After a COVID-imposed two-year hiatus, Marty Stuart’s Late Night Jam made a spiritual return to the Mother Church of Country Music Wednesday night.
The annual gathering of roots enthusiasts at the sold out Ryman Auditorium featured three Country Music Hall of Fame members, an impressive list of next-gen musical innovators, celebrated musicians, comics, a family band social phenomenon, the Grand Ole Opry Square Dancers and a collection of museum-quality guitars from Stuart’s private collection
The 19th annual Jam, which is lauded as the unofficial start to CMA Fest, lasted a full three hours. Curated by Stuart, the event was a benefit for the Congress of Country Music, a $30 million museum, theater and education center Stuart is building in his hometown, Philadelphia, Mississippi.
The Jam felt like a timely convergence of Nashville’s musical bedrock including blues, soul, country, bluegrass and rock. It started with an enthusiastic ovation for Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, who were dressed in rhinestone studded, light blue suits and white patent leather boots. Stuart, who played the Ryman Auditorium the first time with Lester Flatt when he was 13, was dressed in black including his trademark neck scarf; made even more impressive by his flashy crown of silver hair.
The band, which included guitarist Kenny Vaughan, multi-instrumentalist Chris Scruggs and Harry Stinson on drums elevated the mood with a set of barn burners that included “Graveyard,” “Tear The Woodpile Down,” “Tempted” and “Sitting Alone,” a surf-country torcher Stuart wrote at the start of the pandemic that will be on his next album.
The atmosphere was equal parts reverential music hall and parlor picking. Early on Stuart looked to the side of the stage and announced, “Look over there. That’s my momma, Hilda Stuart, the lady responsible for tonight.”
Scruggs, whose paternal grandfather is bluegrass banjo legend Earl Scruggs, turned to standup bass for “Matches” before Stuart invited the Grand Ole Opry Square Dancers to the stage with award-wining jazz violinist and bluegrass fiddler Billy Contreras. It was the start of a seamless musical journey with musicians trading parts and collaborating at a master level.
Stuart introduced his first musical guest of the night saying, “I thought country blues had disappeared until I heard this man.”
Georgia-born Jontavious Willis, 26, captivated the crowd with Stuart accompanying on mandolin. His style was a nod to the rural southern pickers he emulates with a fresh take on songs like “World Is In A Tangle” and “Matchbox Blues,” a song popularized by Blind Lemon Jefferson.
After a lengthy ovation, Stuart invited Willis to play the renovated Ellis Theater at the Congress of Country Music when it reopens later this year. He said, “yes.”
Bellbottom country songstress Lainey Wilson followed, “This building, this stage, is so magical,” she said in awe, calling out her parents who were visiting the Ryman for the first time. “You are seeing history tonight and I’m so glad to be a small part of it.”
It was historic. After a soaring rendition of Wilson’s hit “Things A Man Oughta Know,” Stuart announced that Wilson was playing a guitar played by Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. “Guitars are happiest when they are being played.”
The guitar, a 1937 Martin D-45, was one of several from Stuart’s private collection of 20,000 items that were played throughout the night.
“I might pass out,” Wilson said before performing Williams’ “Lost Highway” with Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives. “If I do, someone catch the guitar. Don’t catch me.”
The Fabulous Superlatives were given several opportunities to shine throughout the night including Scruggs’ performance of the Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys’ classic “Brain Cloudy Blues,” Vaughan’s, numerous, blistering guitar solos, and Stinson, who left the drum riser for a front-of-stage performance of Woodie Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” with Stinson singing notes that punched through the wood-slat ceiling.
Grammy-nominated, 26-year-old guitar maverick Marcus King blew minds and amps with his performance of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” and a gritty, solo take on his 2020 song “Wildflowers and Wine,” which was a personal request from Stuart, who gushed, “I love people who are doing what they were born to do.”
Stuart introduced his wife and fellow Country Music Hall of Famer Connie Smith: “She’s my baby.” After her heart-wrenching performance of “Ain’t You Even Gonna Cry,” the pair got cozy for one of the night’s most tender moments with Stuart playing a guitar previously owned by George Jones, a 1957 Martin D-28. Country’s royal couple traded playful marital barbs and stories before performing Merle Haggard’s “The Fugitive.”
Smith told the story about how a few days before the legendary artist died, he called the couple to say good bye. Smith recalled, “He said, ‘I was talking to Willie Nelson here not too long ago. And asked him, Willie, what do you think of Marty Stuart?’ And Willie said, “Well he got Connie Smith, didn’t he?’”
Stuart and the all-star band turned the stage over to comedians Williams and Ree, (Bruce Williams and Terry Ree) for a short break and came back swinging with “I’ve Always Been Crazy,” a song popularized by Waylon Jennings, and “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin,’” a hit for Travis Tritt, before Stuart introduced the third Country Music Hall of Fame performer of the night – Emmylou Harris.
“I call her queenie,” Stuart teased.
Harris’ retort, “Thank goodness for Marty Stuart.”
Harris, who has 14 Grammy Awards, joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1992 and is credited with spearheading the rebirth of the Ryman Auditorium in the ‘90s. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008 and presented the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.
After a performance of “Wheels” which Harris dedicated to record producer and former road manager Phil Kaufman, Stuart and Harris got close for a collaboration on a song they wrote together, “Three Chords & The Truth,” which was inspired by Harlan Howard’s popular definition of country music. Stuart and Harris played guitars previously owned by Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.
Harris said she had kept the treasured piece of country music history at her house for a few days before the concert. “If my house caught fire, I’d get my dogs first, but this guitar would be next,” she said.
After another standing ovation, Stuart introduced 29-year-old bluegrass guitar shredder Billy Strings, who traded licks with ease and inspired next-generation comparisons to his heroes performing “Freight Train Boogie,” “Tennessee Stud” and “Watson Blues,” which was inspired by a classic Doc Watson lick. There was an obvious respect between them, and the performance didn’t feel like a passing of the torch as much as it was validation that the future of the format is in capable hands.
Stuart admitted spending time during the COVID shut down on social media where he discovered Colt Clark and the Quarantine Kids on YouTube and “fell in love.” Dad Colt and children Cash (12) on guitar, Beckett (10) on drums and Bellamy (8) on vocals and girl-powered attitude were huge crowd pleasers with Stuart joking that it was well past bedtime for the Tampa family.
The set was a clever mix of “Seventh Son,” “Going Down” and “Get Back” that had the same familiar vibe as their living-room sessions with the added kick of Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives. Stinson was a particularly engaged with Beckett trading beats and frequent smiles with the young drummer.
The night ended with Stuart and the band performing “Time Don’t Wait.” It was an appropriate placeholder as the future of American roots music moves forward with a new generation of musical reformists.