After exploring the various aspects of American roots music, including southern gospel, delta blues, bluegrass, and a concept album exploring the plight of Native Americans, Marty Stuart is back with Ghost Train, his most mainstream album in years. This time around he’s offering unadulterated traditional country music with a generous helping of rockabilly and a touch of bluegrass. Stuart chose to record the self-produced project in Nashville’s famed RCA Studio B, where many timeless classics were captured on tape, and where Stuart himself took part in his first recording session at age 13 when he was playing mandolin for Lester Flatt. Those expecting a retro-sounding album are in for a surprise; Stuart has successfully accomplished his goal of “writing a new chapter” in traditional country music, and produced an album that is unquestionably traditional, yet sounds fresh and contemporary rather than a nostalgic tribute to days gone by.
The opening track and lead single, “Branded” is one of eleven tracks on the album in which Marty had a hand in writing. It has drawn comparisons to Merle Haggard, and the lyrics do bring to mind such classics as “Branded Man” and “The Fugitive”, but the arrangement and production are solidly in the vein of Stuart’s own classics such as “Hillbilly Rock” and “Tempted.” In a sane and rational world, “Branded” would be in heavy rotation at country radio stations from coast to coast. “Country Boy Rock and Roll”, as the title suggests, delves further into rockabilly territory. Though Stuart is in fine vocal form, it is his guitar picking and that of Kenny Vaughan, a member of Stuart’s band The Fabulous Superlatives, that compels the listener to stop and take notice. The lack of this kind of picking is what has contributed to the blandness of most of today’s country music.
The three finest songs on the album are “Drifting Apart”, “A World Without You” and “I Run To You”, all of which Stuart co-wrote with his wife Connie Smith. Not to be confused with the recent Lady Antebellum hit of the same title, “I Run To You”, the best song on the album, is a declaration of undying love that is beautifully sung by Stuart and Smith. The tasteful production is enhanced by a prominent steel guitar and an understated string section.
“Hangman” is a somber affair of self-examination and soul-searching by an executioner trying to come to terms with the unpleasantries of his grim profession. Though too dark and brooding for country radio’s tastes, the song will be remembered as one of the last, if not the last, written by Johnny Cash. Cash penned the tune with Stuart a mere four days before The Man In Black died.
Stuart draws on personal experience with “Hard Working Man”, which tells the tale of Marty’s father who was relieved of his duties as a factory worker after many years of service. Very much in the vein of songs written by both Merle Haggard and Alan Jackson, it is eerily relevant in today’s economic climate:
What will become of the working man
With honest sweat on his brow?
Is the nation that raised him to build it
Gonna turn its back on him now?
Take away his pride and dignity,
Give his job to some foreign land?
Here’s a question that needs a straight answer:
What will become of the hard working man?
Ghost Train also pays homage to the past by reviving the once common practice of including a few instrumental tracks on the album. The most noteworthy of the three instrumentals is “Crazy Arms”, which is performed by its composer, the legendary steel guitar virtuoso Ralph Mooney, who also plays steel on several other of the album’s tracks.
Following “Crazy Arms” is “Porter Wagoner’s Grave”, which tells the story of a lost soul who is saved after an encounter in a cemetery with the late country legend’s spirit. And just when it appears that the album is winding down, the pace picks up again with “Little Heartbreaker (The Likes Of You)”, a co-write with Ralph Mooney, that like “Branded”, is reminiscent of Stuart’s hit-making days. The instrumental bluegrass number “Mississippi Railroad Blues” closes the album, and allows Stuart to showcase his mastery of the mandolin.
I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed an album this much, but suffice it to say, it’s been a long time. If you’re only going to buy one country album this year, make it this one. My feelings about this collection can be summed up in two words: More, please.
Ghost Train is widely available from retailers such as Amazon and iTunes.