In the latter half of his career, Marty Stuart has positioned himself as one of the most vocal champions for traditional country music, carving out a comfortable niche for himself as one of Nashville’s most historically minded artists and a fixture on the Grand Ole Opry stage. While there’s certainly considerable value in Stuart’s ability to preserve the genre conventions that so many of contemporary country music’s biggest stars either routinely overlook or never knew existed in the first place, his aesthetic has become predictable. Nashville, Volume 1: Tear the Woodpile Down is an expertly performed collection of traditional country songs that aren’t substantively different from the music Stuart has been making for well over a decade now.
Taken entirely on its own merits, Tear the Woodpile Down is a fine album, as Stuart’s albums always tend to be. The chicken-plucked Telecaster breaks on the title cut turn the song into an out-and-out romp, and Stuart gives a wry vocal performance that sells the song. “Hollywood Boogie,” a brief instrumental, showcases Stuart’s unimpeachable skill as a bandleader without becoming self-indulgent or overstaying its welcome. The brushed snares and heavy reverb in Stuart’s production on “The Lonely Kind” give its minor-key, two-step arrangement a suitably haunted vibe. It’s the kind of smart production choice that illustrates just how well Stuart understands when particular genre tropes are appropriate to a specific song, and most every track on Tear the Woodpile Down highlights Stuart’s impressive know-how.
Thing is, Stuart has been playing this same hand since 1999’s The Pilgrim, the album that marked a clear end to his more commercial period and began his full-on transformation into a historian. Genre formalism is all well and good when there’s genuine creativity and exploration behind it, but Tear the Woodpile Down exposes the limitations of Stuart’s hardline conservatism. From the heavy pedal steel and massive, belted-out chorus of “Holding on to Nothing,” to the rote narrative of “Truck Drivers’ Blues,” there’s precious little here in terms of material or production that Stuart himself, let alone the country music icons whose legacies he’s looking to honor, hasn’t already done countless times over.
The album’s lone surprise is a collaboration with Hank III on a cover of “Picture from Life’s Other Side.” Though the recitation-type song isn’t one of Hank Williams Sr.‘s absolute finest, the duet works as a study in contrasting styles. It’s fascinating to hear Hank III, whose best work both honors and challenges his grandfather’s traditions, paired with Stuart, who does his damnedest to recreate music that sounds just like Hank Sr.‘s, with the advantages of a modern recording studio. That Stuart is able to pull off that kind of mimicry so well is an impressive feat in and of itself, but bringing in someone like Hank III on Tear the Woodpile Down only reaffirms how much more exciting Stuart’s output could be if he were to get back to making music that is more definitively his instead of being content to serve as Nashville’s most high-profile curator.