MARTY TALKS ABOUT THE PILGRIM
THE PILGRIM is...
A rompin', stompin', ramblin' journey that sails through the backdoor of 20th century country music and then flies out onto the dark edge of the 21st century.
The more I told the story of The Pilgrim the more it sounded like a country song.
One night while I was in California riding out an earthquake, it hit me that this story was more than a song. It had the force of an opera, or in my case maybe, an Opry.
I decided to write some words, hang them on the backdrop of mine and country music's musical journey. Then cast it with some of my favorite characters.
It took me three years to complete. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted it to be based around my band. I wanted us to live out this project together. It was a challenge my band and I needed. From there, the only thing I knew to do was follow my heart.
The first place it led me was 706 Union Ave, Memphis, TN. That's the home of Sun Records. That place is always ground zero for me. When I'm looking for a new groove I go to Memphis. It has soul and it offers a musical freedom that can't be found anywhere else.
I booked two days at Sun Studio without even having a song to record. Although I felt if I went there and waited, one would come along. It did on the second day. I got a call from Bill Monroe's manager saying that Mr. Monroe had passed away. He asked if I would come home and play at his service. I took a break from recording and went walking around the back streets of Memphis. I didn't want anybody to see me crying. I loved that old man. He'd been a part of my life since I was 12 years old. The first time I met him, he gave me his mandolin pick and told me to go home and learn how to use it. Since that day we were friends and not having him around was going to take some getting used to. I was alone but I couldn't cry. Not one tear would come. I tried dancing, singing his songs, I prayed, I cussed but nothing would happen until out of nowhere I said,
I am a lonesome Pilgrim, far from home
Those four lines unlocked a world of emotions inside of me. I wrote two more verses and then took the song into the studio and played it for the band one time. We dimmed the lights and recorded the song in one take.
For a year and a half, it was the only song I had to show for this project. As it turns out, I wrote the last song first and had to work my way backwards from there. "The Pilgrim" started out as a song, then it grew up and became a story.
It finally dawned on me that Memphis was the beginning. It's where white boy rock & roll began when Elvis sang Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" at Sun. It's where the Pilgrim came to start his journey.
The Pilgrim laid his heart on the line for Rita, when he said, "I give my heart and soul to you. That's all I really know to do." Even though she wanted to she couldn't respond because she was married. It tortured him but he felt that "Sometimes the Pleasure's Worth the Pain."
One song I'm so proud of from this past decade is "Tempted." I love that record. I felt it gave me an identifiable sound. Parts of "Sometimes the Pleasure's Worth the Pain" breathe life from "Tempted." It is a sound I want to carry forward with me.
Emmylou Harris also sang at Bill Monroe's funeral. Her voice sounded so lonesome to me that day at the Ryman. I wanted to find a place for that feeling somewhere on The Pilgrim's story. Just her and the strings start the journey with The Pilgrim. Ralph Stanley is a Voice of God mountain prophet. He brought his Clinch Mountain sound to Nashville to record the events that lead up to Norman's suicide in Harlan County. The sound of Ralph's voice naturally gives the song that rock of ages quality. Singing with Ralph and the Boys takes me back to my first days in country music when we played the bluegrass festivals. Now after years of playing all kinds of country music, it seems to me that Ralph Stanley personifies country music in its purest form.
"Reasons" is the suicide note that Norman wrote, his cry of despair. The song called for some crying in your beer steel guitar and harmony singing that touched your heart. I immediately thought of Pam Tillis. She comes from traditional roots and knows how to make vintage Nashville sounds come alive.
It's unimaginable how it must feel to be guilty of nothing but loving somebody only to find out they belong to someone else. And then to be blamed for causing a man to take his life and have a town crucify you for it.
The defiant last words from a parched soul are:
forget this town
"Red, Red Wine and Cheatin' Songs" is a direct descendant of the glory days of honky tonk music. It also marks the beginning of the Pilgrim's appointment with the dark side of life. He hitchhiked from Mississippi to Memphis. That's where he came apart and went off the deep end.
He headed west. The only plan he had was to stay numb until he could get to the Pacific Ocean. If he made it that far, that's where he wanted to die. At first he hitchhiked and rambled the backroads from town to town. And like all westbound drifters and loners do, he eventually made it to the Red Hot Truckstop. It's one of those old style stations with a dirt floor parking lot and a jukebox inside that is stacked with George Jones records. If you want to find the last of the true believers, go find a truckstop. Here, George Jones is a way of life. Along with being the "King of the Sad Songs" he's our chief correspondent concerning hard luck stories and broken hearts. And consider the truckstop angels who appear to the unknowing in the forms of waitresses. Like bartenders, they've seen and heard it all. "Truckstop" is a snapshot from the backroads where coffee and cigarettes are still the breath of life. Emmylou portrays Shirley the waitress, Earl Scruggs adds the master's touch on the guitar offering the closing remarks to Shirley's discernment of Pilgrim's misery in the making.
I've always respected hobos. What a life. From my road dog perspective, it's hard enough to sacrifice home and live on the road by way of buses, planes and hotels. To exist on the fly and then live off of hand outs from the fat of the land is a down right art.
In the parking lot of the Red Hot, the Pilgrim met a hobo named St. Peter, the train yard prophet. He told him about a hobo camp east of Texarkana and then gave him a can of beans and a rusty blade, followed by a fast course in boxcar etiquette. St. Peter was headed home to Jacksonville to die. It was his 60th year rambling. The Pilgrim found the hobo's camp and traded his hitchhiking routine for the drink and ride program. "Hobo's Prayer" takes me back to the days when I played folk music with Doc and Merle Watson. It's a song about a vanishing way of life and the code of honor that goes along with it.
The world is a funny place. Its rules are sometimes backwards. When you're successful and prosperous you get a lot of things for free, perks. When you're down on your luck and really need a helping hand, it's harder to get your calls returned. I've been on top of the world and I've also been down to nothing. It made me feel like a stray dog. That's what the Pilgrim is about in this point in the journey. He's thoroughly on the lam, running wide open drunk, totally lost and one breath away from letting the devil have his soul. Deep down, stray dogs long for peace. Wanting to straighten up and having the strength to do it are two different things. "Going Nowhere Fast" is what the Pilgrim had to say to himself when he saw his reflection in a window at the Kansas City train yards. It's free-wheeling poetry backed by some Memphis rockabilly that I learned during my boy-in-black period. Kansas City was the first place I ever took a band and played a solo gig after years of working for country music legends. I left a piece of my mind in a nightclub dressing room that evening. When I went back to get it last year, I immediately noticed that it was cracked. The best I can figure is, from that crack in my mind came "The Observations of a Crow." I love crows. They are the countriest of birds and they sometimes get a bad rap. Any bird that wears black all year around can't be all bad. I had stopped at a diner on Route 66 in New Mexico. I noticed a crow perched on a high line pole in the parking lot. I said hello. He didn't speak but watched everything that was going on. I pointed him out to the gas attendant and he said, "He's always watching. He's there every day. It's like his job." The minute the Pilgrim walked by, the crow knew what his deal was. I don't know what kind of country music "The Observations of a Crow" is, but I do know that I like it.
I've never cared much for shows that called for an intermission. In truth, intermissions are merely 30 minute excuses to sell popcorn. I gathered Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys around one microphone and asked Poogie the fiddler to record "Cluck Old Hen." It's bound to be the shortest intermission in the history of show business.
The prelude of Act II is the sound of Uncle Josh Graves' hound dog dobro guitar. His lonesome style found its way inside me when I was just a kid. He's known primarily as a bluegrass star who spent years playing with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. He introduced me to the blues. He sets up "The Greatest Love of All Time." The Pilgrim came to one morning after another night of drinking. He decided that it was the end of the line. There wasn't enough liquor in the world to cover his misery or drown out the true feeling in his heart. He still loved Rita. Right or wrong, he couldn't get over her. He decided that the time had come to find out where she was and call her. He wanted to hear the sound of her voice one last time. "The Greatest Love of All Time" holds everything I love about country music. A story and a melody that welcomes instrumental sounds from all realms of country music. It's filled with simplicity and elegance alike.
I love the outer edge of country music. It's amazing the people you bump into out there. Mike Campbell is one of them. He plays guitar with Tom Petty's band, The Heartbreakers. I get the feeling he looks at the world through similar glasses. I flew out to California with the specific purpose of writing a jukebox anthem with him. "Draggin' Around These Chains of Love" is what we came up with. He came to Nashville and played guitar on this track. I used to think he was one of my favorite guitar players. Now I know he is.
Rita asked the Pilgrim to come home. She told him again that she loved him and when he got home she'd prove it to him for the rest of his life.
He told her that he'd be home soon, but there was one thing he had to do before he came back.
He barely made it. He almost had to crawl from the train to the little church outside the city limits of Oildale, California. In the middle of the night he wandered into the graveyard where his mother was buried. It was the first time he'd been back since the day of her funeral when he was 12 years old. He ran away from home that night and never faced it. After all these years he was still running from it. He lay his head on her tombstone and cried himself to sleep. While sleeping he dreamed his mother came back. She brought Jesus with her. She introduced Him to the Pilgrim. Jesus held him and said, "Surrender, son, and rest. I've come to bring you peace." When he awoke, he knew that he was ready for the other side. "Redemption" can be interpreted as the other side of life, the other side of the nightmare he's been living or the other side of rambling, which meant going home.
I am a lonesome pilgrim far from home
The Pilgrim went home and married Rita. They moved away from all the bad memories. They are now happily married with a family.
Dreams do come true. I fell in love with country music when I was 5 years old by way of two albums. The Fabulous Johnny Cash and Flatt & Scruggs' Greatest Hits. My dream was to meet them. I got to. It turns out that the only two steady jobs I've had since 1972 were with Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash. I didn't plan a finale beyond the last note of "The Pilgrim" but fate has a way of charting its own course.
I bought a piece of 18th century stained glass in Austin, Texas. It had pretty words written on it. I learned they were taken from the poem, Sir Galahad by Alfred Lord Tennyson. I wanted to include it and knew the reading belonged to Johnny Cash. He agreed to do it. I took my engineer, Matt Spicher, with me and in the spirit of Alan Lomax and Ralph Peer, we embarked on a field recording adventure in Jamaica where Cash has been for some months.
We flew into Montego Bay where I was supposed to spend one night. It turned into three of the nicest days of my life. We recorded and did a lot of talking. Everything's all right as long as I know Johnny Cash is all right. He is.
The last song is "Mr. John Henry, Steel Driving Man," performed by Earl Scruggs and me. Through the years I've spent countless nights playing music in Earl's living room. I finally found a reason to move it to the microphone. This track is for me. It's a treasured keepsake. Ending The Pilgrim with Cash and Scruggs tells me that I absolutely came full circle.
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