Outlaw country — of the kind popularized by Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and other country rebels in the 1970s, as they shed the slick Nashville sound, grew their hair and melded country with rock ’n’ roll — hasn’t had much presence at Saratoga Performing Arts Center in recent years.
Instead, the summer SPAC schedule is usually filled with the kind of country that the original outlaws would have revolted against: formulaic, Nashville-driven pop such as hip-swiveling Luke Bryan.
A sure sign that the Chris Stapleton-headlined show Thursday night would be different came early on, when Marty Stuart and his band the Fabulous Superlatives came onstage after a 30-minute opening set from Georgia artist Brent Cobb, who set the tone with gritty realism and a bar-band vibe.
Few country artists performing today have the cred of Stuart, who’s played in bands with bluegrass stars like Lester Flatt and Vassar Clements as well as Johnny Cash (and Stuart was once married to Cash’s daughter Cindy).
Dressed in black leather pants, a long black double–breasted coat and a scarf wrapped around his neck — his mane of white hair swept up in a loose sort of pompadour — Stuart was the real deal, an authentic outlaw and highly impressive guitar and mandolin player.
Along with his stellar three-piece band, Stuart got the packed SPAC crowd rocking early with “Tear the Woodpile Down,” “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’,” Merle Haggard cover “Mama Tried” and Johnny Cash single “Ring of Fire.”
Stuart’s set was so good, you couldn’t blame anyone for not wanting it to end. But then Stapleton came onstage shrouded in fog and proved there is room for outlaw country at the top of the charts.
He’s not pretty, his long beard looking more like a gnarled nest of Brillo below his white cowboy hat, but Stapleton has an understated charisma and sheer force of musical talent to ride.
Backed by four impressive bandmates on guitar, bass, drums and wailing harmonica, Stapleton wielded his guitar and powerful, raspy voice, which reached R&B levels of soulfulness on blues-rock tunes like “Millionaire,” “Fire Away,” “Broken Halos” and “Second One to Know.”
With grids of colored lights lit up to make the stage backdrop look like a cathedral, Stapleton made the most of his first-ever SPAC appearance, bringing Brent Cobb back onstage for Cobb’s “Might as Well Get Stoned” and paying tribute to Stuart’s legacy before bringing the country great back out for old-school hoedowns “Now That’s Country” and “Honky Tonkin’ Is What I Do Best.”
Alone in the spotlight, the stage black except for a golden light that reflected like a halo off Stapleton’s blondish hair, white hat and yellow acoustic guitar, the performer sang movingly about troubles with alcohol and heartbreak on “Whiskey and You.”
He drew hearty cheers for the powerful “Traveler” and “Parachute,” sang introductions to each band member before David Allen Coe cover “Tennessee Whiskey,” and closed with an encore of “Outlaw State of Mind” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man,” dedicated to their guitarist Ed King, who died on Wednesday in Nashville.