On Marty Stuart‘s 18th – yes, 18th – studio album, Way Out West, the time-tested troubadour and five-time GRAMMY winner honors the “western” part of that grand old genre that used to be called country-and-western. By turns trippy, tongue-in-cheek, and heartfelt, the album casts a wide stylistic net yet feels authentic through and through. Johnny Cash (whose band Stuart anchored in the 1980s), Merle Haggard, The Ventures and more cast their shadows on these songs, yet the spirit of the album is unique to Stuart’s sensibility.
Taken together the tracks form not quite a concept album but a contiguous tapestry of engagement with and love for the idealized West, from the Native American chants on the “Desert Prayer” prologue and the laid-back mariachi flavor and slide guitar licks of the tasty instrumental “El Fantasmo Del Toro” to the mellow-catchy Johnny Cash cloak of “Old Mexico” and the drugged-out haze of the title track. The wide-open, spacey groove of “Way Out West,” the song, feels a little bit like a way-out (west) fusion of The Grateful Dead and Townes Van Zandt, explicitly linking “Cowboys and Indians” and “little green men.”
Courtesy of producer Mike Campbell (of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), a sound eerily like Roger McGuinn’s 12-string pokes its beak into the beautifully arranged, charging country-rocker “Time Don’t Wait,” lest we forget The Byrds’ extensive country-and-western phase. (I’m reminded of Petty’s cover of The Byrds’ “Feel a Whole Lot Better,” the very song from which Campbell borrowed the lick, on his brilliant 1989 album Full Moon Fever.)
The plodding, pretend-sloppy instrumental “Quicksand” pays tribute to The Ventures. “Please Don’t Say Goodbye,” one of my favorite tracks, could have been a lost Elvis hit, with its plaintive sentiment and gorgeous arrangement. “Air Mail Special” goes all the way back to Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton, though Stuart picked it up from a radically transformed bluegrass version – which just goes to show how songs evolve over time to touch wildly different audiences. It’s a cliché, but true: Music is the universal language.
Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, consummate musicians all, are infinitely tighter and more controlled than bands like the Dead ever were, but that doesn’t smooth out the fun they’re evidently having. Guitarist Kenny Vaughan, drummer Harry Stinson, and new bassist Chris Scruggs join Stuart to give every track its own feel, and the variety turns it into a feast, made all the more flavorful by the inclusion of several instrumentals, which turn the focus entirely on the musicians.
Recorded at Capitol Records and at Campbell’s studio in California, rather than in Nashville, Way Out West evokes the Old West, the trippy 1960s and ’70s West, and all the wide-open spaces in between. It’s a masterwork of musicianship and song.