Marty Stuart is a throw back to a different era, an era when a career in country music encompassed your entire life and the entirety of country music. He is one of a group of men from the late 80's and early 90's who became famous playing with others before they became famous for their own music. At age 12, Stuart was playing in a bluegrass band; at age 14 he was touring with Flatt and Scruggs. By the time he embarked on his solo career at age 30, Stuart had played with artists ranging from Doc Watson to Johnny Cash. This wealth of experience left him with a profound knowledge of and love for country music. Ghost Train is a tribute to the music Stuart knows and loves.
The albums opens with “Branded, ” a song that calls to mind Buck Owen's“The Streets of Bakersfield,” both musically and lyrically. Stuart sings about “trying to outrun a bad story that everyone seems to know.” Country Boy Rock and Roll reads like the story of Marty Stuarts life, with lyrics that remind listeners of his early work with Travis Tritt and a fiddle breakdown that plays like this old days with Flatt and Scruggs. The bluegrass on the album is spare, but wonderful when it appears. Hummingbyrd is a sprightly instrumental track which serves as a bluegrass break from the Bakersfield and 60's country crooning. Stuart also closes his album out with another bluegrass interlude. Ralph Mooney, legendary steel guitar player, plays throughout the album, and Stuart gives him a star turn on the solo “Crazy Arms.” He also takes the time to do a duet with his wife, Connie Smith, on the beautiful “I Run To You.” “There's a woman down the street named Rosalie McFall, she don't ask me any questions when I come to call,” Stuart sings on “Hangman,” a dark ballad about the title character, in much the same vein as Johnny Cash. Stuart lets this album flow like a musical map of all the styles he has learned and seen.
More than anything else, however, Stuart seems to understand the themes that country music used to deal with, the ones that country music does not get right today. Country music used to really understand the end of a marriage, and covered it with a heartbreaking bluntness which was far more compelling than the melodrama of today. “Our home is like a prison where we're both serving time,” Stuart croons in the George Jones homage “Driftin' Apart.” “A World Without You” is an almost Eddy Arnold styled ballad, which also serves as a reminder of just how sumptuous Stuart's voice can be when he really unleashes it and stretches it out to its most heartbreaking edge. Likewise, today humor in country music tends to revolve either around man-bashing or frat boys trying to prove how country they are. Country in the 1960's was a far more humorous place, with writers like Roger Miller unabashedly penning songs like “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose.” “Bridge Washed Out” is a reminder of comedy country unencumbered by defensive macho posturing. But perhaps the one aspect of country music most missed by traditional country fans is the poor. Once upon a time country music was the music of the working class, of the broke and the broke down blue collared employees being shunted aside in the name of progress. “Here's a question that needs a straight answer, what will become of the working man,” he asks in “Hard Working Man,” a song that could be linked back to Merle Haggard's “I Wish A Buck Was Still Silver,” but which has more wide reaching roots a time when such songs were more about the people than the politics. “Ghost Train Four-Oh-Ten,” opens with a riff worthy of Jimmie Rodgers before opening out into a bluesy rocker about a man put under by the economy. And, of course, Porter Wagoner's Grave allows Stuart pay tribute to the criminally under-homaged singer while schooling contemporary singers on how to write an old-man-as-font-of-wisdom song.
Ghost Train is the kind of album that artist like Marty Stuart work their entire lives to create. It is precisely the kind of album that requires an entire lifetime of skill and knowledge to create. However, Marty Stuart is also the only kind of an artist that could create an album like Ghost Train. This sort of an album requires that an artist be enamored of the music, but also album to create new songs that celebrate and advance it. Hopefully this album will inspire more artists of Stuart's talents and experience to create more albums that lionize country music of the 1950's and 60's instead of merely covering it.
If you prefer physical CD copies, you can purchase the album at Amazon.