Pilgrim's Progress

Marty Stuart Recounts Country Music History and Makes Some of His Own

This article appeared on Barnes & Noble.com - July 1999

In a career marked by multiple Grammy Awards, gold records, TV and movie work, and all kinds of interesting, even offbeat projects, Marty Stuart has demonstrated that going mainstream need not mean selling out your principles for a hit. His ambitious new CD, THE PILGRIM, is a concept album that describes the hills and valleys of a tortured love affair even as it offers an allegorical account of country music history. It represents the finest, most challenging work he has ever produced, and that's saying something. We got the lowdown from Stuart on the making of THE PILGRIM shortly before he hit the summer concert trail.

BarnesandNoble.com: Memphis figures prominently in THE PILGRIM's history. Why does that city loom so large in the album and in your life?

Marty Stuart: Well, Memphis is one of those towns that subliminally figures into everything I do. When I was a kid, the most interesting music came from Memphis. It rained down on us in Mississippi. I think it's the soul -- Memphis just has a free soul concerning music. Nashville has it down pat; we have the music-industry thing going. We make stars, we make hits, any size, any caliber you want. But when you go down to Memphis you can unbutton your shirt and be a little bit more informal.

I knew that after my last record, I had been a good little soldier, tried to color inside the lines, tried to make a real proper record, abided by all the rules, and had moderate success. So I thought, If that's all that's left, I might as well go for the long shot and do what I really hear. I had a feeling if I went to Memphis I'd at least get a glimpse or two.

B&N: While you were in Memphis, Bill Monroe, who was a close friend and supporter of yours, passed away. What was that moment like?

Marty: The "dreaded call" is how I've always referred to it. I've been lucky I've only had that call put on me two or three times down through the years. It didn't hit me by surprise because Bill was not in good shape. But when it finally happened you walk around thinking, "This is going to take some gettin' used to." That old man's been a part of my life since I was 12. He was such a force out there, such a cornerstone for me in so many ways. I knew how to live without him, but it was going to take some getting used to. So I just simply took a walk and tried to adjust myself to the initial wave of it as best I could. And THE PILGRIM was the result.

B&N: This is not the obvious type of album to come out of a mainstream country operation -- it seems like a real gamble on the label's part.

Marty: It's a huge gamble. We've been together ten years, me and MCA. Four or five years ago I couldn't have walked in and sold this. But the way I was presenting the story is that it's all about country music -- it's country music's journey, it's my journey, there's a love story here with a happy ending.

B&N: Still, even though it's a left-field album for mainstream Nashville, there's some songs on there that are radio-friendly. Yet there isn't a song that feels like it was written to be anything but a chapter of the story.

Marty: Yeah, I did design the record so that you could string it together as a whole, or you could lift any particular song out and it would be a radio song, or a good one to listen to, or whatever. One of the agendas I set for myself was to make this work. Pink Floyd's THE WALL would have been interesting without "Comfortably Numb," but "Comfortably Numb" gave the world a reason to buy THE WALL. "Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain" gave people a reason to buy RED HEADED STRANGER. Hopefully in this record there's one of those somewhere.

B&N: There's also a very tasteful use of guest artists on THE PILGRIM. Like the George Jones and Emmylou Harris track, "Truckstop," they become almost like spectral presences.

Marty: I saw it as a piece of theater where they were angels that flew in out of the dark and then flew out real fast. They came in out of nowhere and disappeared back to nowhere.

B&N: The piece that Cash performs at the end -- is that the first recording he's done since he was diagnosed with his illness?

Marty: I believe it is.

B&N: He comes on like the voice of God.

Marty: I knew it was worth the trip to Jamaica to get it. I knew how it would sound; I had it in my head. When I made this thing I didn't think, "This would be a good place to put George Jones," or "This would be a good place to put whomever" -- I didn't write with that in mind. But I knew that the last remarks on this record had to be Cash's voice.

B&N: You've been surrounded by country-music giants almost your entire life, and now, with Connie Smith, you're married to one. What kind of impact has she had on your work?

Marty: Connie Smith is one of the most fearless people I've ever met concerning music. She don't copy anybody; there's not a lick in her body musically that's not original. So when I was making this record, it was so good to have her around because she's totally honest. Playing her an idea, I could look at her face and tell what she thought about it. You get caught up inside these projects so deep that you can't see reality sometimes. When I was doing this record I was so immersed in it I basically just took my tour bus to the parking lot of the studio and parked it and lived in it for a week or two. Connie was right there at three in the morning going, "Baby, it's all right." You know, I had the time of my life making this thing, it was the most fun I ever had. When it came time to sing, she was sitting at the board a lot of times, on the other side of the glass, thumbs up, thumbs down. Being in her presence makes me want to sing better. She's one of those quasars, where I have to stand back and watch it spit, sputter and do it. I just marvel at all of it. I'm her biggest fan.

Written by David McGee

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