Marty Stuart Counting On The Pilgrim

This appeared on the Assoc. Press - June 16, 1999

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Marty Stuart is on a mission.

In a tiny, packed former strip joint turned Latin dance club, the country singer is shooting a music video for "Red, Red Wine and Cheatin' Songs," the first single from his ambitious new album, The Pilgrim.'

In 1975, Willie Nelson's concept album, The Red Headed Stranger, brought a whole new audience to country music — young people who had previously written it off as saccharine music out of touch with their generation. As his first million-selling album after years of struggle, The Red Headed Stranger propelled Nelson to superstardom almost 25 years ago.

Stuart's The Pilgrim could have the same impact.

There are similarities in the stories on both LPs: a violent death sets off the action, and the main character goes on a quest for redemption.

And like The Red Headed Stranger, Stuart's new album comes at a time when sales of country music are slipping. Perhaps fans want something new and different, even a bit challenging. Like Nelson, Stuart is offering it.

Dressed in a black suit with pink trim, Stuart doesn't break a sweat lip-synching and leaping about with his band on the small stage. When the filming stops, Stuart keeps moving. A book publisher wants to show him a proposed cover for his collection of photographs. Someone else who stops in to say hello turns out to be a guitar designer with whom Stuart collaborates. He also talks business with his manager, and visits with MCA Records executives.

Meanwhile, a makeup woman follows Stuart about, touching him up during the rare moments he stands still. "You want to go to the bus and talk?" he asks. "I've got a 20-minute break.'' Stuart's road manager carves a path through the crew and hangers-on. Stuart is quickly out the back door, up the steps of his tour bus and settled on a sofa.

"I read an article in Time magazine some while back that said, 'The hillbilly has lost his voice,' '' Stuart said. "It had a picture of Hank Williams by it and talked about how what we're doing in Nashville doesn't really merit any recognition anymore. And I disagree with that article, and perhaps there is one note or one moment in this record that can kind of correct that.''

The Pilgrim covers most of the country music touchstones, and tries to stretch the boundaries a bit. It has a suicide song ("Reasons''), a hobo song ("Hobo's Prayer''), and a song set at a mother's grave ("Redemption''). The music veers from pure bluegrass to Tom Petty-style rock to "The Observations of a Crow,'' the stream-of-consciousness rap of a crow on a telephone line. Johnny Cash, bluegrass great Ralph Stanley, Pam Tillis, Emmylou Harris and George Jones show up in singing cameos. Cash ends it with a dramatic recitation from Tennyson's "Sir Galahad.''

The album tells a story of redemption based on an incident from Stuart's boyhood. The Pilgrim was inspired by someone Stuart knew who, in a line from "The Observations of a Crow,'' was "tortured by a love he thought was supposed to be.''

The man Stuart calls The Pilgrim fell in love with a married woman. The woman's husband killed himself in the mistaken belief she was having an affair. After leaving town in disgrace, The Pilgrim eventually returned and married his love.

"I think it's probably one of the first incidents in my life that was a real tragedy,'' Stuart said. "I knew the person that killed himself. One day you're hanging around with people like that and going to church with them, and the next day they're gone for a reason that you can't explain. So it was like the first scar on my heart. Sometimes you just go back and visit those original memories, and you go, `Wow, this is pretty powerful.' ''

The tale is reminiscent of The Red Headed Stranger album, a work Stuart hadn't heard until recently.

At 40, the Philadelphia, Miss., native is a widely respected musician who has yet to achieve the stardom his talent deserves. Stuart started his music career at 12 with gospel act Jerry and Tammy Sullivan. He joined the band of bluegrass legend Lester Flatt the next year as its mandolin player. He paid more dues in the bands of Vassar Clements and Doc Watson before joining Cash's band for several years. His first wife was Cash's daughter, Cindy. He married singer Connie Smith in 1997.

Stuart was signed by Cash's record label, CBS, and issued Marty Stuart in 1986. He moved to MCA three years later and found his greatest success in the early 1990s with hits like "Tempted'' and "The Whiskey Ain't Workin','' a duet with Travis Tritt. Tritt and Stuart shared the successful "No Hats Tour'' in 1992, irreverently named for the preponderance of young singers sporting cowboy hats at the time.

Stuart has found the hits harder to come by in the last few years, though he continues to be a popular live attraction. He also has amassed a formidable collection of country music artifacts, and his photographs of country music stars are on exhibit in a Nashville museum. He's hoping The Pilgrim will remind people that country music can be challenging without losing sight of its basic virtues.

"Country music has kind of drifted away from the reality of life,'' he said. "And that's what made us great in the first place. It always spoke a common language. We were correspondents. We went around reporting on real life.''

"The Pilgrim,'' he says, "was simply a real life report.''

By Jim Patterson

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