Pilgrim's Progress

Marty Stuart pours heart and soul into his love for country music

This appeared in Music City News - September 1999

For the ambitious concept album he released in June -- his first in three years -- Marty Stuart found inspiration in a book, a mandolin and a hometown tragedy. He visited places he regards as spiritual touchstones of American music, eating cherry blossoms on the grounds of A.P. Carter's house, tasting dirt on the Mississippi Delta plantation where blues great Muddy Waters grew up, placing flowers on Jimmie Rodgers' grave.

"I went back and touched what I could still reach and asked God to give me a new vision and a new song," says Stuart during a recent interview, surrounded by some of the treasures from country music's past he has collected over the years. "I wasn't talking about a hit song. I was just talking about a new fire."

Stuart turned 40 in September. He has worked for Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash. He owns guitars that were used to make famous recordings by Cash, Buck Owens, Roy Orbison, Bill Monroe and Hank Williams. His sense of country music history is so sophisticated and sincere that the Country Music Foundation, the group that oversees the Country Music Hall of Fame, has tapped him for three consecutive terms as president of its board of directors.

In March, his native state of Mississippi gave Stuart the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts. Honored at the same ceremony, with the same award, was gospel and blues legend Pop Staples.

Knowledge can be a wonderful thing. It also can be a burden, Stuart knows about musical greatness. The standards he sets for himself are uncommonly high. His record company, MCA, while loyal to the concept of artist development, has high standards, too. Stuart's last studio album, Honky Tonkin's What I Do Best, sold 78,000 copies, according to sales figures supplied by SoundScan.

"I really and truly cherish the heritage of country music and what it means," he says. "It means a whole lot to me. It feeds me. It drives me. If I happen to have a hit with it, boy, I sure do need it and I'd love to have it. But if it doesn't happen, I know one thing. If I never make another country album, this one would be a good one to be remembered by."

Stuart is talking about The Pilgrim, an opera-like song cycle in 20 parts. The work includes everything from full songs, such as his current single, the honky-tonk anthem "Red, Red Wine and Cheatin' Songs," to instrumental interludes, short character sketches and spoken recitation. Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Pam Tillis and Johnny Cash all contribute their unique voices to the work. Earl Scruggs, dobro specialist Josh Graves, Mike Campbell of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers and fiddler Stuart Duncan are among the esteemed musicians who play on the album.

In conversation, Stuart tells one story, then another, about how the different threads of inspiration came together in the tapestry that became The Pilgrim. There was the book, In the Country of Country People and Places in American Music. Author Nicholas Dawidoff profiles some of Stuart's heroes, among them Cash, Monroe, Scruggs, Rose Maddox and Stanley, but he also focused on artists such as Harris, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Iris DeMent -- artists more or less part of Stuart's era.

"He went completely around the trend of country music and only talked to the people concerning the heart and soul of country music," says Stuart. "The book inspired me to sing from my heart. I noticed I wasn't included in it, and I thought, perhaps I'd like to be included in the next one.

"I was just coming in off that last Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart tour. We did OK, but it didn't have the impact that the first one did. I took a look around and I noticed that I was just kinda coasting on the fumes of what I had started in the early '90s. I thought, I can scramble to keep up or I can stop and drop back and see what my heart and soul says to me."

Then, there came the mandolin. Stuart long had wanted a vintage Gibson F-5 mandolin made by Lloyd Loar, the creme of acoustic instruments. Through an MCA employee with a family connection to an owner, he tracked one down in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Soon after taking possession of the coveted instrument, Stuart went to Memphis where he had booked two days at the original Sun Studio, 706 Union Avenue. He showed up for the sessions without a song to record, just to see what would happen in the hallowed place where Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and the rest made seminal rock'n'roll recordings in the '50s.

The second day at Sun, September 9, 1996, news came that Bill Monroe had died. "I cried a little," Stuart recalls. I wanted to cry more, but I couldn't. I couldn't dance, I couldn't pray. I expected (Monroe's death) and it wasn't the first time I've lost an old-timer that I've loved."

Then, the song that would become The Pilgrim theme came to him. "I wrote 'I am a lonesome Pilgrim, far from home/What a journey I have known/I might be tired and weary, but I am strong/Pilgrims walk but not alone.' I thought, that's exactly how I feel right now, in the back streets of Memphis.

"I know Bill Monroe must have felt that way. I think country music is that very same pilgrim right now. Our nation is. We're a rootless society, just flying to the wind, disposing of everything that's ever been grand and we've ever cherished."

With his band, Stuart worked up a demo of The Pilgrim; within days, Stuart played his cherished mandolin at Monroe's funeral, but it would be a year-and-a-half before the vision for his album began to expand and come into focus, helped by the memory of a hometown tragedy.

In the story, which Stuart researched in his local paper, the Philadelphia (Mississippi) Democrat, a man discovers his wife has fallen in love with another man who doesn't know she's married. The husband confronts the two lovers, hands his wife a note, then kills himself in front of them. Both the wife and the unwitting lover leave town, but not together. The man becomes The Pilgrim, wandering and troubled until he gives way to his heart and reunites with the woman.

"When the story came to my mind, it really started spilling itself out as a bit of an opera," Stuart says. "I changed names, sideswiped things little bit."

The songs stand on their own or as part of the song cycle. "Sometimes The Pleasure's Worth The Pain," written by Stuart and Gary Nicholson, recalls the sound and rhythmic drive of his past hit, "Tempted." "Harlan Country," sung by Stanley ("one of the purest voices we have in country music, a mountain prophet," Stuart says) details the events leading up to the suicide. "Reasons," a country weeper with keening steel guitar from Gary Hogue and harmonies from Pam Tillis, is the suicide note the husband hands his wife.

Stuart wrote "Red, Red Wine and Cheatin' Songs" while staying in the tony Beverly Hills Hotel on the Country Music Association's bill. He was in Los Angeles for a CMA pitch to the movie industry. "I did the show for 'em that night, went back upstairs at the swankiest joint in the world and wrote a honky-tonk song," he recalls. The song portrays the Pilgrim's dissolution, a response to the emotional devastation caused by the tragedy he experienced.

The album's songwriting masterpiece may be the wry "The Observations of a Crow," a cinematic chronicle offered by the "genuine scoopologist" perched high above the world, sharing his "daily observations." The 5-1/2-minute song has five verses; Stuart says he came up with seven more verses and had to edit down.

Stuart's talents go beyond making his own records and playing on stage. His life also has been enriched recently by his association with film director and actor Billy Bob Thornton. Thornton visited the same Sun Studio where Stuart found inspiration; he heard Stuart's Pilgrim demo and liked it. The two met on the set of Primary Colors where Stuart was pitching some music. Thornton told Stuart he had heard the demo and liked it. Later, he called Stuart and invited him to be in a film he was directing, Daddy & Them, tentatively scheduled for fall release.

Stuart's touring schedule wouldn't allow him to be in the film (John Prine is among the stars) but he did agree to work on the music with Thornton. "He came to town, we sat in the studio and watched TV and made music," Stuart says. "It runs the gamut from twangin', hillbilly surf music to spooky."

One of the songs Stuart wrote in a Northern California studio on the eve of his 40th birthday. "I had a night off in Kelseyville, California," he recalls. "At 11:59, I said, 'Turn the microphone on. I'm gonna see what comes out.' That's one of the most haunting pieces I've ever written in my life, just on the mandolin as an instrumental. I call it 'Midnight, September 29, 1998'. I wanted to play music going across that milestone."

Also recorded for the soundtrack, a cover of Conway Twitty's "Lost in the Feeling" by Mark Chesnutt, produced by Mark Wright and Stuart; Alison Moorer's "Whiskey and Wine," produced by Kenny Greenberg and Tony Brown; "Riding on a Dream," written by Stuart and Kostas and recorded by Stuart, Dwight Yoakam and Sheryl Crow; "In Spite of Ourselves," performed by John Prine (who also appears in the film) and Iris DeMent and produced by Stuart; and "Hearts Like Ours," written by Stuart and his new bride, Grand Ole Opry star Connie Smith and performed by Smith.

Stuart's marriage would have to rank as the biggest change in his life since the release of his last album. "I love Connie Smith," he says. "I've never been happier in my life. I wake up with my best friend. It truly amazes me that we have carbon copy things in common, not to mention when I go to the house, I hear someone at the other end of the house singing, and it happens to be Connie Smith. Pretty dang cool.

"At the end of the day, instead of going to chase something down, I go home and I can't wait to et there," he continues. "Just as soon as I get them tight britches off on the road, I put on my trendy bus wear and I go home and see Constance."

Stuart's pilgrim theme also resonates through an upcoming book, Pilgrims: Sinners, Saints & Prophets, which collects Stuart's distinctive photos and his observations about his subjects, ranging from Cash to Jerry Lee Lewis to John Lee Hooker and Fan Fair fans.

Stuart clearly has been allowed access that most photographers do not have. He's a musician, and his easy manner makes him and his camera welcome guests in any dressing room, tour bus, recording studio or living room where fellow musicians gather.

Some of the photos have been published in places like the Journal of Country Music and Country Music magazine. But, mostly the shutterbugging has been a hobby, another way for Stuart to collect the memories he finds so inspirational to his work.

"It's like keeping up with a family scrapbook and, all of a sudden, it became a book after 25 years," he says of the book due to be published in September. "I've let a few photos out, but it's never been for money. If I've sold anything, it's been for charity."

Stuart's dedication to guitars also has come back to him. The Martin guitar company named a signature acoustic in his honor and, at the summer meeting of NAMM (the International Music Merchants Association), the Fender company unveiled a Marty Stuart signature Telecaster.

Stuart is focused on his music and on the release of The Pilgrim. "I know that every time you get a bunch of executives behind closed doors or you meet a buddy at a gas pump or you meet for lunch the way you and I would do, we're going to talk about how sad the music sounds right now," he observes. "There's not a lot of music being made that we can truly be proud of -- heart and soul music. I really hope that, somehow or another, it gets back to that, or finds its way to it again. That's all that this record was meant to do. It just really was meant to come out of my heart.

By Jay Orr

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