Like countless performers before him, Marty Stuart portrays himself as hunted, haunted, misunderstood -- a rebel on the lam. It's a familiar story, whether it's coming from the blues, honky-tonk or hip-hop. The trick is to make that story sound fresh. Stuart does in the ringing guitars and high-lonesome holler of a song on his new album, Ghost Train, called "Branded." Whether he intends it or not, "Branded" is also something of a pun: This new collection is Stuart's proclamation that, while he can't help but become a consumer brand, his branding is that of the outsider. All of this would be hopelessly hokey if the music didn't bolster his line of patter.
In "Drifting Apart," Marty Stuart howls about a broken marriage in what amounts to an homage to the kind of steel-guitar super-hits George Jones and Buck Owens made decades ago. Stuart wrote the song and produced it himself. The steel guitar is played by Ralph Mooney, the man credited with nothing less than inventing the so-called "Bakersfield Sound" on hits with Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart, among many others. Stuart is a fluid guitar player himself, who played bluegrass mandolin behind Lester Flatt when Stuart was 13. But he never gets bogged down in fussy arrangements or mere nostalgia.
Stuart's duet partner in the vibrant new song "I Run to You" is his wife, Connie Smith, a great country singer, starting with her indelible 1964 hit "Once a Day." Sometimes it seems as though Marty Stuart has built a life around him that allows him to live in a kind of perpetual country-music time-machine. He curates exhibits of music memorabilia and photography, and does restoration work on legends such as Porter Wagoner, for whom Stuart produced a lively 2007 album, shortly before Wagoner's death at age 80. Stuart has a song on Ghost Train called "Porter Wagoner's Grave" that's at once eloquent and maudlin in a long tradition of country death songs.
All is not gloom and grave-dust, however, as "Little Heartbreaker" demonstrates. The longer you ride in Marty Stuart's Ghost Train, the more its speed and energy hits you like the wind in your face. In the liner notes to this new album, Marty Stuart says that he felt it was time to "write some songs and play some hard-hitting country music." Most of the time, Ghost Train hits hard, dead center in the sweet spot between old and new, until you can't tell the difference.
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