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Stuart turns up the honky tonk

Pennís Peak, Jim Thorpe, Pa., May 18, 2018

Reviewed by Jim Hynes

Late in the afternoon before heading up to Penn's Peak, news broke that the venue was nominated by The Academy of Country Music as one of the top five small venues for 2018. This foreshadowed a special vibe for Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives on this night, playing for about 1,000 fans.

The band, together now for 16 years, bedecked in in their trademark rhinestone suits ranging from black to light blue speckled, proved why they are among the best live bands performing traditional country music. And, although a pedal steel guitar was present, it was never used. Unlike most country bands, Stuart and The FS didn't need it. Their twanging electric guitars and superb vocals were more than enough to bring glorious honky tonk.

The show opened with, "Sundown in Nashville," immediately rousing the crowd with their command of true honky-tonk fare. Guitarist Kenny Vaughan might as well be called King of Twang instead of 'Cousin Kenny.' Rock n' roll is never too far away in a Stuart show, and they kicked into it on "Look at That Girl" - with the chords from Van Morrison's "Gloria" and a nod to Roy Orbison's "Oh Pretty Woman" by Stuart's guitar lines toward the end. It was clear that the band was intent on having fun. "Is it Friday or Saturday night?" Stuart asked the crowd. "It's Friday? Well, let the hillbillies loose." And with that, the band revved up even more with "Country Boy Rock 'n' Roll"" as Vaughan, Stuart and bassist Chris Scruggs lined up together at the front of the stage.

They seemed to take a casual approach to any set list, as Stuart asked the crowd what they wanted to hear a few times. Just four songs in, the band played Stuart's mega hit, 1991's duet with Travis Tritt, "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'," as many in the audience started singing along. Stuart acknowledged the venue by saying, "This is one of the first places we played together."

Stuart and FS can create just as much energy and maybe even more feeling acoustically, especially on the gospel tunes because of the great harmonies of drummer "Handsome" Harry Stinson and bassist "Professor" Scruggs. Around a single microphone with Scruggs on the upright bass and Stinson with a neck strong single snare drum and brushes, they did "Old Mexico" from their most recent "Way Out West," with Vaughan picking some amazing Spanish licks on his acoustic. Also, one of their mainstay live tunes, "This Old House" was rendered in wonderful three-voice harmony. They covered Marty Robbins' "El Paso" the same way, and Stuart, after noticing a fan with a Johnny Cash t-shirt, asked him what he'd like to hear and then started "Ring of Fire" solo acoustic before the band joined. As they changed configurations from acoustic to electric, they did several tunes from "Way Out West," notably "Whole Lotta Highway (With a Million Miles to Go)" interspersed more familiar fare like Stuart's solo hit, "Tempted."

Perhaps the biggest highlight though was in the middle of the show when each member took a turn. Vaughan, with his double neck guitar, sang "Country Music's Got a Hold on Me," (from his own solo album) trading guitar licks with Stuart and again on the upbeat "Hot Like That." Scruggs did "Blue Moon of Kentucky" with Stuart on mandolin, and a stirring "Never Gonna Do It Again" that brought many in the crowd to their feet.

Stinson had a hard act to follow but took a different direction, with excellent, emotional readings of Woody Guthrie songs "Pretty Boy Floyd" with Stuart on mandolin and "Deportee (Plane Crash at Los Gatos)" on which Stuart's tremolo guitar style was his best of the evening. The members then left it to Stuart alone on mandolin for an extended version of "Orange Blossom Special" before closing with another live staple in a capella "Angels Rock Me to Sleep."

The encore began with the instrumental "Torpedo," and then, for perhaps the best song of the evening, "Time Don't Wait for Nobody" from "Way Out West." That seemed to be it, but the crowd at this point was so engaged that the hit "Hillbilly Rock" was an absolute must.

This is a great band - a group of consummate professionals who know how to play and put on a terrific show.