On A Pilgrimage To Nashville

This appeared on Launch.com's website - June 30, 1999

For his new album, Marty Stuart purposely wanted to get away from business as usual. Upset with how bland the majority of country music has become, the former Johnny Cash sideman says he reached back to rediscover the inspiration that originally motivated him to become a country musician.

"Behind every closed-door meeting, at every gas pump, at every cocktail lounge, the main talk with any of us is how bad the music is," Stuart says. "We're capable of better. I just got tired of bitching about it and decided to take a shot at something that tried to help in any way."

Indeed, his new album, The Pilgrim, accentuates much that is enduring and important about real country music. A theme album based on the true story of a tragic love triangle, The Pilgrim features bluegrass, honky-tonk, gospel, folk, and country-rock. It also features perfectly cast guest appearances by George Jones, Johnny Cash, Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, and Pam Tillis, all of whom provide voices that resonate with character and weight.

"I wanted the agenda to be about the story, but I also wanted the agenda to be to tell country music's story and my story as well," Stuart says. "At the same time, I wanted to write songs that fit together and moved the story along, and I wanted to be able to lift a few of the songs out to stand on their own, to be radio songs. I thought I had to at least try to do that, but I didn't want to do it without compromising anything or thinking about it too much."

Stuart based the album on an infamous hometown episode he remembers from his youth in Mississippi. In it, a beautiful cheerleader unexpectedly marries a rough, troubled, working-class guy. Later, as the relationship splinters, the woman begins an affair with a co-worker, who has no idea she was married. One day, her husband shows up at work, drunk and carrying a gun, and finds them holding hands in a breakroom. After a few cross words, he puts the gun to his head and pulls the trigger.

The guy in the affair, angered at what the widow hid from him, leaves her and the town behind. He begins drinking excessively and ends up a homeless, destitute alcoholic. He eventually decides to hitchhike to California, to visit his mother's grave before killing himself. While there, he experiences a spiritual revelation about love and the meaning of life, and he decides to return to Mississippi to seek out his former lover. They reunite, move away, start a family, and live as happily as could be expected.

Stuart's songs are particularly potent in illuminating the characters and motivations of both the husband and the lover. "Reasons," one of the album's most powerful songs, comes from the point of view of the husband, revealing his tortured thoughts as he prepared to surprise his wife and take his own life.

"It was the perfect excuse to get drunk, as if lately I've needed one," the song begins. "It was the perfect excuse to buy bullets for the barrel of my favorite gun."

As the song continues, and as it becomes clear that the man had his own suicide in mind from the start, certain lines stick out like a wound, such as the mixed message of "I thought that I had loved you, I did the best that I could." It's that rare song that sympathetically looks at the viewpoint of a confused, angered man unable to deal with his pain.

As Stuart explains, "That cry of despair, that's something that we cover up so much in country music these days, and we didn't used to. That cry is the people's voice. Hank Williams had that cry in a lot of his songs, and Hank Williams's was a voice of a whole segment of people."

Throughout, The Pilgrim tells that kind of story, taking the pains and passions of three people to examine the potential for damage and deliverance that exists in all our lives.

The genesis of The Pilgrim came after the death of Bill Monroe, an event that motivated Stuart to take a hard look at himself and at country music at large. Monroe's death deeply affected him and became the root reason for why he continues on as a musician, a statement that mirrors recent comments made by Ricky Skaggs and Steve Earle about how Monroe's passing similarly impacted them and their recent recordings as well.

"When all is said and done, I don't know if there's ever been a more important musician in this town, or in country music," Stuart says of Monroe. "He affected so many people in so many ways, he inspired and changed so many musicians, that I don't think it could ever be measured. I mean, from Elvis on down the line, he was a primary influence for a whole lot of us. He set the standard for making music with conviction and passion."

Stuart hopes to see some of that conviction return to the genre of music he loves.

"We need a solid heart and soul victory in this town," he says of Nashville and country music. "Not just one that's dictated by numbers, but by the heart and soul that's put in the music. It doesn't matter if it's this record or a Ricky Skaggs record or a Vince Gill record; we need one, wherever it comes from. It's the only way we're going to save our credibility."

Written by Michael McCall

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