyson” in a song with a chicken reference — Don Tyson, who bankrolled at least part of the event was sitting at a table by the front of the stage. Even the anonymous faces in the 250-person crowd felt pangs of recognition as Stuart told tales about playing Mountain View, BJ's Star-Studded Honky Tonk and Jimmy Doyle's Country Club, where he said a tin sign over the interstate announced a performance by Marty “Stewart” and stayed up two months after he played.
Then there was the sangin,' which flitted through the history of 20th century roots music. There was bluegrass, of course, like the Bill Monroe instrumental number “Rawhide,” and some of that swingin' hillbilly that Stuart was famous for in the early days of his solo career. Stuart played Jimmie Driftwood's “Tennessee Stud” for the first time. More unexpected was a blue-eyed soul version of “With Body and Soul” (another Monroe classic), a country-surf instrumental that sounded like the Ventures at the Ryman and covers of songs by the Stones and Tom Petty.
Stuart spent most of the night on the mandolin, an instrument he often plays so fast his hands blur. His band, the Superlatives — guitarist “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan, stand-up bassist “the Apostle” Paul Martin and drummer “Handsome” Harry Stinson — was crack, as good as any national backing unit The Observer's seen. Befitting the intimacy of the hall, they kept it acoustic. Stinson played a snare on a strap around his neck with brushes. Everyone harmonized.
There's no dancing in the house chamber. It's too historic. Unlike past state house gigs, where a center aisle or space in the rear of the room often proved too tempting for the loose-limbed, patently uncomfortable folding chairs were arranged around round tables, with nary a space for wiggling room. Still, when we went down below to use the loo, the foot-tapping echoing down from above sounded like thunder.
Hank Snow is represented in the “Sparkle and Twang” exhibit by one of the fancy cowboy-like suits he wore while singing. So is the other Hank, of course. No one would dare offer a country-music exhibit without some Hank Williams memorabilia, and this one includes high-end memorabilia — not just a suit and boots, but Williams' handwritten lyrics to songs like “Your Cold, Cold Heart.” There's a fringed outfit that was worn by the great Patsy Cline, said to have been made by her mother, and a banjo that belonged to Earl Scruggs, who gave it to Stuart. Stuart also has a lot of really fancy boots. We wondered how his collection would compare with Nolan Richardson's.
A whole room is devoted to Johnny Cash, perhaps Arkansas's greatest contribution to popular entertainment. In Stuart's video commentary on the exhibit, he says that when he was growing up in Philadelphia, Miss., Johnny Cash and his band were to him what The Beatles were to other kids his age. Later, Cash became a friend and mentor. Part of the exhibit's appeal is that Stuart always seems as much a fan as a star himself.
“Sparkle and Twang” will be at the Old Statehouse through Oct. 5, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is free, but voluntary contributions are accepted, and in this case well deserved.