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Way Out West is Marty Stuart's album-length paean to the myth and magic of the American West. It finds country's stalwart neo-traditionalist turning cosmic cowboy for a journey through the Joshua trees, shadowy canyons and desert dreams that tantalize travelers with the promise of a golden shore on the other side.
Stuart grew up in Mississippi, captivated at an early age by glimpses of the West like the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens, and the cowboy ballads of his namesake, Marty Robbins. Having made his mark on country over the last four decades, first as a guitarist with Flatt & Scruggs and Johnny Cash and then as a reliably roots-conscious solo artist, Stuart takes the occasion of his 18th album to bring his Western preoccupation full circle with a moody, atmospheric song cycle.
Naturally, Nashville wasn't the place to make this kind of record, so Stuart called on his old cohort Mike Campbell, guitar hero for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, who produced the album at Hollywood's iconic Capitol Studios and his own recording headquarters. The pair first met when Stuart joined with Petty's gang to back Johnny Cash on The Man in Black's 1996 Unchained album. And Campbell's co-production of Petty's 2010 release, Mojo, bore a bit of the heady desert-trip vibe he and Stuart have cooked up for Way Out West.
After conjuring up some ancient spirits with a swirling snatch of audio collage called "Desert Prayer" that blends the sound of Native American ritual with some rather psychedelic sitar splashes, Stuart offers up "Mojave," the first of several instrumentals that punctuate the album, luxuriating in the kind of deep-diving guitar reverb that evokes the grand echo of the desert canyons.
Those plangent guitars return on "Lost on the Desert," a Buddy Mize/Dallas Frazier tune Johnny Cash released in 1962 that shows the desert's dark side; an escaped convict desperately searches for his buried loot, foiled either by fate or the devil himself, depending on which way those dry, dusty winds blow. Way Out West's title track works the Cash legacy and a multitude of other elements into its lyrics, crafting a trippy travelogue that moves from Arizona to California and finds the narrator addled by taking too many pills, eventually having visions of everything from scorpions and poisonous ants to aliens. It feels a bit like what might have happened if Woody Guthrie had written his California-dreaming "Do Re Mi" during the temptation of Christ in the Judaean Desert.
Just in case the proceedings didn't already feel cinematic enough, the Mexican-tinged instrumental "El Fantasma Del Toro" comes off like a lost Ennio Morricone spaghetti western theme. On the freedom-across-the-border ballad "Old Mexico," Stuart makes his contribution to country's Mexican fascination, picking up where Marty Robbins left off on tunes like "El Paso." Stuart sings of Mexico as a place for potential reinvention, where "there's no price on my head, I can live and I can breathe and come back from the dead," just like the fresh start California has historically represented for searchers from the early settlers' era to the dust-bowl days and beyond.
More spirit visions arrive amid cosmic lyrics worthy of the late Byrds songsmith Gene Clark as Stuart stokes a '60s rock vibe on "Time Don't Wait." Chiming guitars riffs, wah-wah pedal swells, and a nimble Beatles-indebted bass line bring a gently psychedelic feel, like the comedown from a desert peyote buzz.
That Fistful of Dollars feeling returns on "Quicksand," another evocative instrumental, but this time it dovetails with the '60s sun-and-fun side of Western culture by tapping into a surf-rock vibe. If Morricone could have collaborated with surf guitar god Dick Dale, the results might have been something like this. The track leads into a cover of the Jim & Jesse bluegrass standard "Airmail Special," reinvented as a burning honky-tonker and returning to the California-as-promised land-theme with its plane ride "over plains and high, dark mountains" to the Golden State.
After another desert-surf twang-guitar showcase ("Torpedo"), a melancholy love song distinguished by a string quartet ("Please Don't Say Goodbye") and Stuart's classic-sounding addition to the country catalog of white-line-fever trucker anthems ("Whole Lotta Highway (With a Million Miles to Go)"), things come to a close on a reflective note. The quiet, almost hymnal "Wait for the Morning" promises redemption through a flight into the rising sun.
The closing credits of Stuart's movie for the mind (and ears) would scroll to the instrumental reprise of the title track. All the elements woven through the record come together for a final bow, as surf music, spaghetti western soundtracks, psychedelia, and cosmic country merge in celebration of the idealized West that Stuart's album brings to life.