The Story Painter Draws From Country Music's Entire Palette

This appeared on CDNow's website - May 1999

Almost three years after releasing Honky Tonkin's What I Do Best, Marty Stuart proves he sorely underestimated his own talents. His latest project is a narrative concept album in which he tells the true story of a family he knew as a child.

The Pilgrim recounts the story of a small-town beauty queen who marries a plain and jealous local man, only to find herself bored and lonely, yearning for a better life. Eventually she finds it in the company of a new man in town, from whom she conceals her marriage. When her husband discovers the tryst, a horrific encounter follows. Her innocent lover, afflicted by the catastrophe and cast out by the community, leaves town to begin a life of wandering, carousing, and hoboing. But finally the attraction proves too strong, even fateful, and the outcast man considers a return to his one, true love.

A four-time Grammy winner, president of the Country Music Foundation, essayist, photographer, and former star sideman, Stuart brings the history of country music to bear in recounting the story, with the help of his band. Also on hand is an impressive cast of country music veterans, including Ralph Stanley, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Pam Tillis, Earl Scruggs, and Johnny Cash.

The recording, Stuart's 12th, underscores his belief in country music as a valid and dynamic American art form and stakes a claim for Stuart as one of the music's most ambitious and serious practitioners.

We spoke with Stuart during a break from recording his score to the upcoming Billy Bob Thornton film Daddy and Them.

CDNOW: Your upcoming record, The Pilgrim, is a concept album by a country artist. That's not a very common occurrence.

Marty Stuart: But it's not anything new. The last one I remember: Willie [Nelson] did Red Headed Stranger. I first learned about concept albums when Marty Robbins did gunfighter ballads. [Johnny] Cash did Indian albums or cowboy records. In this case I just simply had to follow my heart, but that's exactly where it led. I poured so much of me into this thing that I didn't even know how I felt about it anymore. There's blood and guts on this record.

"I can't say [this album] has every style that country music ever claimed, but it takes a good swipe at everything."

The story is troublesome.

The first time I actually strung [the songs] together piece by piece, I didn't have the courage to [listen]. I thought: This is close to an hour, and it's going to be really hard [to listen in one sitting], but all of a sudden it just worked. Everything's friendly, everything's inviting. It travels by fast.

Yet there are some intense moments.

Yeah, I mean, it's nice to see the light come back on! [laughs] When I was a kid I would go to the horror movies and chicken out and have to go to the back of the theater and peek around the door. And some of that [fear] lives in this kind of record, because it's hard-core life.

You've woven the story together with instrumentals, an intermission, and reprises. Yet most are complete songs. Some are cliffhangers that lead to the next song, but each song can also stand alone.

The craft in this record was finding that balance. The rest of it is pretty much just soul flow. You can dance to it, you can get scared to it, and you can cry to it. It's got all those emotions that country music was founded on.

The album is very wide-ranging stylistically. It doesn't come off like a patchwork of styles for the sake of variety.

I can't say [this album] has every style that country music ever claimed, but it takes a good swipe at everything. It kind of forgets the boundaries, but it all happens under the umbrella of country music. I really pay close attention to that. I wanted the album just to naturally evolve. I tried at one time to give it a happy ending -- a light-hearted little ditty -- and it just didn't work.

The song "Redemption" is chilling.

It's actually one of the pieces I'm proudest of. The performance is probably a little bit ragged. I was almost asleep when I did that song. I had the words, but no idea what the melody was supposed to be, and I just said [to my engineer], 'turn on the microphone.' I thought, I can perfect it, but I'm just going to let it stand as ragged and rough as it is. I hear flat notes and guitar creaks and pops, but I don't care. There's enough slick shit out there.

You dedicate the title song to Bill Monroe.

[Monroe's music is] absolutely what made me fall in love with what I do in the first place. It's the real stuff that touches my heart. I can honestly say I ain't singing for my pocketbook this go-round.

"I wanted the album just to naturally evolve. I tried at one time to give it a happy ending -- a light-hearted little ditty -- and it just didn't work."

You found some good people to help you draw out that stuff too.

I wanted a band record. I wanted the right spirit around me and around each of these songs. I absolutely knew that they were the right people. When we were at Bill Monroe's funeral, I heard Emmylou [Harris] sing, and there was a lonesome quality in her voice and a sadness that it was like she was the mother of all ages and had it all on her bosom that day. I wanted that sound somewhere on this record. George Jones, he's our chief correspondent from the other side of the tracks, where people hurt a lot. Earl [Scruggs], he just shows up and the music does the talking. And who better to shut out the lights on country music in this century than Johnny Cash.

You've been pretty busy. You sang on June Carter Cash's latest, you have an ACM nomination, you won another Grammy, there's a Johnny Cash tribute, and you're scoring a film with Billy Bob Thornton. You won the Mississippi Governor's Award for Excellence.

Yeah. I was really proud of that because I've always been so proud to be from Mississippi. My musical comrades [from Mississippi] would be Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Pops Staples, Jimmie Rodgers, on and on. It's like the beginning of it all. I feel a true dignity [to be from Mississippi], but I also think it's a responsibility to keep it pure. The soundtrack is my first full score, and I'm really proud because I think Billy Bob is probably one of the greatest writers we have in America.

Are you in the film?

No, God no! There's plenty of good actors in there. I want to make good music. They can't pick, and I can't act. [laughs]

Stuart will be touring of the United States through the end of the year.

Written by Ed Hewitt

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