The Pilgrim

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Marty Stuart has always been a terrific singer and picker (as well as a smart, ardent country music historian and collector), but only rarely has he written songs worthy of his other talents. However, on The Pilgrim, a concept album that tells a true story from Stuart's Mississippi hometown, he has finally found a theme to inspire a whole collection of substantial songs. The title character falls in love with a woman at work, discovers too late she's married, watches her husband kill himself, flees the town for years of drunken wandering, and finally finds redemption in religion and marriage. Here are the great themes of hillbilly music--infidelity, violence, rambling, alcoholism, church and family--wrapped up in an ongoing narrative. It's not surprising that Stuart can get satisfying results from this material when he reaches back to older musical styles and such guest performers as Ralph Stanley, George Jones, Johnny Cash, and Earl Scruggs. More impressive is the way he makes the same themes work with the cranked-up, drum-driven country-rock of modern Nashville, which seems to have forgotten how gripping the dark side of human drama can be.

By Geoffrey Himes

AMZ (Access to the Music Zone)

Sept/Oct 1999

Johnny Cash calls Marty Stuart's new country concept album, The Pilgrim, ". . .a fabulous journey." Actor/hillbilly personality Billy Bob Thornton calls it ". . .perfect. I can't quit playing it. I wish critics weren't allowed to listen to it." Old Billy Bob certainly won't get his wish, but I can't disagree with him or Johnny Cash. On his 12th album in 21 years, Marty Stuart reaches the creative career height that usually occurs to only the most talented and legendary of musicians in rock music. No country artist has put out a record this good in years.

In the impressive press kit sent along with the album, Marty tells the story and inspiration behind The Pilgrim. It's about a cross-eyed man named Norman whom Stuart knew growing up. Norman lost his beauty queen wife to a home wrecking man they all called The Pilgrim. Norman's despair led to a self-inflicted gun shot wound to the head and then a hole in the ground. The Pilgrim was run out of town and made his life on the rails, which eventually brought him back to the arms of Rita, the woman he loved.

Stuart saw more than just a heartbreaking tale of love and jealousy in that story, and he was inspired to craft a sort of country opera, replete with characters, intermission and an all-star cast. In the end, Stuart's The Pilgrim evolved to include a tribute to country legend Bill Monroe, a dear friend and mentor of his. Over the course of three years, Stuart penned and recorded The Pilgrim from one end of the country to the other. The end result is a collection of full-length songs, snippets that pays homage to the roots of country, and shines a beacon down the rails as to where country is headed.

A slow moving choo-choo train churns along for 25 seconds in the opening "Intro" to lead into "Sometimes The Pleasure's Worth The Pain," a rollicking, twangy guitar song that reminds me of why I've long thought of Marty Stuart as one of the coolest country musicians in the world. This guy sings from the gut and from the heart, without copping the modern country-nasal-droning and falling into the tired cliches of tight jeans, black western hats and half-assed dedication to the origins of country.

I wish "The Pilgrim Act I" was longer than the short 54 seconds of stark beauty that it is. Emmylou Harris' piercing, soaring vocal, and the lullaby orchestral backing, sets up the concept of the album and flows right into "Harlan County." Ralph Stanley of The Clinch Mountain Boys adds a touch of down home bluegrass flavor along with a crying fiddle. The sweet vintage voice of Pam Tillis sounds perfect alongside Stuart's voice in "Reasons," inspired by Norman's guilt-riddled suicide note. It ends on the bitter lines "I didn't know that she was married/ That part she didn't tell/ Forget this town/ Ain't hanging round/ Love can go to hell."

"Red, Red Wine And Cheatin' Songs" skips in like the perfect "cry in your beer" love-gone-wrong song. Smooth vocal harmony and a two-stepping beat sounds just like somebody would sound if they had just found out that the one they love is married. I can almost smell the greasy food frying and taste the cigarette smoke in the air in "Truckstop." George Jones lends his uniquely sad Southern voice with Emmylou Harris playing the part of the angelic truckstop waitress consoling road weary George. Perhaps the prettiest song on The Pilgrim is "Hobo's Prayer," which features Stuart's deep soothing voice singing about life "under bridges, beneath trestles in the boxcars of dead trains. . .trading sorrows for tomorrows/ That's the hobo's prayer."

Written in Maui, "The Observations Of A Crow" sounds like it was inspired in the back alleys and bar rooms of Nashville. Stuart's mysterious words, guitar picking and somber singing style is just the authentic touch needed in country music as it line dances into the next millennium. The first "Intermission" flies by like an old fashioned Southern foot-stomping hoe down, only to be caught by the beautiful mandolin strains of "The Greatest Love Of All Time," with hurting lyrics like "And it's sad but true, that girl me and you/ Had the greatest love of all time."

With its hard driving beat and semi-rock riffs, "Draggin' Around These Chains Of Love" is exactly the reason why I've always liked Marty Stuart. I've never bought a single album or seen him in concert, but every time I saw him on The Nashville Network, I'd stop and listen. He has a unique ability to appeal to a wide cross section of music fans similar to the way Willie Nelson and Neil Young can. I thought I liked him because of his massive collection of rare and historic guitars, but it was always the music that kept me taking notice when he happened along.

Stuart's incredible song writing talent comes through even stronger on the brief "The Pilgrim Act II" and "Redemption," but it is the touching tribute to Bill Monroe in "Act III" of The Pilgrim that is the stellar moment that brings the whole album together. As if giving Monroe a grand poetic send off to the grandness of Heaven, Stuart sings "As I stand before that valley wide/ It will lead me to the other side. . .I might be tired and weary, but I am strong/ Cause pilgrims walk, but not alone." Johnny Cash - The Man in Black - makes his cameo appearance in "Outro," with a booming, dead serious reading of "Sir Galahad" by Alfred Lord Tennyson, only to fade out to a faint train whistle and ending on the romping instrumental "Mr. John Henry, Steel Driving Man."

The Pilgrim is required listening from the first song to the last. Taken individually, each song would seem out of place on a modern country album, but as one cohesive album, The Pilgrim is a wistful throwback to country's past and a promising glimpse of Marty Stuart's staying power and influence. [4-1/2 Stars]

By Carl Cunningham

The Austin Chronicle

Marty Stuart has always stood for what's right in country music. A member of Lester Flatt's band in his teens and a sideman for Johnny Cash not long after that, he's a fancy picker and respected songwriter who's had a few hit and gold records while currently presiding as President of the Country Music Foundation. Yet nothing Stuart has done up to this point in his career could have prepared us for The Pilgrim. An opera of sorts, or as Stuart calls it, an "opry," The Pilgrim relates the story of a wandering man with a broken heart, whose only sin was falling in love with a woman who he didn't know was already married. Loosely following this framework, Stuart carves a masterwork of country styles into each song, all of them performed with a spirit and flair that's uncommon in anything that passes for country music these days. Stuart accomplishes this while also getting guest appearances from such venerable stars as Cash, Emmylou Harris, George Jones, Earl Scruggs, and Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, all of which makes listening to The Pilgrim even more delightful. From gospel to bluegrass to barroom weeper to high kicking honky-tonk to country rock to Johnny Cash reading an excerpt from Tennyson's "Sir Galahad," The Pilgrim works because Stuart has country music in his heart and this project has permitted him to show it in a way he never has before. [4 Stars]

By Jim Caligiuri

Barnes & Noble

Marty Stuart's latest, THE PILGRIM, is the most audacious and ambitious concept album in country since Willie Nelson uncorked THE RED HEADED STRANGER back in '75. Based on a true story of love, deception, suicide, and vagrancy that amazingly ends happily ever after, THE PILGRIM summons the history of country music from Appalachian folk ballads to contemporary rock-tinged production touches. There are suggestions of bluegrass (Stuart credits Bill Monroe's death as inspiration, and Ralph Stanley makes a dramatic cameo on "Harlan County," his voice as dark and doom-laden as a coal mine), western swing, honky tonk, and countrypolitan along the way. History lessons aside, the songs are the best Stuart has ever done in his estimable career, especially the radio-friendly tearjerker, "Reasons," and the white-hot rocker, "Red, Red Wine and Cheatin' Songs." George Jones, Emmylou Harris, and Pam Tillis make tasteful contributions, but none can compare with Johnny Cash, whose 31-second fade-out at the album's close sounds like the voice of God putting a final amen to the proceedings. It's a chilling, unforgettable moment on an album rich in vision, heart, and inspired performances.

By David McGee


June 26, 1999

So-called concept albums are few and far between in country music -- and there's a good reason for that -- but Marty Stuart has connected with The Pilgrim, the most artistically cohesive and rewarding such work since Willie Nelson's 1975 opus "Red Headed Stranger." Stuart's concept is not as lofty as Nelson's but is similar: It's the tale of small-town love gone wrong and the tragedy and revenge it engenders. Along the way, Stuart drapes the narrative on a sturdy framework of evocative songs. He's also managed the tight-wire feat of turning some of them into country radio-friendly songs, such as the current release "Red Red Wine and Cheatin' Songs." There's also stellar help from such talents as George Jones, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, Josh Graves, Pam Tillis, and Earl Scruggs. Jones and Harris' masterful renditions of "Truckstop" and Cash's reading of an excerpt from the Tennyson poem "Sir Galahad" are show-stopping moments.

By Paul Verna

The Boston Phoenix

July 29, 1999

Here's a concept: a country concept album. Three years after his last release, Nashville singer and renaissance man Marty Stuart, who has often met the gold standard with earlier outings, weaves a relatively simple tale of betrayal and love redeemed over a dozen or so original songs, livening it up with distinctive bells and high-profile whistles. Among the guest whistlers: George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Pam Tillis, Johnny Cash, and bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys. Among the notable bells: famous guitars like a 1955 Fender Esquire that belonged to Cash's original picker, Luther Perkins, a Martin that belonged to Hank Williams Sr., and another Martin owned by Lester Flatt. Beneath all that, Stuart -- a veteran of Cash and Flatt outfits before striking out on his own and now the president of the Country Music Foundation -- wraps a cohesive and pleasant platter around the story of a man who loved, lost, wandered, and wandered back. In between the mildly precious minute-long changes of scenery and a 31-second "Intermission" are several well-crafted cuts, ranging from a good old drinking tune and some thoughtful songwriterly pastiches to beautifully played hillbilly music and predictably polished pieces of Nashville pop rock.

By Bill Kisliuk

The Buffalo News

June 25, 1999
Their love affair was intense, sizzling with romance and passion. She wore no ring. He did not know she was married until a horrible tragedy shocked him into the realization. It left him empty and depressed so he took up the life of a hobo, heading west on a long, booze-fueled pilgrimage that he planned to end by leaping into the Pacific Ocean. Finally, he found himself at the ocean's edge, facing the ultimate decision.

That's the basic story line of The Pilgrim, the gritty and ambitious new CD from country singer/songwriter/guitarist Marty Stuart. "Thought provoking" is not a term that applies to many of the songs being released out of Nashville these days. In a time when few country artists are willing to take risks beyond singing about trucks and beer, Stuart's new effort is a real standout.

Stuart dares to be different in this 20-song concept album, which features some first-rate guest appearances by Emmylou Harris, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Pam Tillis and Ralph Stanley.

Stuart said in a press statement that the project started with "The Pilgrim," a song about the journey of life he wrote shortly after the death of his friend and mentor, bluegrass legend Bill Monroe, in 1996. "For a year and a half, it was the only song I had to show for this project," Stuart said. "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."

The songs tell the story of a man who, in Stuart's words, "is thoroughly on the lam, running wide-open drunk , totally lost and one breath away from letting the devil have his soul." The journey takes him to cruddy bars, diners, rail cars, hobo camps and, ultimately, to redemption.

I like every song on it, but the standouts include the acoustic guitar number "Hobo's Prayer," the edgy "Goin' Nowhere Fast," and "Truck Stop," featuring Jones and Harris. Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys pour heartache into "Harlan County," which recounts the events leading up to the tragedy that inspires the pilgrim's journey.

Some might compare this effort to Red Headed Stranger, the all-time classic from Willie Nelson, another fictional journey, released in the early 1970s. Stuart would probably appreciate the comparison, although this work sounds very fresh and new.

One of the best features of the disc is Stuart's virtuoso work on guitar and mandolin. The man who traveled for years as part of Cash's road band knows and respects the art of country guitar picking. He's a collector of historic guitars and the instruments used in making this album include guitars formerly played by Cash, Hank Williams, Monroe and the late Byrds member Clarence White. One of the guitars used here was played by Wayne Moss on Roy Orbison's classic "Pretty Woman."

As I prepare to move on to other challenges after a very enjoyable 15 years as Gusto's country music reviewer, it's reviews like this that I will really miss writing. Stuart hasn't made much of a commercial ripple in recent years. This time, he's rolling the dice, daring to be different and I hope The Pilgrim is a huge success for him. Rating: 5 Stars

By Dan Herbeck

Calgary Sun

July 28, 1999

Marty Stuart turns the page and begins a new chapter in his career with this ambitious country opera. Stuart --whose recent recordings have been high-spirited but ultimately somewhat frivolous -- finally applies the full weight of his formidable instrumental and compositional talents to this song cycle about a love triangle that leads to suicide, self-destruction and, finally, redemption. The story has lots of drama and pathos, capped with a Capra-esque happy ending, but The Pilgrim's real selling point is the music. His deep-seated affection for traditional country music and his deft touch with orchestration come to the fore here: The honky-tonk is tough as leather; the straight-up bluegrass would make Bill Monroe proud; and the sweeping, cinematic strings that end "The Greatest Love of All Time" will take your breath away.

By David Veitch


June 30, 1999

Maybe it's just coincidence, maybe it's a pre-millennial omen, but 1999 has now witnessed the release of two "albums-that-tell-a-story" in the world of country music that stand out not only as among the best recordings of the year, but of the last decade.

Tom Russell's epic The Man From God Knows Where has been garnering well-deserved praise from all corners of the folk and country worlds since its release earlier in the year, but then Russell has long been known as a consummate singer and storyteller. Marty Stuart may be more widely known for his years as a Nashville stalwart, but The Pilgrim is every bit as powerfully written and performed.

When Stuart's career is looked back on many years into the next century (and at age 40, he presumably has more than a few miles left in the tank), The Pilgrim will be regarded as a milestone -- not only in his own career, but in the country music business as a whole. It's simply a phenomenal musical statement.

Based on what Stuart tells us is a true story from his childhood in Mississippi, The Pilgrim recounts the tragedy, fall from grace, and redemption of a man who falls in love with the right woman at the wrong time, but to anyone familiar with Stuart's career, there's a lot of metaphor that reflects his own life as well.

It's been a quarter-century and more now since the barely teenage Stuart climbed aboard Lester Flatt's bus to become a professional musician, and he's lived the whole country music spectrum, from bluegrass to rockabilly, in the years since. The Pilgrim tells that story, too, and it took three years to bring the record to completion, spurred by the passing of another mentor and father-figure, the late Bill Monroe. The track count reaches 20, but in reality, it's one single cut that flows seamlessly from one part of the story to the next, echoing high-lonesome bluegrass one moment, honky-tonk roadhouses and passing trains the next.

Written almost entirely by Stuart, his showpiece songs ("Reasons," "The Observations of a Crow," "Hobo's Prayer," to name a few) are bridged by shorter interludes featuring a sterling guest cast: Johnny Cash, Ralph Stanley, George Jones, Earl Scruggs, Pam Tillis, Josh Graves, and Emmylou Harris (whose own "story" album, 1985's The Ballad of Sally Rose was itself a classic of the genre).

A great many Nashville careers have fallen prey to the "album a year" grind, but The Pilgrim stands as a classic example of what can be achieved when a superlative talent like Marty Stuart is given free rein and time to do more than feed the radio and video beasts.

By John Lupton

CD Shakedown

Sept. 17, 1999

Country traditionalist and ace guitar player Marty Stuart stretches on his twelfth release, The Pilgrim, a 20-track slice of country and Americana.

According to Stuart, The Pilgrim is a based on a true story of love lost and requited. I confess: I can't easily trace the story in the lyrics, and needed the well-written press materials to understand the album. (Like The Man From God Knows Where by Tom Russell, the press materials are an essential addition to the album, and are an essential addition to the liner notes.)

Stuart says the album took three years to complete, beginning with a session in Memphis at the home of famed Sun Records. Explains Stuart, "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."

The album contains a variety of styles: drinking songs ("Sometimes the Pleasure's Worth the Pain"), black hat country ("Hobo's Prayer"), and Kansas City rockabilly ("Going Nowhere Fast").

Guest players include Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris on the outstanding track, "Truck Stop," as well as Pam Tillis and Earl Scruggs.

Stuart's recording efforts also took him to California, where he recorded with guitarist Mike Campbell from Tom Petty's band. Explains Stuart, "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."

Stuart continues: "I live the outer edge of country music. It's amazing the people you bump into out there . . . dreams do come true. I fell in love with country music when I was five 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."

The album constantly changes gears, as the flashy country instrumental pop of "Outro" segues into a spoken-word piece by Johnny Cash, followed by "Mr. John Henry, Steel Drivin' Man," a bluegrass duet with Earl Scruggs.

The Pilgrim forges brave territory for a Nashville release. Ranging far from the safe confines of country sound, the new album will both frustrate and attract fans (I think the album would get a better reception if listeners had access to the complete background information). Take a sojourn with The Pilgrim.

Cleveland Scene

July 9, 1999

Marty Stuart has carefully fashioned a country music outsider's image (i.e., the guy doesn't wear a Stetson), and while his ability to pick up any stringed instrument and master it is above badmouthing, his albums, like those of his hatless amigo Travis Tritt, tend to be as unexciting and run-of-the-mill as the commercial heavyweights he allegedly is rejecting. Busy Bee Café, the acoustic album Stuart made on the folk/bluegrass label Sugar Hill, isn't the best thing the man ever released.

The Pilgrim might not be as righteous as Busy Bee, but it's Stuart's best major-label effort: an irresistible mixture of honky-tonk country, tear-jerking ballads, country rock, and exquisite (what else) picking.

Stuart has done his part in the current 1970s revival by recording a concept album. The stories told in the songs on The Pilgrim are based on people Stuart claims to have known as a youth in his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi. Yeah, they would have to be. Had any screenwriter delivered a corny script like this — a hackneyed tale of love, jealousy, and suicide — he would be shit-canned on the spot.

Fortunately, the clichéd story is eclipsed by the beauty of the songs themselves. Most of them could stand on their own, but still manage to connect nicely to the theme. Things drag only near the end, where heavy-handed strings in the background create a totally unnecessary melodramatic effect. And why the heck did Stuart and producer Tony Brown end this album with an instrumental version of "John Henry"?

Because this record has so little in common with Hillbilly Rock and The Marty Party Hit Pack, it could be commercial suicide. Stuart's fans, however, are supposed to be a loyal bunch. Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash aficionados will love The Pilgrim. Let's hope Marty Stuart's legions do, too.

By Steve Byrne

June 30, 1999

If ever a concept album lent itself to a visual, The Pilgrim is it. It could easily provide the aural magic for a stage production, or perhaps the soundtrack to a film. As a country album, however, the listener might find it a bit murky to comprehend, even knowing the threads of the tale.

In the liner notes, Stuart explains that his current album -- which was three years in the making -- is based on a true story from his hometown, about a man named Norman who unwittingly gets caught in a tragic love triangle, with dire consequences. As a result, he becomes a "pilgrim," living a self-destructive life and wandering the country in search of redemption. In the throes of a dream at his mother's grave, he is finally able to reconcile with himself. He returns to the woman, they marry and raise a family.

Sounds simple enough, but this 20-part song cycle is an ambitious musical odyssey considering the present climate in country music. This is not a disc that can be casually enjoyed (which was probably Stuart's intention); the listener must engage 100 percent of his or her thought processes to follow the journey. The various styles of country music run the gamut from country rock to traditional country to bluegrass to honky tonk, which is represented in the first single, "Red, Red Wine and Cheatin' Songs." There are also several instrumental interludes, seguing the story's "acts." The transitions are not always smooth and sometimes downright confusing. The fine instrumental bluegrass finale, "Mr. John Henry, Steel Driving Man," is just sort of tagged on and doesn't serve to provide resolution to the story.

It does have moments of haunting beauty, as in Emmylou Harris' rendition of the first verse of "The Pilgrim." Johnny Cash's reading of an excerpt from Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Sir Galahad" is mesmerizing. Also, "The Observations of a Crow" is a work of songwriting genius beginning with a spoken word narrative by Stuart. (The song brings to mind similar efforts by Robbie Robertson and Leonard Cohen.) Told from the perspective of a crow, it's one of those songs that rolls eerily around in your subconscious mind for awhile.

"Hobo's Prayer" is a fine narrative song, and "Truckstop," which is graced by the legendary presence of George Jones, with Harris portraying the all-knowing truckstop waitress, is another high point. The rockin' "Draggin' Around These Chains of Love" has a memorable guest appearance by guitarist Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers fame. Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley lends not only his voice to the project, but the stellar musicianship of the Clinch Mountain Boys. Pam Tillis contributes her traditional country vocal sensibilities to several tracks. Earl Scruggs, Dobro player Josh Graves and fiddler Stuart Duncan are some of the fine musicians appearing on the project.

The Pilgrim is a radical departure from the current trend in "feel good" pop/country albums -- an attempt by Stuart to return to a reverence for the tradition of story-telling in country that has been absent as of late. Although a sincere effort, there are too many musical textures vying for the listener's attention.

By Michelle Nikolai

Country Music

Aug/Sept 1999
Marty Stuart is country music's consummate multitasker (what we used to call a Renaissance man): a singer, songwriter, super-picker, antiquarian, photographer, essayist, fashion and honky-tonk bon vivant. He grew up a prodigy tutored by Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and other greats -- none of it was lost on him. He has absorbed and cultivated every strain of music that ever stirred a hillbilly soul. And now, all that teaching and experience has been poured into The Pilgrim, a record that transcends anything he's ever done and that promises to be on of Music Row's strongest releases this year.

It sounds pretentious to call The Pilgrim a country/rock opera, but it fits the billing. Like the Who's Quadrophenia or Tom Russell's recent The Man From God Knows Where, the record takes its substance and shape from a narrative. The story, told in scraps and fragments, is of a love triangle that played out in Stuart's hometown. A man, the Pilgrim falls in love with a woman, not knowing she has an estranged husband. The husband confronts them and then kills himself. The Pilgrim wanders, seeking solace, and finally returns to make the original love work.

Of the 20 tracks, nine are songs that would either stand apart as strong singles or together as a fine album in their own right. We hear Stuart's mastery of honky-tonk on "Red, Red Wine and Cheatin' Songs" and "Goin' Nowhere Fast." He dives into classic hillbilly rock with "Sometimes The Pleasure's Worth The Pain" and "Draggin' Around These Chains Of Love." The uncategorizable "Observations Of A Crow" is just a wonderful song that proves Stuart isn't hamstrung by conventions.

The CD's 11 other mini-cuts tie the project together and lend it texture. These interludes include the voices of Emmylou Harris, George Jones, and Johnny Cash reading Tennyson, if you can imagine such riches. A short song that Stuart wrote especially for Ralph Stanley relating the husband's suicide sounds a thousand years old. Elsewhere, Beatles-like instrumental flourishes and the ambient sound of birdsong give The Pilgrim flair and soul.

But Stuart didn't get so caught up in the elaborate production that he forgot to pick. He brings in a dozen or so of the staggering guitars and mandolins from his collection and gets them up close to the mike. The mandolin work on the title cut is a tour de force. And the final cut, a mando/banjo duet with Earl Scruggs on "John Henry," is like dessert.

Stuart is a good, but not a great, songwriter. He borrows classic country conventions (the train in the distance, the road home) gracefully, but so often that it doesn't always leave him enough space to turn innovative phrases himself.

But, you know, who cares? This kind of commitment to creativity and the music's heritage should be more common in Nashville's mainstream.

By Craig Havigurst

Country Music People

July 1999
He cut his teeth in the bands of Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash. He's on his third term as president of that venerable institution, the Country Music Foundation. He's even married to a venerable country music institution, Connie Smith (having previously wed Cash's daughter Cindy). Marty Stuart is a pillar of the Nashville community, a well-connected, all-round nice guy. But what has he actually given us musically?

Until now, I'd have said not a lot, beyond a few catchy but lightweight ditties like "Tempted." With this ambitious and accomplished concept album, however, Stuart proves his worth.

The Pilgrim is based on the true story of some people from Stuart's hometown. The title character falls in love with a woman he doesn't know is married. The jealous husband confronts them and publicly kills himself. The pilgrim flees the scandal on a soul-searching journey through America's honky tonks and hobo jungles before eventually returning to marry the woman he loves.

This is perfect subject matter for country music and, fortunately, the narrative is suggested, rather than explicitly described, by a series of very different tracks that, on repeated listens, don't give the impression of watching the same movie over and over.

There are several reprises, sound effects, links lasting a minute or so and even a musical intermission. But Stuart dodges a traditional pitfall of the concept album by including several tracks that would easily stand alone as radio singles.

First extraction, "Red, Red Wine and Cheatin' Songs," is a case in point. A stomping honky tonk belter in the style of the standard "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music." If that proves too country, another chart contender must be "Sometimes The Pleasure's Worth The Pain" which echoes the Roy Orbison-meets-Phil Spector sound of Stuart's 1991 success, "Tempted."

Other potential hits include the Traveling Wilbury's-style rocker, "Draggin' Around These Chains Of Love," the quirky but striking blues song, "The Observations of a Crow," the foot-to-the-floor country rock of "Goin' Nowhere Fast" and, if country radio will let in a little country music, the very retro" "Reasons" on which Pam Tillis sings harmony.

Beyond likely singles, the album offers plenty of traditional country and bluegrass flavors, with the added interest of guest appearances by Johnny Cash, George Jones, Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs and, of course, Emmylou Harris (if someone hung up a fly paper, Emmy'd want to be on it).

Given the story-telling nature of country music, it's a wonder we're not knee deep in concept albums. In fact, the somewhat maligned format is virtually extinct. The Pilgrim proves there is much to be discovered beyond the confines of the three-minute single. It deserves to succeed and encourage others in country music to try a larger canvas. With multi-media CDs, there's a whole new frontier to be explored.

At the very least, The Pilgrim is the best thing Marty Stuart has done, by far. [Four Stars]

By Douglas McPherson

Country Standard Time

July 1, 1999

Now for something completely different - a concept album about love and suicide and drinking and searching. Thank Marty Stuart, who made a career album with this well-conceived 20-song package. The basic story is a love triangle where the jilted kills himself, while the lover leaves town for a life of despair. For awhile anyway.

Stuart mixes different musical styles ranging from bluegrass to honky tonk to country to blues country to a Tom Petty-like offering. Yes, he has help from folks like Cash, Harris and Stanley, but Stuart clearly is the cornerstone. And the styles help keep the disc moving musically.

The writing is superb with a spiritual quality underlying the story. While certainly a downer, redemption is ultimately at hand for The Pilgrim. Several songs are radio friendly ("Sometimes the Pleasure's Worth the Pain," "Goin' Nowhere Fast") and stand up on their own without the concept idea.

As risky the album is, that is also how good it is. Stuart has not had a good run for a few albums, but clearly deserves it with this. This disc is his musical and lyrical redemption.

By Jeffrey B. Remz

Country Weekly

July 6, 1999
It's been a while since a country artist tackled the difficult job of putting together a concept album -- 24 years to be exact since Willie Nelson turned himself into a superstar with Red Headed Stranger. The drought is finally over thanks to Marty Stuart's incredibly ambitious 20-song collection The Pilgrim.

Marty says the entire story is based on people he knew while growing up. It's a remarkable and deeply moving tale of unlikely love, deception, tragedy and eventually redemption. A special highlight is former father-in-law Johnny Cash reciting the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem "Sir Galahad." Other guests include Bluegrass Hall of Honor members Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs and Josh Graves, country stars Connie Smith (Marty's wife), George Jones, Pam Tillis and Emmylou Harris, as well as Mike Campbell from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

There's plenty of country music history on the album, since vintage guitars originally belonging to Hank Williams, Mother Maybelle Carter, Lester Flatt, Clarence White, Don Rich, Luther Perkins and Wayne Moss can be heard. But this wasn't a haphazard project -- it took three years to put it together. The rich tapestry is woven within a more acoustic and country-flavored sound than has been heard on his recent albums.

Stuart also draws from bluegrass traditions for "Harlan County," from mountain folk for "Hobo's Prayer" and from rock 'n' roll for "Draggin' Around these Chains of Love." The first single, "Red, Red Wine and Cheatin' Songs," mines country's rich honky-tonk tradition.

The Pilgrim is a fascinating look back at country music's past and perhaps a peek into country's future.

By Douglas Fulmer

July 14, 1999

Neo-traditionalist Marty Stuart's first album since his 1996 release Honky Tonkin's What I Do Best is well worth the wait—and the journey. The epitome of "Americana music," it's an expansive and imaginative trip not unlike Willie Nelson's 1975 classic Red Headed Stranger and one that takes side roads down every musical base from bluegrass to honky-tonk, sun-drenched rock 'n' roll, blues and Appalachian folk music. At the core of The Pilgrim, a blood-soaked episodic tale of undying love, death and redemption, is the soul, voice and vision of the multi-talented Stuart. Along with Stuart, many of the characters are cast in the voices of Emmylou Harris, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Pam Tillis and Ralph Stanley. The project already has garnered plenty of critical acclaim and Stuart no doubt will be rightfully honored with another Grammy nomination for his efforts. When it would have been so easy for him to release another album in order to appease the label and the radio-driven country format, Stuart stood tall and gave himself time while he honed to perfection this most excellent project that will surely be rated as the finest of his career, and among the best albums of the 1990s.

By Ron Young

The Daily Page

The sappy string arrangement that signals the beginning of country singer Marty Stuart's melancholy concept album doesn't inspire much faith. After all, how many perfectly serviceable country projects have been ruined by some glitz-obsessed producer?

But this is Stuart, and though his taste is sometimes suspect, his feeling for lowdown heart songs and hardscrabble honky-tonk is undeniable. So, despite the aural and narrative weaknesses that bedevil his "true story" of love, self-doubt and redemption, it's hard to wrench this oddball CD away from the laser. Fact is, there are highlights here, plenty of 'em. One of the brightest is "Hobo's Prayer," a beautifully crafted train song that mixes the Zen of utter misery with the hardcore reality of being broke and broken-hearted. The most impressive of Stuart's performances comes on "Red, Red Wine and Cheatin' Songs," a jukebox hit in the making that demonstrates how insurgent a country polymath like Stuart can be when he puts his mind to it. "Goin' Nowhere Fast" swings nearly as hard, and "Harlan County," Stuart's feature for Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, is about as high and lonesome as anyone would want to get.

No, this isn't the life-changing C&W grail quest Stuart wants it to be, but it does contain plenty of impressive writing. Here's hoping he tours the album in our area.

Dirty Linen

November 18, 1999

Marty Stuart has really laid his musicianship and songcraft on the line with this release. It has the unmistakable feeling of someone showing all their cards. Not many musicians have as good a band as Stuart: good friends (Johnny Cash, Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, and George Jones make appearances), good songs, good musicians (including Mike Campbell of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers), and good guitars (this record features a Fender made for Mother Maybelle Carter, one of Don Rich’s Telecasters, and a Martin that originally belonged to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash). Built on a true story of love, sin, and guilt (the usual stuff of country songs) Stuart puts together a wonderfully complete house with his deck of cards spanning the range of country music, from traditional mountain music (“Cluck Old Hen”), honky-tonk (“Red, Red Wine and Cheatin’ Songs”) to hot country (“Sometimes the Pleasure’s Worth the Pain”). A wonderful record that shows the hard work and love — for the music and for the ragged rebels, homeless hobos and those who have lost the light — that Stuart put into this country epic.

By Char R. Leslie-Miller

Eagle 97.3 FM

Just when things start to get a little "usual" in country music, Marty Stuart surfaces with a new album. After a hiatus of several years, Marty's back with a concept album called The Pilgrim. It is a project that tells the story, start to finish, of a man who marries the town beauty queen. After a while, she tires of his jealous rages and falls in love with a man known as The Pilgrim. Her husband discovers her deception and confronts them both before killing himself. Not lighthearted subject matter, but Stuart manages to weave his story smoothly, with unexpected touches, like the string section intro to Patsy Cline's "Sweet Dreams" which begins the album. Each song segment is one of the characters speaking, or a description of the scene unfolding. Another unexpected touch is guest artists like Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, Johnny Cash and George Jones supplying vocals. Combine all this with Stuart's impeccable musicianship and production, and The Pilgrim is a compelling listen. Whether you're a Marty Stuart fan, or just a supporter of traditional country music, this is a great addition to your collection.

By Mare Carmody, Music Director

Edmonton Sun

June 28, 1999

Stuart Tells A Story; Marty's Pals Pitch In On Concept Album

No one makes concept albums any more. I mean, Fred Eaglesmith had his trains album, and Nick Cave his murder record, but long gone are the days of a single, good story coming across on vinyl. Who would have figured an unlikely country rocker like Marty Stuart would break the silence?

But what a good album, man! Maybe the best country album of the year, thanks in part to Stuart's stepping back and letting other giants sing their piece, solo. The Pilgrim is the story of a love triangle gone wrong, as they tend to go. A beauty queen marries a cross-eyed man named Norman-a rocky marriage at best. One day, a traveller comes through her truckstop and the trouble begins.

Everyone's story is explored, even an old crow who watches it all (his song is the most interesting on the album, cool and detached). Stuart's compositions are immensely catchy and range from wistful to heartbreaking, while the playing is absolutely fantastic. Stuart has always been a musician with props, and a lot of his friends show up for the effort: Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, George Jones, Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, and Tony Brown. The instruments alone, laden with the blood of country music history, represent something almost magical in themselves. (For the whole atory on that, head to on the Net).

But what really works here is the time-honored and lately forgotten idea of country music itself: a good yarn with a bad ending: the true white man's blues. There's no question this one's going to win awards and with every reason. Marty Stuart has earned the credibility he's always been looking for and then some. Buy this one if you like music and aren't afraid of getting hurt a little.

By Fish Grikowsky

Entertainment Weekly

June 18, 1999

Stuart's long-awaited concept album turns out to be a hillbilly opera about love, betrayal, death, and redemption, based on a true story from his hometown. While his writing has never been more lyrical, it doesn't disguise the thinness of the plot and the flaccid resolution. What saves the project is Stuart's smart, dramatic use of such guest narrators as Emmylou Harris, George Jones, Ralph Stanley, Pam Tillis, and Johnny Cash. And, Lord yes, the picking. [Grade: B]

By Alanna Nash


June 18, 1999

That Marty Stuart's new album The Pilgrim, a remarkable song cycle in the manner of Willie Nelson's Red-Headed Stranger, is one of this year's best releases is already apparent. Its story line, cast of characters and theme of loss and redemption, coupled with a stellar roster of cameos (Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Pam Tillis), not only illuminate an essential facet of the American persona. The Pilgrim also evokes the history of country music, from its Scots-Irish origins in Appalachia to Texas, California's Kern County and, believe it or not, Greenwich Village's Bleecker Street. I'm currently obsessed with track nine, "Hobo's Prayer," a thoughtful ballad in the manner of Paul Simon's "The Boxer," with a gently rolling finger-style guitar pattern that recalls better versions I've heard of Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans." Stuart's lyrics sketch his protagonist's encounters with a train-yard prophet named St. Peter and a New Orleans seer named Mother Mary. They're prosaic words, but suitably poetic. This is the coolest train song I've heard in a long time, and it's on an album that's well worth hearing in its entirety.

Eye Magazine

September 30, 1999

At first, a country music concept album may sound about as appealing as poutine, but Marty Stuart's latest is pretty darn good. The concept is a song cycle that tells the true story of a lone wolf (the Pilgrim) who breezes into town and falls in love with a woman called Rita, who's married to a temperamental cross-eyed dude called Norman. Sensing hanky-panky, Norman confronts the two with a gun, but turns it on himself. The Pilgrim flees town, becomes a hobo and then, cleaned-up, marries Rita and happiness ensues. Stuart sounds more mature than ever, and his hired help (Johnny Cash, George Jones, Emmylou Harris and Pam Tillis) really brings the characters to life. Love the haunting train whistles too.

By Erin Hawkins

FFWD Weekly

August 12, 1999

The idea of a concept country album holds as much promise as a rock band recording with a symphonic orchestra. Lofty aspirations are for the lofty, while everyone knows country songs are for the lowly. Or so you’d have thought.

Nashville veteran Marty Stuart actually answers the challenge quite successfully on his latest release. Developed around a story from his childhood and set in his hometown, The Pilgrim features a tale that could have been condensed into one Kenny Rogers short story song – a love triangle gone wrong which then turns right – and liberally spreads it and the many emotions it holds throughout the chapters of an entire album.

In fact, taken as a collection of songs, the album is like many – some good, some not so good, some sadly too short, others painfully long. Taken as a whole it breezes by with wonderful highs and lows. Maybe it’s because of the elements for a classic tale are there – romance, pain, death, betrayal – or maybe it’s because Stuart’s direction leads us into caring how it all turns out.

Helping Stuart flesh out the characters who inhabit the story and the sights, sounds and, most importantly, feelings they experience is a masterful cast. Emmylou Harris embodies lonesome during her appearance in the song "The Pilgrim (Act I)" and then later on in a duet with George Jones. The legendary Uncle Josh Graves even provides a brief intermission with his capital "c" country dobro pickin’. And what better way to end country tale than with a walk-on by the Man in Black?

A concept country album that’s actually good? Who’da thunk it?

By Michael Bell

Freight Train Boogie

Despite his ass-shaking reputation, Marty Stuart has been around since his days with Lester Flatt's band as a young teenager. He also has a deep respect for the traditions of Country music and a damn fine voice too. Now he has taken a bit of a gamble with an excellent concept album, loosely-based on a true story he remembers hearing as a child. The Pilgrim is a song-cycle about a man who can't get over the love of a woman. The story deals with love, suicide, loneliness, and ultimately, redemption. Marty enlisted many respected Country music friends, but this is his show all the way, handling the production and most of the songwriting. Of special note are the contributions of Ralph Stanley and Heartbreaker Mike Campbell on guitar. This is an ambitious and brave effort for Stuart, and I think he pulls it off. For the Nashville establishment, there are still some potential hits here, but thankfully, they don't take away from the story.

By Bill Frater

Hartford Courant

Sept. 9, 1999

As the world awaits Garth Brooks' dubious and overhyped concept album, it's time to hail the summer's most ambitious county release. Marty Stuart, the ace Nashville guitarist and stylish solo artist, has dug deep for his latest, The Pilgrim, a concept album about a deadly romantic triangle he vividly recalls from his upbringing in rural Mississippi. He's spun a tale over a broad canvas of a whole CD, using all his
skills as a writer, singer, multi-instrumentalist and avid lover of classic country and bluegrass.

The train-whistling tapestry includes impressive inclusions from no less than his former employer and father-in-law, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Pam Tillis, Earl Scruggs, and Ralph Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys.

Although the variety of rich voices and the compelling story make the album a unique experience from beginning to end, there are also a number of standout cuts that can - and should - stand on their own on country radio.

This is a work that deserves to stand with cross-generation collaborations like Will the Circle Be Unbroken and ambitious country concept albums like Harris' The Ballad of Sally Rose, Willie Nelson's The Red Headed Stranger, and even Hank Williams' Luke the Drifter.

Seek it out; Stuart's achievement deserves to be saved from its commercial obscurity.

By Roger Catlin

Knight Ridder News Service

June 27, 1999


"Pilgrim" finally puts it all together

Marty Stuart has produced a lot of excellent music over the years, but for all his talent, passion and likability, he never has delivered that one killer disc.

That changes here with a concept album whose execution matches its lofty ambition. An unabashed lover of country tradition, Stuart tells a story that is perfect for exploring such age-old country themes as infidelity, drinking, religion, dislocation and the tug of home. In unfolding his tale, Stuart digs deeper than he ever has, making this his most profound work.

His music still ranges widely-from bluegrass to hard-core country, to his self-styled "hillbilly rock," and ringing, Tom Petty-style rock--but the setting lends his eclecticism a greater cohesiveness than it has ever had. And though Stuart doesn't have a voice for the ages, he gives an extra dimension to his ultimately uplifting saga by enlisting the help of several guests who do, including Emmylou Harris, George Jones and Johnny Cash. [Four Stars]

By Nick Cristiano


"Ambitious" is not a word often used to describe modern-day mainstream country music. Not when it's so formulaic -- a music factory for Mark McGwire types in Wranglers and Celine Dion wanna-bes -- that its collective artistic achievement rivals that of the coinciding cute-pop revival of the Backstreets and Britneys in terms of depth and potential lack of legacy. But here comes Marty Stuart with The Pilgrim, a rare moment in recent years in which the mighty Nashville machine eschews commerce for the sake of -- gasp! -- art. Ambitious? You betcha.

His 11th album since this erstwhile guitar and mando prodigy left behind his role backing Lester Flatt, Doc Watson, and onetime father-in-law Johnny Cash to pursue the solo spotlight in 1982, The Pilgrim is a song cycle based on a true-life story Stuart learned in his Mississippi youth about a love triangle shrouded in death, redemption, and spiritual revelation. Yep, all the good stuff. Propelled by Stuart's wondrous string work, this is a Crock-Pot of Americana -- honky-tonk tunes, tear-in-beer laments, bluegrass, Buddy Holly-ish pop twang, and country rock -- all brimming with the sort of heart and soul that a hundred Garth songs could never match. Featuring a made-for-cinema story line and gobs of drama, a good portion of the album's emotional impact stems from the vocal cameos by an onslaught of national treasure stylists, including Emmylou Harris, George Jones, Ralph Stanley, and the aforementioned Man in Black. It's hard to go wrong when Emmylou's ethereal tones represent the album's first mystical overture, while Johnny Cash's preternatural rumble is the outro that excerpts the soul-searching passages from Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Sir Galahad."

But Stuart's no slouch himself. His strength has never been his unspectacular albeit warm vocals (especially in light of the company he keeps here), but his genre-spanning song craft and passion for country's rich traditions remain something special. It's no different, really, than what he's been doing for most of his career, but the vision's had this type of reach or purity before. (Plus, his Darryl Hall-ish mane and Nudie clown suits may have clouded the issue in the past.) The Pilgrim, which will be performed in its entirety at the intimate Troubadour, is a endlessly emotional, ear-grabbing experience. Better yet, it's an unexpected moment in which Nashville country suddenly -- shockingly -- proves itself vital once again.

By Neal Weiss

Let It Twang

#5 Twang Album of 1999

The guest list for the Marty Party has been infinitely refined -- the guests on this disc include Ralph Stanley, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Pam Tillis... From reading interviews with Marty, it seems as though a pang of conscience got him, and good -- the theme of this concept disc is redemption, and Marty has compared it to his own musical redemption. And what a complete saving grace it is. The Pilgrim crackles with great singing and playing, with styles ranging from Marty's patented boom-chicka-boom to bluegrass instrumentals, honky-tonks, and even a poetry reading from the Man In Black. The story is about a man who becomes involved with a married woman, although she never bothers to mention this fact. One day her husband finds them together and kills himself in front of them, and The Pilgrim leaves town in search of redemption -- which he eventually finds within himself as he looks out over the Pacific ocean. Partly based on a true story, this is a disc we all knew Marty Stuart had in him.

The Loafer

June 29, 1999
Last year's muddled Tribute To Tradition attempted to honor country music by featuring today's hot new country artists covering traditional standards. The effort was a failure mainly because many of the chosen artists couldn't hold a candle to the performers they were called to honor. But one track, "Same Old Train' written and compiled by Marty Stuart, was an album in a song, covering the styles and history of country music in six minutes.

It was a harbinger of things to come, as Stuart's new CD, The Pilgrim, tells an engaging story of love lost and found; the saga of Norman, Rita and The Pilgrim. In Stuart's engaging tale, Norman, the jealous and possessive husband of Rita, kills himself when he discovers his wife in the arms of The Pilgrim. The Pilgrim is an honest man who would not have fallen in love with Rita had he known she was married. His shame -- and the town gossip -- causes The Pilgrim to flee, becoming a hitchhiker and hobo as he searches for forgiveness and love. After a while, The Pilgrim realizes he truly loved Rita and his conscience is clear; after all, he really did not know she was married. Besides, he realizes she needs him as much as he needs her.

That's the basic plot, but the love and hard work that has gone into making this CD come to life is nothing short of astounding. From the very beginning, Stuart drops the listener into the history of country music, from old-time bluegrass (Ralph Stanley on "Harlan Country") to rockabilly ("Sometimes The Pleasure's Worth The Pain") to folk ("Hobo's Prayer") and to blues ("The Observations Of A Crow"). Singers involved include Emmylou Harris, George Jones, Stanley, Johnny Cash and Pam Tillis. The CD is an aural movie; close your eyes and the characters and events spring to life.

But in many ways, Marty Stuart is The Pilgrim. He began as a youngster picking for Lester Flatt and moved from old-time country to rockabilly and outlaw music with Johnny Cash. He's scored with rockabilly styles and honky-tonk music and still picks a mean mandolin on old-time gospel tunes. He's been on the road living the life of a superstar yet he's returned to his roots, realizing that country music needs him as much as he needs country music. Unlike many of today's artists, he's spent his life exploring all the facets of country music, making pilgrimages to Memphis, A.P. Carter's home and many roadside honky-tonks in an effort to absorb and honor the history. Three years in the making, The Pilgrim is the most significant country music CD to be released in the last five years. Buy it and "Honor Thy Music." A+

By Michael Clark

Los Angeles Daily News

Marty Stuart's ambitious new concept album proves he's truly the keeper of country's traditional flame. Built around a timeless tale of lost love, alcoholism, death and redemption, The Pilgrim explores country's beloved themes with help from such luminaries as George Jones, Johnny Cash, Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, Pam Tillis, Emmylou Harris and Mike Campbell, among others. Stuart tells the story perfectly, utilizing creaky Appalachian vocal dust, crackling bluegrass, twangy honky tonk, plus tasty rock and string arrangements. This fully realized effort deserves a place at the top of the charts. [3-1/2 Stars]

By Fred Shuster

Louisville Courier-Journal

Oct. 30, 1999

Marty Stuart has become something of a keeper of the country music flame. From his extensive collection of Hank Williams and Roger Miller artifacts to his deep appreciation of bygone Grand Ole Opry stars, the man knows his music.

While Stuart has had some lighthearted hits on his own and honky-tonk good times with pal Travis Tritt, The Pilgrim shows a somber side of the man.

Possibly the best album out of Nashville this year, The Pilgrim is stunning. Dark, brooding and eventually hopeful, it is a tale of love found, lost, then redeemed. It has the feel of a country opera, or opry, as Stuart jokingly refers to it. Musical motifs mosey in and out; some tunes are as short as 31 seconds as they meld one idea into the next phase. "Red, Red Wine and Cheatin' Songs" and "The Observations of a Crow" are particularly effective. "Outro" has Johnny Cash reciting Alfred Lord Tennyson poetry over a somber instrumental.

The only flaw is closing the album with the "Mr. John Henry, Steel Driving Man." It detracts from the lonely, lovely Cash ending, but it's a minor quibble.

By Laura Younkin

Miles of Music

November 2000

I've listened to this CD dozens, maybe even hundreds of times since it was released, and the quality of the songwriting and performances continues to knock me out. It's unfathomable that a record this great resulted in Marty's being dropped by MCA. Their loss, and ours too.

By Amy Haugesag

Marty Stuart has been discovered by the Americana/No Depression audience, thanks to his new album, The Pilgrim (MCA). If you hear a tiny sour note there, I'm sorry -- but not too sorry; Stuart's been around a long time, and it's hard to see why he hasn't been made much of before. The Pilgrim is far from his first album -- he debuted as a solo artist more than 20 years ago, and he'd been recording for a half decade before that with Lester Flatt's Nashville Grass -- and it's not even his first concept album; that would be 1992's This One's Gonna Hurt You, with its country then-and-now conceit. So what's different? Well, aside from the music -- which I will, I promise, get to any minute now -- it's largely the marketing; while Stuart's always produced good stuff (and done good things; he's in his third term as president of the Country Music Foundation) and remains a presence on TNN, he's just about disappeared from mainstream country radio; gone are the days of the wildly successful chart life he enjoyed in the early part of the '90s.

Hence the decision to target the alt-country scene with The Pilgrim's marketing, and if it helps him build his audience, more power to him. Besides, the music on the album is mighty fine. There's a story line of sorts -- a man falls in love with a woman he believes to be unattached, and when her husband shows up and kills himself before their eyes, he flees, wandering the country before experiencing a spiritual revelation that sends him back home to find her and marry -- but the full-length songs stand up quite nicely all by themselves. The interspersed themes and transitions feel natural and unforced, what with guests like George Jones, Ralph Stanley and his band, Earl Scruggs, Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris adding their two bits. Though Marty's got country roots a lot of folks can only dream about, and puts them to good use here, there's a reason his band is called the Rock & Roll Cowboys, especially when he gets a good Waylon Jennings-ish groove going on numbers like "Sometimes the Pleasure's Worth the Pain." Yeah, it's kind of unfortunate that Stuart's paid a hipness price for his commercial success in the past, but even so, The Pilgrim is his best and most fully realized album yet.

By Jon Weisberger

My Kind Of Country

May 25, 2012

Marty’s last release on MCA, in 1999, was an ambitious concept album telling a story, inspired by a true story of passion, death and undyin love which took place in his Mississippi home town. He wrote all the songs, with occasional co-writers, and produced the album, with Tony Brown acting as Executive Producer. There are 20 tracks in all, but just under half are full length songs, with several instrumentals and some half-length numbers. Marty plays both the title role, of a man who unknowingly falls in love with a married woman, and the cuckolded husband who commits suicide. Possibly using a different singer to play one or other of the roles would have made the story clearer.

It opens with the whistle and chugging of a steam train, seguing into discord and orchestral strings ("Intro"), and then launching into "Sometimes The Pleasure’s Worth The Pain," a loud country rock chugger not too far removed from Marty’s hits, which he wrote with Gary Nicholson and might have been a hit single. It is not quite clear whether this is the voice of the cuckolded husband or the unwitting adulterer.

Emmylou Harris swoops in to sing the anguished first verse of the title track (labelled "Act I"), which is beautiful but feels incomplete, leading into the high lonesome bluegrass of "Harlan County." This is a minute and a half of narrative telling the tale of the husband’s suicide on discovering the affair. Sounding like a traditional song, the lead vocal is taken by the legendary Ralph Stanley, who is perfect for it. This in turn leads into Marty singing the husband’s suicide note, the traditional country "Reasons," with Pam Tillis’ exquisite harmony on the chorus. This is a real highlight, but for the sake of narrative clarity, it would have been more effective to use a guest vocalist on this for the husband’s voice – George Jones, for instance, who is underused with half a short track.

A short interlude entitled "Love Can Go To…" provides the voice of the lover, claiming “I didn’t know she was married”.

"Red Red Wine And Cheatin’ Songs," the only single, failed to make an impact on country radio, but is a great song, with Pam Tillis on harmony again. Once more, I am not quite sure if this is supposed to be the husband or lover whose “baby went wrong” (I assume the former), but it is a great honky tonker about a man taking refuge in the bottle:

For ten long years not one single drop
Twelve months later I haven’t stopped

George Jones sings another narrative section, "Truckstop,", with Emmylou then playing the part of a waitress who encounters the lover (who we know from the liner notes has left town to escape the scandal) and labels him the “pilgrim” of the title.

The confessional "Hobo’s Prayer" traces the pilgrim’s descent into rootless wandering, continued with the more contemporary and not very interesting ‘Goin’ Nowhere Fast’ where he realises he is making no progress. The part-spoken "The Observations of A Crow" is poetic, atmospheric and jazzy, but while interesting and artistically adventurous, I’m not sure if I like it very much.

The steel-laced "The Greatest Love Of All Time" has the man looking back regretfully before a long orchestral section which is a bit too much. In the country rock "Draggin’ Round These Chains Of Love," he is exhausted by the years trying to escape his feelings; Emmylou Harris harmonises.

Ralph Stanley sings a second verse (or "Act II") of the title track before Marty then brings us the pilgrim’s "Redemption" scene, as one night in a churchyard he surrenders to God. He then sings the six-minute long Act III of "The Pilgrim," a beautifully paced confessional in which he admits,

Pilgrims walk, but not alone
There’s been a hand to guide me along the way
And it held me up when I went astray

A recitation by Johnny Cash of lines from Tennyson’s "Sir Galahad" about finding the Holy Grail, and one sung line, lead into an instrumental version of "Mr John Henry, Steel Driving Man" by Marty and Earl Scruggs to end the collection.

This album was critically acclaimed, but lacked commercial appeal, and Marty subseqquently left the label. The whole is more than the sum of its parts; at times the unconventional tracking verges on the pretentious and not all the songs are particularly strong in their own right. But even if not everything pays off, the artistic ambition is laudable and the project is worth hearing.

Grade: A-

By Occasional Hope

Nashville Scene

June 17, 1999
Over the course of a theme album about betrayal, death, love and renewal, Stuart exploits all of his loves and talents -- bluegrass, honky-tonk, country-rock -- to explore the heights and depths of the human experience.

By Michael McCall (who lists this album as one of his top 10 favorites released during the first half of 1999)

Now Toronto

August 19, 1999

Risking both his party-hearty rep and a good chunk of dough, honky-tonk picker Marty Stuart ambitiously attempts to turn a blood-splattered tale of the redemptive power of love into an elaborate country-gothic concept album.

Celebrated pals Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, George Jones and Pam Tillis lend their voices to the song cycle, yet Stuart, never a particularly brilliant composer, lacks both the lyrical finesse and the arranging smarts to pull the pieces together in a way that conveys the emotional turbulence of the true-life horror story. At least there are no goofy wigs involved.

By Tim Perlich

Orange County Register

June 23, 1999

For years, Marty Stuart has been the keeper of the hillbilly flame. In a country music environment that seemingly values commercial pop over tradition, Stuart has steadfastly refused to turn his back on country's roots which, by the way, are inextricably intertwined with his own.

Now, with his latest release, "The Pilgrim,'' Stuart offers what is not only his finest career work, but one of the most inventive, exquisite compilations of musical storytelling to see the light of day in Nashville.

Working from a true story from his life experiences, Stuart assembles a small but impressive cadre of musicians (among them Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Ralph Stanley, George Jones) to tell not only the story of the pilgrim but to progressively explore the history of the music.

The story is about a town misfit who marries the beauty queen but lives a life of suspicion and eventually goes to pieces and kills himself when he finds she's been keeping company with another man - the pilgrim - who didn't even know she was married. The pilgrim flees in shame and travels the country before returning to claim the woman he loved all along.

Stuart lets the story guide the progression of the music, from the sparse bluegrass of Stanley singing "Harlan County'' to Cash's exclamatory closing soliloquy. The cameos - by Stanley, Cash, Harris and Jones, who delivers a vintage basso introduction to "Truckstop'' - are truly surprising gems.

But Stuart doesn't allow the story to overshadow the music. As much of a concept as the album is, its true strength lies in the consistently superb music - Stuart's writing and his delivery.

He explores roots rock with his opening number, "Sometimes the Pleasure's Worth the Pain,'' then shifts to pure country with "Reasons.'' "Red, Red Wine and Cheatin' Songs'' is pure honky tonk heaven. And that's only the beginning.

During his journey, the pilgrim wanders in and out of songs, including one in which he comes under the watchful eye of a know-it-all crow. "The Observations of a Crow'' is perhaps the most sublime song of this masterpiece.

In the publicity material that accompanies the album, Stuart's pal, actor Billy Bob Thornton, says: "I wish critics weren't allowed to listen to it. This is pure, honest, beautiful art and shouldn't ever be commented on by anyone other than the kind who made it.''

Thornton is at least partly right. But art is meant to be appreciated, and how else can you spread the word about the best country album of the year?

By Gene Harbrecht

People Magazine

July 19, 1999

Fortunately, a reader's guide is included with this album. Its 20 tracks tell an otherwise hard-to-decipher tale about a Mississippi man (Stuart says that the person was real) who gets involved with a married woman, is rejected and then wanders off cross-country looking for a poetic place to kill himself before finding redemption. If you aren't trying to figure out how to fit them into a story, though, many of the songs on the album are eminently enjoyable. And Stuart enlisted the aid of such talent as Emmylou Harris (who almost sells the story by herself, singing as a waitress on "Truckstop"), all-star picker Earl Scruggs and Pam Tillis, among others. Stuart himself brings his usual energy and rough-hewn appeal to his tunes, especially on "The Observations of a Crow," strikingly original and rhythmically infectious song about life in a small town as seen from a high perch. --- R. N. Bottom Line: Terrific album, in spite of itself.

Richmond Times-Dispatch

June 24, 1999

Country music and storytelling go together like a pair of aces, each complementing the other. Concept albums -- an entire album used to tell a story -- are far from being a new concept in country. However, in recent years, they've been all but shelved. Marty Stuart's ambitious 20-track album, The Pilgrim, revives the device.

The true story of a love triangle gone awry comes directly from Stuart's childhood acquaintance with two of the three parties involved. In short, lovely Rita married town oddball Norman ("Sometimes The Pleasure's Worth The Pain"), but then came to meet the man Stuart calls the pilgrim ("The Pilgrim Act I"). The pilgrim breaks up the marriage and Norman comments suicide ("Harlan County," "Reasons"), leaving the two with lifelong guilty consciences. The pilgrim leaves town. The bulk of the album looks through the pilgrim's eyes as he first tries to drown the memory of Rita via booze ("Red, Red Wine And Cheatin' Songs"). It doesn't work. So he takes to the highway ("Truckstop"), and then to hopping freight trains ("Hobo's Prayer") to somehow put far behind a sea of troubles wrought from his own hand. No dice. He's like a "dark horse running from the past," Stuart sings on the rousing "Goin' Nowhere Fast," looking for something that isn't there.

Stuart uses a number of items throughout to best convey the pilgrim's lonesome circumstances, including trains and alcohol-and a crow. Yes, a crow, a ubiquitous country critter perched high atop humanity. With "The Observations of a Crow," we see the beginnings of change in the pilgrim. The crow sees a man "tortured by the memory of a love he thought was supposed to be." As if we didn't already know. Thing is, though, it starts a healing process for the pilgrim.

He takes a plaintive look back to "The Greatest Love Of All Time," though not with searing pain. And though he continues "Draggin' These Chains Of Love," he comes to realize through "Redemption" and "The Pilgrim Act III" that "pilgrims walk, but not alone." Johnny Cash's dramatic reading of an excerpt from Lord Alfred Tennyson's "Sir Gallahad" completes the pilgrim's odyssey, finding the "O just and faithful knight of God." An instrumental duet featuring Stuart (mandolin) and Earl Scruggs (banjo) on "Mr. John Henry, Steel Driving Man," punctuates the pilgrim's restful end to a journey hard fought and won.

Sounds like one big ol' country song, doesn't it? Stuart's cohesive conglomerate of tales amount to a batch of descriptive marvels. Textured with layers of apple-crisp country sounds and moody atmospherics, the album stands tall as his finest by a country mile. No question about it. A+

By Tom Netherland Weekly Magazine

January 2000

4. Marty Stuart "The Pilgrim" (MCA)

Marty Stuart's 30-year musical journey has led him from the bluegrass of Lester Flatt to the traditional music of Doc Watson, roots country of Johnny Cash, and then to contemporary country music stardom with his own band. In this recording Stuart not only tells the story of lost love and redemption, he tells the story of his own musical journey within the musical styles, songwriting, instrumentation, and guest artists he brings to this new project. Stuart's decsion to include bluegrass and country legends Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, Johnny Cash, Emmy Lou Harris, Josh Graves, and George Jones on this recording certainly adds an element of greatness to the project. However, these legendary voices are not what makes the recording great. It is Stuart's songwriting, and the soulful way he puts the words to music, which makes this record stand out.

Written by Dan Miller

Sing Out

October 28, 1999

This is a very different album for Marty Stuart. It is not just a honky tonk Marty-party. It is an album with a story to tell which Marty’s notes say is a true one.

The nub of the tale is of a fellow named Norman who marries the town beauty queen Rita. Rita, tired of Norman’s jealousy and possessiveness, takes comfort with a man she met while working at a hospital, and this man becomes the Pilgrim after Norman blows his brains out after finding the two holding hands. Norman had refused to listen to the Pilgrim’s protests that Rita never said she was married and that he would step aside. After the carnage the Pilgrim set off on an odyssey of self-destruction that became self-discovery. In the end, he returned to Rita, and they are said to be happily married now and raising a family.

The story in the songs is episodic and without Marty’s precis the tale would be hard to follow, but his songwriting is aces. “Sometimes The Pleasure’s Worth The Pain,” “Red, Red Wine and Cheatin’ Songs,” The Observations Of A Crow” and “Draggin’ Around These Chains Of Love,” the latter written with Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, are all first-rate standalone country songs.

The album is studded with guest vocalists cast in key roles, and one and all give outstanding performances. They include George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Pam Tillis, Ralph Stanley with his Clinch Mountain Boys and, reciting an excerpt of Lord Tennyson’s “Sir Galahad,” Johnny Cash. Among the guest pickers are Earl Scruggs, Uncle Josh Graves and MCA Nashville president Tony Brown.

The Pilgrim is a moving document. Marty says the passing of Bill Monroe was a catalyst in the set’s genesis, and he deserves to be proud of this one. There are precious few storytelling country albums that really work. Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and Emmylou Harris’ Sally Rose spring to mind. The Pilgrim can stand comfortably in that company, and I do not say that lightly.

By Michael Tearson

Stereo Review's Sound &Vision

Sept/Oct 1999

If it's going to take an earthquake to shake country music out of its current artistic dol-drums, consider The Pilgrim a much-appreciated tremor in the right direction. As ambitious a work as any established Nashvillian has attempted in eons, Marty Stuart's latest is a bona fide concept album--a narrative take of a heartbroken "pilgrim" whose journey ultimately leads to redemption and inner peace.

Ironically, the story itself is the least interesting aspect of the album; here, the telling's the thing. Ably supported by his band, the Rock & Roll Cowboys, and with a great list including Johnny Cash, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Pam Tillis, Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, and even Tom Petty guitarist Mike Campbell, Stuart uses the songs to make his own pilgrimage. By it's end, Stuart, who began his career as a 13 year-old mandolin prodigy, has deftly fashioned a veritable aural history of 20th-century country music.

There are bluegrass breakdowns, mountain ballads, and folk tunes that exude the atmosphere of prewar hillbilly music. There are honky-tonking two-steppers, rockabilly raveups, and weepy waltzes from country's middle years. And, finally, there's of -the-moment country rock. Implicitly or not, Stuart's eloquent statement of purpose is a challenge to both his colleagues and his constituency.

Your move, Music City. [Four Stars]

By Billy Altman

Tampa Tribune

It's a wonder Marty Stuart has a major-label contract. He isn't young, seldom wears a cowboy hat and nothing here is fodder for a dance remix.

He's a keeper of country tradition, utilizing bluegrass legend Ralph Stanely on this album, a sure-fire way to scare off the fickle pop fans to whom Nashville wishes to cater. And to top it all off, The Pilgrim is a concept album, a story told through 20 songs, a morality play that avoids easy answers and pat sentimentality.

Stuart tells the tale with multiple voices (Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris and Stanley, among others are heard here) and music that glows from rangy bluegrass to sweeping orchestration to what might be described as Appalachian surf-rock. Stuart has done plenty of rocking, lighthearted material. His band isn't called the Rock 'N' Roll Cowboys for nothing. The Pilgrim, though, doesn't offer a lot of levity. Its themes are somber, infidelity, insanity and suicide - but also redemption.

The country cliches are here - the trains, the cheating, the heartbreak and gunplay. But there's nothing trite about the tale. Stuart, who says the story is true, turns these elements into a wrenching, ultimately uplifting and musically satisfying work. -- [3-1/2 Stars]

By Curtis Ross

January 28, 2000

Marty Stuart's new CD The Pilgrim is a rare example of a concept album that actually works. Stuart sings the story of a man who kills himself in front of his wife because he believes she has been cheating on him. This action sends the wrongfully accused "other man," the Pilgrim of the title, on a path of despair and eventual redemption. Stuart's songs recall various eras of country-music history, from the modern hillbilly rock of "Sometimes the Pleasure's Worth the Pain" to the classic '50s honky-tonk of "Red, Red Wine and Cheatin' Songs." He also plays a little bluegrass with Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, and Josh Graves, sings some duets with Pam Tillis, and invites Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, and George Jones to sing some cameo roles. Because of the wide range of styles and performers, this CD could easily have become an incoherent mess. But Stuart manages to find the common thread that ties everything together. Country music is not a genre that lends itself to grand gestures like concept albums. Marty Stuart should be commended for attempting such a project and applauded for pulling it off.

By Michael Simmons

July 1999

Marty Stuart has either got the biggest balls in Nashville, at least amongst major label artists, or he's the biggest idiot. In the wake of the UniGram merger, scores of acts are being dropped for not pulling their commercial weight. So what does Marty do? He releases a 3-years-in-the-making, 20- track, one- hour LP ­ breaking the de facto 10 song, 35 minute Nashville standard ­ and to make things even stranger, he makes it a concept LP. And I'll be damned if he didn't pull it off. This is really surprising when you consider who's doing it. Marty is best known for his party hearty redneck good ol' boy persona, despite the impeccable credentials that he packs ­ he's backed Lester Flat, Doc & Merle Watson, and Johnny Cash, hitting the road when literally just a kid. He uses his road band as backing, another unheard of move in Nashville. The disc's also chockablock with guests: Johnny Cash, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Pam Tillis, Mike Campbell, Muscle Shoals vet Barry Beckett, and Ralph Stanley And The Clinch Mountain Boys.

The CD is operatic in scope and story, and opry-atic in execution. It's full of lost love, betrayal, suffering, journeying, and redemption. He ties things together with the title track, which appears three times. It seems to owe a musical debt to the traditional Appalachian song "Wayfarin' Stranger." "Sometimes The Pleasure's Worth The Pain" is big twangy country pop rock, sounding like Roy Orbison if Phil Spector had produced him. "Reasons" is a wrenching duet with Pam Tillis, while Emmylou and The Possum take turns in "Truckstop." Honky tonk doesn't get much better than "Red, Red Wine And Cheatin' Songs" and "Goin' Nowhere Fast." "Hobo's Prayer" is a gentle folk song about riding the rails. The only track that fails is "The Observations Of A Crow," which collapses under the ponderous weight of its pretensions. He turns out a classic weeper with "The Greatest Love Of All Time," which is immediately reprised instrumentally by a huge orchestra and sets up "Draggin' Around The Chains Of Love" wonderfully. It's a terrific rocker powered by Mike Campbell's guitar and is a musical cousin of Springsteen's "The River." Johnny Cash majestically recites an excerpt from Alfred Lord Tennyson's Sir Galahad, before the closing instrumental take on "John Henry" with Earl Scruggs.

I don't know what Marty was thinking. Is he trying to get dropped by pulling a Neil Young ­ releasing an uncommercial disc? Or did he just figure that with the increasingly small label rosters that this would be his last chance to get a cherished project out on a major label? Whichever, it's a fascinating record, and easily the biggest surprise of the year.

By John F. Butland

July 4, 1999

Concept albums have been done before, but this may easily be the best ever. The Pilgrim uses every form of country music imaginable, from ballads to bluegrass to honky-tonkers, to tell the allegedly true saga of a man who fell in love with a married woman, not knowing she was already wed. The descriptive lyrics are pure poetry. Emotions are laid bare. Each song style, with some vocal help from Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Ralph Stanley, and Pam Tillis, seems perfectly mated to the chapter it tells. The musical bridges are brief and inspired.

By Ken Rosenbaum

Top Magazine

September 1999

MARTY STUART is an artist who, although respected and admired by the industry and fans alike, has to date not fulfilled that promise on record. The Pilgrim (MCA)***** corrects this shortcoming and is that rare thing; a great modern classic country album that eschews modern Nashville production values. Stuart's songs are based on a true and tragic love triangle tale that is the stuff of country myth. The album also features George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash and Earl Scruggs. Could this be Marty Stuart's Red Headed Stranger?

Truckers News

July 1999

Marty Stuart is an interesting and unique individual. His talent is loved and respected by fans and stars alike. Stuart’s encyclopedic brain of country music always finds him acquiring more musical artifacts, including Hank Williams’ guitars and clothing. The Mississippian’s 13th labor of love is one of a kind. The Pilgrim is a musical presentation of a true story from Marty’s childhood days in the Magnolia State.

Many guests appear on this album to help tell the story. George Jones and Emmylou Harris sing “Truckstop.” “Red, Red Wine and Cheatin’ Songs” is vintage country. Twenty cuts are included on the project, including a 31-second instrumental, “Intermission.” It has been three years since Marty released his last album. During that time he’s worked hard on releasing The Pilgrim and getting married to Connie Smith. Although this is not a mainstream effort, it is a one-of-a-kind smorgasbord to include in your CD collection. Grade: C+

There are some things you need to know about Marty Stuart, things that are not readily apparent when you first see the Manuel jacket, big haired, hip swiveling party boy playing "Hillbilly Rock." Marty grew up in Philadelphia, Mississippi. He joined legendary Lester Flatt's bluegrass band, as a mandolin picker, before he was even haired over. After Lester died, he became a part of Johnny Cash's band. He's a bigtime Clarence White fan, who owns and regularly plays Clarence's B-Bender Tele, the Holy Relic of the Hillbilly Twang Guitar Picker world. Marty has impeccable credentials. His first record, 1982s Busy Bee Cafe on Sugar Hill Records was a powerhouse of Bluegrass and twang. I had high hopes for Marty. I can't say I've been happy with all his MCA releases. They all seemed to drift too far away from his roots. That's not to say that he hasn't done some quality work. The bluegrass gospel records he has done with Jerry and Tammy Sullivan are killer. His work on Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Country was excellent as well, but the Marty Party thing just never did anything for me. The Pilgrim however, has restored my faith in Marty Stuart.

This is the disc that shows all facets of the musician Marty Stuart. This is his concept album, based on a true story, about two men, a woman, a gun, and three broken hearts. It's got everything that good country music should contain. Mature themes, pain, pleasure, drinking, killing, and Jesus. There is Hillbilly Rock, B-Bender licks galore, hard core Honky Tonk, Country Weepers, and there is even Bluegrass. George Jones makes a short appearance, as does Emmylou Harris. Ralph Stanley joins Marty Stuart in a killing song. Pam Tillis sings some harmony. Dr Ralph comes back to sing a cappela with just a few songbirds and the whistle of a lonesome train for accompaniment. Uncle Josh plays his dobro, Earl Scruggs plays his banjo and Marty plays his mandolin and they all rock. Johnny Cash reads Tennyson and makes it sound as if the end of time is upon us.

I'm telling you, I love this sumbitch. This is Marty Stuart's showcase piece. Like Monet's Water Lilies, this will be the work that will remain and be remembered long after Marty's gone. Now if we can just get him to record us another Bluegrass record I'd be happy. Or at least record me hillbilly version of "Nashville West".

By Jeff Wall

USA Today

June 22, 1999
Program this disc to play just the songs Stuart sings, and you get an ambitious album that roams from twangy honky-tonk to haunting talking blues. Let it play through and George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Pam Tillis, Ralph Stanley and Johnny Cash fill in details of a love triangle, suicide, guilt and redemption. The narrative of Stuart's parable isn't always easy to follow, but country music doesn't get much simpler (or finer) than Red, Red Wine and Cheatin' Songs. [3-1/2 Stars]

8. Marty Stuart, The Pilgrim. This concept album about cheating, suicide and redemption is as Gothic as country gets these days. It also features some amazing picking and guest appearances by George Jones, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley and others.

By Brian Mansfield

Washington Post

August 11, 1999

Marty Stuart is perhaps the most tradition-minded country star of his generation. He came of age picking in the bands of such icons as Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash. He owns a museum's worth of honky-tonk memorabilia and is in his third term as president of the history-conscious Country Music Foundation. Yet, oddly enough, he's spent the past 10 years trying to parlay his rowdy blend of old and new sounds, his vaunted "hillbilly rock," into the No. 1 slot on modern country radio.

But with the recent deaths of Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe, and the advancing years of countless other pioneers, some in Nashville are looking to Stuart to be the keeper of the hillbilly flame. The Pilgrim, his first album in three years, proves that this faith isn't misplaced. Gone is the party-hearty country-rock of Stuart's previous records. In its place is a tapestry that stretches across a century's worth of Americana, from old-time music and bluegrass to blues and honky-tonk.

The story Stuart tells in The Pilgrim has an epic sweep as well. Drawn from events that took place in the town of Philadelphia, Miss., while Stuart was growing up, the drama centers on a man and a woman who suffer tragedy and despair, but who also find redemption and, with it, each other.

Mixing bits of sung narrative with songs that comment on the action much as a Greek chorus would, Stuart enlists a Who's Who of country greats to help him unfold the album's plot. George Jones wrings an ocean of emotion from every syllable he utters on "Truckstop." Bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley sounds like a mountaintop prophet on "Harlan County." And Johnny Cash's craggy baritone is positively otherworldly when, intoning the blessing from Tennyson's "Sir Galahad," he welcomes the wayward pilgrim home.

Earl Scruggs, dobro player "Uncle Josh" Graves, Pam Tillis and Emmylou Harris also appear on the album. Yet, unlike most star cameos, none of the performances here seems gratuitous. Which isn't to say that the proceedings don't get a little overblown at times. The way Stuart has the pilgrim plunge into a life of drinking and hoboing, for example, is a bit melodramatic. And the way, on "Hobo's Prayer," Stuart reduces homelessness to a matter of being a "circle in a world full of squares" is at best naively romantic.

The album's greatest strength is its music, be it the shuffling honky-tonk of "Red, Red Wine and Cheatin' Songs," the crying steel and close country harmonies of "Reasons" or the noirish, half-recited, half-sung blues of "The Observations of a Crow."

By Bill Friskics-Warren

WTRE Radio

June 28, 1999

The "concept album" isn't something that you often hear from Nashville. To be honest, you don't hear them often, period. But Marty Stuart's latest release, The Pilgrim, tackles this task and is more than up to it.

Outside of the "tribute albums" that started cropping up occasionally in 1993 and ended up happening way too often (paying tribute to artists that didn't really deserve it) by 1996, there hasn't been a country recording to feature this many superstars in a very long time. Emmylou Harris, George Jones, Pam Tillis, and Ralph Stanley all add their vocals to the project. Stanley even brings along his Clinch Mountain Boys for some good old-fashioned bluegrass pickin' on some of the tracks.

The CD is a "concept album", meaning that it tells a story, and each track is a vital part. You won't be listening to this one in 'random' mode on the CD player; it's meant to be heard in the order it is presented. It tells the story of a man (the Pilgrim) who falls in love with a married woman - the catch is, she's never told him that she's married. The story is from the point of view of the Pilgrim, who leaves town when the husband kills himself, but eventually comes back to the woman he loves. The different contributing artists both sing background (or lead) on the songs and also add singing and recitation to the several interludes that fall between the full-length tunes.

Such a concept recording may make for critical success, but will radio play the songs? That remains to be seen. I find three tracks that are worthy of becoming hits. The first single is "Red, Red Wine and Cheatin' Songs", a snappy up-tempo number. The best chance for a hit may be "The Greatest Love Of All Time", a love ballad, or maybe "Draggin' Around These Chains Of Love", a duet with Tillis that is quite reminiscent of Stuart's mid-90's recordings, the ones that only hit the mid-reaches of the charts but to this reviewer were stronger than Marty's early radio hits.

Speaking of Marty's early success, the first full song on the CD, "Sometimes The Pleasure's Worth The Pain", sounds almost exactly like Marty's top 5 hit from 1991, "Tempted." The melody is almost the same, the chord changes are the same, and it even includes the timpani playing the same notes. Though it's a decent-sounding song, it's unoriginality makes it a disappointment compared to the rest of the album.

Once that slight disappointment gets out of the way, though, tracks 3 through 20 are enough to make me give this CD a favorable review. It's not your normal 10-song Nashville recording, nor is it likely to become a commercial success, but it's good pickin' and singin' and worth three and half trees out of four.

By Matt Scheidler

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