Given the sparse Western desert landscapes and the Hunter S. Thompson-esque horror stories of behind-the-wheel pill popping that characterize Marty Stuart’s new album, I half expected Stuart’s set to create an unexpectedly trippy warm-up to headliner Chris Stapleton last night at Verizon Arena. True to a showman’s form, though, Stuart ripped through a variety show-style set of hits he’d co-written for other people (“The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’ Anymore”), his own hits (“This One’s Gonna Hurt You”) and hits from the formidable repertoire he’s developed as a country music sideman of the first degree, like “Orange Blossom Special.” Stuart invoked former bandmate (and former father-in-law) Johnny Cash with “Ring of Fire,” introduced with the squarely nonrhetorical question: “Y’all ever heard of Dyess, Arkansas?” Even the younger country fans — otherwise concerned with filing through the crowd of 13,445 to find their seats, and without spilling their craft beer — could get excited about that one, and cheered again when Stuart declared that “Little Rock is the surf music capital of the world right now.” He and his dapper band, The Fabulous Superlatives, were more Grand Ole Opry than desert mirage in their delivery, taking time to let each of the longtime band members step up to the center stage microphone. And – though they handled it with finesse – I’ve no doubt that those who were there for Stapleton would have left in awe of Stuart’s musical prowess, had the openers been afforded a fraction of the luxuriously present sound afforded to the headliner on this “All-American Road Tour.”
Guitarist “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan sang his own “Country Music Got a Hold On Me,” followed by a number from true Nashville cat session player and former member of BR549 Chris Scruggs. Finally, “Handsome” Harry Stinson stepped up to show off his skilled brushwork on a rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” and might well have stolen the moment with his “Mule Skinner”-style breath control had the camera not been so careful to close in on shots of Stuart’s storied mandolin, with the initials “JRC” scratched into it unceremoniously from the time Johnny Cash “ruined his mandolin,” as Stuart recounted to CMT in a 2005 interview:
“Well, I’d saved my money to buy that mandolin when I got a job with Lester Flatt, and it was $650. For years, I was real proud of the fact that it never had a scratch on it. It looked like a brand new instrument for probably 12 or 13 years. When I got a job with Johnny Cash, he got on a kick of wanting me to teach him how to play the mandolin. And he was a horrible mandolin player. He’d take my mandolin on the stage and just play along with June Carter when she was singin’. One night I looked over there and he had his pocketknife out and scratched a huge cross on it and put his initials, “JRC,” on it and then flipped the mandolin over and autographed it and signed, “Johnny Cash.” My heart fell. After the show, I said, “What did you do that for?” and he said, “I didn’t want you to forget the Lord.” And I told him I could have remembered the Lord without him wrecking my mandolin. But it was all in good fun. And that started a trend after that. People just felt compelled to sign the mandolin. It has Stephen King, President Clinton, Bob Dylan, Billy Bob Thornton, Chuck Berry, Quincy Jones, Natalie Cole, ex-girlfriends, my momma and a lot of people I don’t know on there. I’m about to run out of places for people to sign.”
The crowd, mostly listless during Stuart’s set, piped up loud and clear in the intermission before Stapleton’s set for Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.” The aisles were a parade of leather, fringe, suede and cowboy boots; all the sartorial signifiers of a stadium country show, if a somewhat traditionalist one. A stray Miller Lite was passed around for anybody willing to drink a beer from an unknown source — which, as far as we could tell, was nobody. The couple in front of us, who’d initiated impromptu trivia during intermission about the original lineup of The Eagles (or, as it was put chidingly between debaters then: “The founding members, dipshit!”) snuck down to the stadium floor for a sweet waltz or two. When the lights went down, the crowd went wild, but it was a false alarm — “Cripple Creek” kicked in on the loudspeakers. Finally, around 9 p.m., there was a great bass rumble that gave way to a cold open; a solo Stapleton ripping into a weed-loving lament from his debut record “Traveller,” “Might As Well Get Stoned.” The crooner’s lean outfit was remarkably loud for such minimal instrumentation: guitar, bass and drums. For my taste, they were maybe even a bit too sonically homogenous, but nevertheless solid and in the pocket, with polished arrangements that recalled the “Black Velvet” heyday of 1980s country radio — the era when country fell back in love with blues rock.
Morgane Stapleton, Chris’ wife and an accomplished Nashville singer and songwriter (Carrie Underwood’s “Don’t Forget to Remember Me,” LeAnn Rimes’ “You Ain’t Right” and two tunes with the late Guy Clark), filled in on some muscular vocal backup to songs like “Hard Livin’,” and Stapleton called Stuart back up for a rendition of Rodney Crowell’s “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This,” made famous by Waylon Jennings.
Don’t get me wrong: Chris Stapleton is wildly accomplished and in complete command of his voice. He’s probably the closest thing, vocally, that we have to Chris Cornell on this earth, and capable of blending his blues leanings with his bluegrass history (Stapleton is a former member of The SteelDrivers) so seamlessly that you’re not even all that mad at him when he solves the eternal “Freebird” conundrum by actually playing the damn thing. Dude’s racking up CMA Awards like they’re Pokemon, and he’s definitely the name pulling in the ticket revenue for a 13,000-plus audience.
But somewhere, there must be an unwritten rule that the headliner is to be afforded the luxury of a superboosted presence, something that lets the audience know, as I knew when my entire body began to rumble seismically upon his grand entrance, that things were cranking up to eleven, that we were “really gonna party now.” I don’t know that Stapleton’s set needed that glitz — which, to be fair, was understated in comparison to a few of the stadium’s 2017 shows. Somehow, though, it felt a little artificial to roll out the acoustic red carpet for Stapleton when legends like Stuart and The Fabulous Superlatives got the short end of the stick, sonically speaking.