Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
arty Stuart deserves the title of country music's renaissance man. He may tell you that he is a hillbilly, but that is only one aspect of what makes Stuart the treasure that he is and deserves to be.
He has great respect for the musical genre he so clearly loves and always has since he was a five-year-old boy growing up in Philadelphia, Miss. He is a huge collector of country music memorabilia. As an artist, he is a fine, exact player on a variety of musical instruments, songwriter, storyteller and producer.
And he put all aspects of his personality into an extremely rare outing - solo - before an enthusiastic audience at a Boston-area club.
Stuart said early on that he could count on one hand the amount of times he has given a solo performance since he was 13 and already playing professionally (he played mandolin for Lester Flatt's band at that ripe young age). Usually, he's with his great backing band the Superlatives, but this was the second of a very short run of solo shows.
It is not easy playing songs solo that are well known and perhaps best intended to be presented in a band setting, but that did not detract Stuart from showing a different side of the songs and himself.
One part that remained constant is the warm, charismatic nature of Stuart. He is filled with stories that aren't meant to show how well connected Stuart is, but, instead, make the music or fellow musician come alive.
He talked about being with Johnny Cash four days before he died (a book of very fine photos by Stuart was being sold at the show with a photo of Cash on the cover looking like he truly was in his final days), telling stories with a mixture of reverence and humor, before launching into "Hangman," the last song that Cash ever helped write.
Stuart spoke of his love for Native Americans, telling how a visit to a South Dakota reservation about 25 years ago changed his outlook. "It ain't right or anybody to be hungry and sick and cold at night without hope," he said. Stuart even went so far as to get married to country great Connie Smith there.
This all led into "Badlands," a mid-tempo song and title track of one of his best CDs.
For the first song of the encore during the nearly 90-minute set, Stuart told the crowd about Porter Wagoner, whose strong, new CD, "A Suspicious Mind," he produced. Stuart, who will up Wagoner next week in opening for White Stripes at Madison Square Garden, did a good job on the slow title track, but also telling fans that Nashville labels routinely dismissed the CD, forcing Stuart to take the music to Los Angeles, landing with a punk label there (Anti-/Epitaph).
Stuart showed different sides of his musical knowledge, playing country, bluegrass (the pretty sounding "My Last Days on Earth," which Stuart said he learned from Bill Monroe on his tour bus), a healthy dose of blues and a few songs that rocked more. Depending on the song, Stuart also changed it up musically, going from mandolin on the bluegrass songs to electric guitar to acoustic.
He also held sway to his spiritual side, closing with "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" with ample help from the crowd, a sweet closing to the rare evening by one of country music's biggest supporters.
Stoll Vaughn, a rootsy singer from Kentucky, opened with a good set. This was a more appropriate setting for the affable Vaughn, who somehow opened shows for Def Leppard and Journey last summer. Vaughn isn't the same natural performer on stage that Stuart is, but that could come with time.