Prairie Lights: Music’s power prevails in troubling times

Band

Steve Brown

Marty Stuart and The Fabulous Superlatives tear it up at ZooMontana Friday night.

Marty Stuart, the one-time boy wonder of country music who is now one of its grand old men, did a few surprising things during his performance Friday night at ZooMontana.

He told the audience he first visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield on a trip to Billings a couple of years ago, when he played the Alberta Bair Theater, and he was inspired to write a song called “Custer Wore an Arrow Shirt,” which he sang at the zoo.

“Well, George Armstrong Custer, Lord knows he had it comin’,” one verse ran, “he killed women, dogs and old folks, boys and girls were runnin’.” Another notable stanza: “General Custer was a dandy, a fashionable figure, he looked good in that arrow shirt, layin’ by the river.”

I sensed some uneasiness in the crowd, the average age of which was so high that your aged correspondent felt almost young, almost. I wondered if Stuart knew that in this part of the world Custer still has his defenders, even his warm admirers.

On top of that, Stuart and his aptly named band, The Fabulous Superlatives, went on to play Woody Guthrie’s “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd.”

Floyd was the Depression-era bank robber whom most of Guthrie’s contemporaries would probably have considered a heartless thug. But in Woody’s hands, Floyd is a Robin Hood who gives money to starving farmers being squeezed off their land by heartless bankers. That song ends like this:

Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won’t never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.

In all other respects, I believe, Marty Stuart is a God-fearing good old boy, a Mississippi native and Nashville star who is a big fan of John Wayne, a figure who, like Custer, inspires passionate admiration, and equally passionate disdain.

But maybe the old cowpokes in the audience Friday night weren’t even listening to the lyrics. Maybe they were too busy listening to Stuart’s stinging mandolin licks at the end of each verse of “Pretty Boy Floyd,” or “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan’s honky-tonk guitar part on the Custer song.

And maybe that’s why music has been such a tonic in this, the summer of our discontent.

Music has a way of transcending our daily struggles and strife, a way of making us believe in our better angels. Mere politics seem petty in the face of the raw emotion of music. It’s why old cowboys will tap their feet to a song celebrating Custer’s demise, and why this agnostic is ready to get down on his knees for a good gospel song, like the one Stuart and the boys played Friday.

Stuart is a church-going Christian, but he also worships Hank Williams. Years ago, when I spent a day with Kostas, the Billings-born musician who became a successful Nashville songwriter, he showed me something Stuart traded him for one of Kostas’ rare guitars.

It was a collection of Hank Williams artifacts, including a handwritten letter, a fishing lure and a bottle opener, mounted behind glass. I decided on the spot that Kostas and Stuart were two of the coolest guys around, Hank himself (or maybe Woody Guthrie) being the coolest guy ever.

The power of music was on display last weekend, too, at the Montana Folk Festival in Butte, a free, three-day event that brings together some of the best musicians in the world to play styles of music most attendees had never even heard of.

I left Butte—Butte, of all places—thinking maybe that maybe there was hope for the world after all.

The highlight of the festival for me this year was Alash, a group of Tuvan throat singers who are able to simultaneously generate multiple distinct sounds—drones, whistles and scat-like vocalizations—in a variety of pitches. The sounds didn’t make “sense,” in the way that song lyrics do, but many of us were driven to tears in the face of such mind-bending magic.

Remember how the Communists used to send people to re-education camps, to get their heads on straight? I think everyone in the world should have to spend at least one week a year at something like the Montana Folk Festival.

It makes you believe that humans might be able to get along, to work together, to open their minds to new ideas. World leaders could probably get more done at the festival in Butte than they could at the U.N.

Also, I’d like to nominate Marty Stuart for president.

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