Marty’s departure from MCA was not his final attempt at mainstream stardom. He soon signed to Columbia, and in 2003 released his sole album for the label, the boldly titled Country Music. Despite the title it was not as unabashedly traditional as Marty’s most recent work, combining some nods to tradition with more adventurous musical fare, and was his final record made for a mainstream audience. It saw the debut of his new backing band, the Fabulous Superlatives. Their musicianship is excellent, but the eclectic nature of the record feels it feel unfocussed.
The playful fantasies of the part-narrated ‘If There Ain’t There Oughta Be’, written by Bobby Pinson and Trey Bruce, were the first offering to radio, but just failed to crack the top 40. It was a brave attempt at trying something a bit different, but the lack of tune and not particularly memorable lyrics fall flat.
The much more likeable ‘Too Much Month At the End Of The Money’ was a minor hit in 1989 for the shortlived group Billy Hill (who comprised the successful songwriters Bob DiPiero, John Scott Sherrill and Dennis Robbins), but Marty’s version flopped even though it sounds like a return to his “hillbilly rock” big hits.
The last single, although a truly stellar song, did not chart at all. This outstanding track, the thoughtful ‘Farmer’s Blues’ setting out the financial difficulties faced by farmers was written by Marty with wife Connie Smith. Marty’s sensitive vocal is perfectly judged, and Merle Haggard’s duet vocal balances it beautifully as they swap verses and harmonise on the chorus.
Another highlight is Marty’s first recording of ‘Sundown In Nashville’ with its insider’s view of the dark side of the city, where “they sweep broken dreams off the street”, a great song he has chosen to revive on his excellent latest album. The song dates from the 1960s, but its insight into the “dark side of fame” is timeless.
An introspective cover of the classic ‘Satisfied Mind’ verges on the depressing, and it took me a few listens to really appreciate, but the decision to interpret the song from the point of view of the unsatisfied seeker of peace is actually very effective. ‘Walls Of A Prison’ is a Cash cover, with Marty trying out his best bass growl against a simple acoustic arrangement, and this is another fine track with effectively unhurried phrasing.
The part-narrated Tip Your Hat acknowledges the legends and great songs of the genre, but is musically closer to blues than country with minimal melody and shouty vocals on the chorus, although Earl Scruggs and Josh Graves on banjo and dobro lend it some musical interest.
‘Here I Am’ is a gloomily soulful ballad offering love, with Marty wrote with Rivers Rutherford. On a broadly similar theme, ‘If You Wanted Me Around’, written with Paul Kennerley, is a better song, with the protagonist willing to offer anything if only she cared. ‘Fool For Love’, written by Marty with Tom Douglas, has a jazzy feel with call and response backing vocals not unreminiscent of some of the Mavericks’ ballads, but it’s the kind of thing that really needs a more intrinsically compelling vocalist to pull off successfully.
The rocking novelty ‘By George’ is rather weird lyrically. A superior version of the energetic ‘Wishful Thinkin’’ was previously recorded by Joy Lynn White, who invested it with a wild abandon and intensity making Marty’s version sound pedestrian and emotionless in comparison.
This was an attempt to get back on terms with country radio after the commercial failure of The Pilgrim. It was not a success, and Marty left Columbia to undertakes some even less commercial projects in the next few years – the gospel Souls’ Chapel, another concept album, the Native American tribute Badlands: Ballads Of The Lakota, and a live bluegrass album recorded at the Ryman. It is a bit of a mixed bag musically, but there are some tracks worth hearing, especially ‘Farmer’s Blues’.