Throughout 2020, I will be writing about my favorite albums of the past decade (2010-2019). This is an extension of an initial five-part series.
Ultimately, my problem with this feature is that it’s incomplete. There’s only so much time in a day to hear new music, and though I’ve mostly written about favorites I’ve absorbed over the years, for music I caught up with at the end of the last year in preparation for this feature – in the event that I missed something, that is – I’ve risked not fully understanding an artist or work by rushing my thoughts on it. That’s a two-pronged statement, too, as there are plenty of reviews I’ve written in the past that I wish I could write again, mostly for a lack of context in understanding the bigger picture.
In another time and place, when I initially reviewed Marty Stuart’s Way Out West for a past outlet, I was only vaguely familiar with Stuart’s third phase of his career. Now, as for what that means, and to reflect that deeper understanding I’m searching for, his career, to me, has had three distinctive arcs: First, the young musician prodigy who spent his youth backing musicians like Johnny Cash, Lester Flatt and Doc Watson. Second, the Nashville hitmaker of the ‘90s; the artist who attained success, but lost a part of his artistic vision along the way. Which is to say that his third phase – still ongoing, in my opinion – has seen him churn out one quality album after another, with a distinct goal of preserving country music tradition – both historically and sonically. It’s debatable where The Pilgrim falls – a true 10/10 classic, for what it’s worth – but Stuart’s albums since have been fantastic discussion points for any serious scholar of country music, and all for their own reasons.
2017’s Way Out West, then, represents both a continuation and breakaway from that philosophy. On one hand, the choice to bridge the gap between country and rock fans of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with the psychedelic-meets-honky-tonk fusion makes for a listen that’s steeped in an older era without ever feeling like a throwback; it’s more like an effort of showing what more we could have received from that era, had the musical divide not been so strong for its time.
But there’s also a freedom in its approach that makes it ring louder than previous efforts. The most notable criticism of it for the time – and I’ll include myself in that batch of critics – was that it felt like a concept album without a cohesive vision. Really, the cohesive vision came in cementing its place in Stuart’s overall discography, where the sonic expansion just felt like the natural next step for his artistic story. And that’s important to note, too, given that there’s no real story that follows this particular album. It’s a loose narrative, where the instrumentals do the heavy lifting and remind listeners why it’s credited to Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives.
Over time, though, I’ve found that the concept is the thematic arc, where those dreams of living out on the open west with a lone wolf mentality present themselves with pure fantasies that will simply never be. It’s fitting that I just discussed Corb Lund’s Cabin Fever, given that there’s a lot of striking similarities in the overall framing – namely in establishing how the lone cowboy mentality is more of a philosophy or a code to live by than anything else. It’s diverse enough to stake its claim as a physical location – and that’s why the subtle nods to a Mexican and Native American influence in the compositions are really welcome here – but also to establish that, really, just about anyone can take that trip “way out west,” if even just in the mind.
Really, too, I’ve come to find this album is less about the acid trip of its title track and more about a larger conversation on the journey of life itself. There might be solace found in “Old Mexico” as this lone troubadour finally finds the solace he’s been looking for, but that’s only after abandoning everything he ever knew or cared about, and his contentment feels intentionally muted because of it. Or take “Air Mail Special,” which is told from Stuart’s own perspective as a touring musician, and while the fast-paced tempo reflects the general craziness that comes with having to always be out on the road, it comes with a sadder subtext of him constantly questioning where he’s really trying to go in the long run, and why. There’s a noticeable freedom found everywhere on this album, but it always feels lonely and unforgiving in helping those who’d choose to take that metaphorical journey find what they’re really after. Freedom doesn’t necessarily equate to fulfillment here.
Again, while there’s no concrete narrative in the lyrical content, it is telling how the instrumentals shift in tone as the project progresses. The darker “El Fantasman Del Toro” follows a title track that you have to truly experience, rather than just hear; “Time Don’t Wait” may be a bit more on the nose in its message, but it’s followed by “Quicksand,” which mostly feels like a slow dirge of despair in understanding the pressure of how much time we all really have left here; and it’s fitting that, after the aforementioned note on “Air Mail Special,” the pressure ramps up on “Torpedo,” and what initially just scanned as my favorite instrumental on the project took a dark turn upon my revisit to it.
It’s important to establish that context, too, especially when I could never figure out how “Please Don’t Say Goodbye” belonged on this particular album … but as I said before, that loneliness can take hold anywhere, and while there’s excitement in starting a new chapter of that life-long journey on one’s own, there’s also a fear in having to actually navigate that path. As the album says pretty bluntly early on, “you’re lost on the desert to die.”
The album doesn’t offer any answers, either. Stuart relates it back to his own experience on “Whole Lotta Highway,” but even that feels intentionally vague in mapping out the road ahead. It’s meant to be an exciting journey, but also a bit of a sad one. It’s why the optimism on “Wait For The Morning” feels a bit muted and calming – you won’t know what you’re going to find, but it’s important to always look at things with a fresh perspective, heart and passion. You just might survive until the end, and if the final reprise of the title track’s anthemic swell doesn’t feel like the perfect way to inspire that confidence, I don’t know what does. Again, it’s an album I’ve better understood over the years with each passing listen, and as of this writing, it’s Stuart’s latest near-masterpiece.