Marty Stuart once said that the most outlaw thing you can do in Nashville, Tennessee these days is play country music. His new album Altitude explores this very concept. With the backing band of the Fabulous Superlatives, the record addresses traditional country sounds and themes that are typical to Marty Start’s discography while also factoring in a contemporary feel. As the band pairs jangle pop with old-time bluegrass tones, the musician presents at first glance an ordinary playlist for a road trip. However, when really listening to each song’s subject matter and how the album works as a complete work of art, one finds the depth in the presentation of a modern outlaw who realizes the extent of this life, as it mirrors that of something cosmic.
Altitude is the first album that Marty Stuart has released in this decade, and it recalls the classic Western cowboys vs. aliens image with three guiding instrumental tracks of “Lost Byrd Space Train.” With this backdrop, the musician utilizes the cosmic country genre of the mix of psychedelic, exploratory tunes with traditional American roots music. As the Fabulous Superlatives band plays the cosmic country sound, Marty Stuart’s lyrics also explain the sentiment behind the genre. He reflects on the world around him, his career as a country musician, and himself as a person. The alien outlaw represents a feeling of belonging to the music and tradition, but also a lack of familiarity with changing surroundings.
“Country Star” was the first single in anticipation of the release of Altitude. It reflects when, as Marty Stuart howls out, “Way back in the beginnin’ of local radio,” he heard himself singing on a television show. In this song, he tells stories of being raised by alligators in the Pearl River swamp and falling in love with a wildcat-spirited woman outlaw. Though the lyrics include these outlandish, Western film-style elements, they ring truth and rumination in the chorus’s mantra of “All I need is a motor in my car. Crank it up, hit the road, be a country star,” with an exciting drumroll behind it to set up the verses’ instrumentals. This song thus exemplifies several themes of the album and current era of Marty Stuart. It not only sounds like a country narrative with its on-the-road style, “Country Star” also brings the image of the intersection of country star and outlaw, as it reflects on what that meant in the past versus now.
The final single of Altitude comes to the listener through “Sitting Alone,” which also follows “Country Star” on the album itself. As it flows at a bit of a slower tempo than the first song, “Sitting Alone” does continue the contemplative state of moving and changing times. Marty Stuart sings about how the world around him passes by while he is, “Waiting on the right place, Waiting on the right time,” as he sits alone. The tune contrasts the previous one, as “Country Star” plays an image of the artist moving from his surroundings, whereas this song portrays the surroundings moving from the artist.
“Altitude” stands out among the more jangle pop songs like “Sitting Alone” with it being, as Marty Stuart puts it in an NPR interview about the album, “a job for a steel guitar and twin fiddles [to] put it back in the framework of the classic country sound.” The slower-tempo instrumentation makes the listener want to stop what they are doing, sway and bop their head to the music, and really listen to the story. This title track plays with the alien outlaw persona in its lyrics, first with the repetition of the word “Altitude,” placing the singer, “Ten million miles high, Light tears off the ground.” He ends the out-of-this-world tune as he states that he is, “Never comin’ back, but I don’t really care.” The entire album of Altitude by Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives relies on a jangle-pop sound, but its combination of the cosmic country genre brings a depth to the music and the idea of a contemporary country star. Marty Stuart acts as an outlaw, first in the sense that he does what he wants and produces great art for his listeners. He is also an outlaw in the sense that he feels alone, which any listener can relate to.
Reviewed by Krista Spies