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A Very Good Year
A series covering the 15 best music releases of 2014
10. Neil Young - A Letter Home
9. Bill Mallonee - Winnowing
8. Foo Fighters - Sonic Highways
7. Tom Petty - Hypnotic Eye
6. Bruce Springsteen - High Hopes
5. Willie Nelson - Band of Brothers
4. Marty Stuart - Saturday Night/Sunday Morning
Key tracks: "Jailhouse," ""Geraldine," "Sad House, Big Party," "Old, Old House," "Uncloudy Day (with Mavis Staples)," "Heaven."
Marty Stuart is the most important man in country music today. The former Flatt and Scruggs sideman and Johnny Cash cohort keeps classic country living, breathing, and real. Saturday Night/Sunday Morning is an ambitious double concept album divided into honky tonk and gospel. It's the latest in a string of nearly perfect contemporary Stuart albums beginning with 2010's Ghost Train.
The first record (the best way to listen to it is on vinyl), subtitled Rough Around the Edges, touches on all the highs, lows, and heartbreak of the honky tonk life. Opening double shot "Jailhouse" and "Geraldine" begin things with high energy and classic country western/rock n' roll swagger. Upbeat Bill Monroe and Hank Williams tune "I'm Blue, I'm Lonesome" is highlighted by tasteful pedal steel, fiddle, and hot guitar solos from Stuart and Kenny Vaughan. "Sad House, Big Party" is a lovely homage to another artist keeping country music breathing, Dwight Yoakam. Delightful "Gloria" pastiche "Look at that Girl" shows Stuart's love of '50s and '60s rock.
Of course there's a slower, sadder side to the honky tonk life. Harmony-driven "When it Comes to Loving You" is a classic tale of lost love. Bill Anderson's "Talking to the Wall" ("I might as well be talking to the wall/when I tell myself I’m not missing you at all") is led by gorgeous pedal steel and George Jones weeper "Old, Old House" conjures the Possum beautifully. Backing vocals on gospel influenced "Life Has its Little Ups and Downs" are reminiscent of Elvis' Jordanaires.
Speaking of gospel, the second album, Cathedral, begins with the incomparable Miss Mavis Staples on a stunning version of the Staples Singers "Uncloudy Day." Its sparse, subtle arrangement sets the tone. Slow, burning "Long Walk to Heaven," "God Will Make a Way for Me," and "Heaven" are some of the most soulful gospel music you'll hear from a bunch of white guys (they are southern, I suppose, so it's certainly in their blood). High octane "Boogie Woogie Down the Jericho Road" and "Keep on the Firing Line" are also highlights.
Marty's group the Fabulous Superlatives are something like the Beatles of contemporary country. Aside from being tasteful, talented musicians (Cousin Kenny Vaughan on guitar, Apostle Paul Martin on bass, and Handsome Harry Stinson on drums) they're also all gifted singers, songwriters, and arrangers. Each have songwriting credits throughout and take a lead vocal on a gospel song. Check out their power on instrumental "Good News."
Marty Stuart is one of my heroes. He does more to keep classic country alive than anyone today. Saturday Night/Sunday Morning is essential listening for anyone who loves American music.
Next: 3. Johnny Cash - Out Among the Stars
Erik Ritland is a writer and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. His blog and podcast Rambling On features commentary on music, sports, culture, and more. He is also a contributor for Minnesota culture blog Curious North. Support Erik's music via his Patreon account, reach him via email, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.