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Marty Stuart Returns To His Roots On 'Ghost Train'

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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Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Marty Stuart has been playing country music professionally since his early teens. From the mid-1980s to the early '90s, Stuart had a lot of mainstream country music success. But as the country industry moved toward more of a pop sound, Stuart became more interested in old fashioned country music, mostly from the '50s and '60s.

His new album, "Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions," features new songs he's written in this throwback style, as well as covers of old hits by other performers.

Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(Soundbite of song, "Branded")

Mr. MARTY STUART (Singer-songwriter) (Singing) Well, I'm branded wherever I go, trying to outrun a bad story everybody seems to know. Might as well be wearing a ball and chain, 'cause everywhere I travel, seen a picture with a number by my name. Spent some time in San Francisco...

KEN TUCKER: Like countless performers before him, Marty Stuart likes to portray 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 that in the ringing guitars and his high-lonesome holler on that song, 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.

(Soundbite of song, "Drifting Apart")

Mr. STUART: (Singing) Our home is like a prison, where we're both serving time. I'm a stranger in your world now, and it's driving me out of my mind. Drifting apart, drifting apart, darling, we're drifting apart. Out of reach, out of heart, we're slowly drifting apart.

TUCKER: That's Marty Stuart howling 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 sometimes credited with 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 years old. But he never gets bogged down in fussy arrangements or mere nostalgia.

Listen to the way he summons up a whole history of male/female duet singing in a vibrant new song called "I Run To You."

(Soundbite of song, "I Run To You")

Mr. STUART AND Ms. CONNIE SMITH: (Singing) I run to you when I'm lonely. I run to you when I'm feeling blue. Each step I take leads to you only. When I need love, I run to you.

TUCKER: Marty Stuart's duet partner there 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 that allows him to live in a 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.

(Soundbite of song, "Little Heartbreaker")

Mr. STUART: (Singing) You ain't nothing but a little heartbreaker, a tiny little teardrop, mover and a shaker. I swear by the moon and stars, I love you. Youve got me wrapped around your pretty little finger. My heart is a bell, you know how to ring her, and all of this to say baby, I love you. I can't help myself...

TUCKER: 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 his new album, Marty Stuart says that he felt it was time to, quote, "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.

BIANCULLI: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Marty Stuart's new album, called "Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions."

You can listen to three tracks from Marty Stuart's new album on nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of song, "Little Heartbreaker")

Mr. STUART: (Singing) Dont call 'ole moon, get a little unwound. Go to Mississippi then I'm Texas it bound. Play a little country music on the way. Got to get away from you 'cause you break my mind. Baby, I'm gone for good this time. Adios is all there is to say.

You ain't nothing but a little heartbreaker, a tiny little teardrop, mover and a shaker. I swear by the moon and stars, I love you. Youve got me wrapped around your pretty little finger. My heart is a bell, you know how to ring her, and all of this to say baby, I love you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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