The Pilgrimage of Marty Stuart

The Mississippian unleashes an ambitious country song cycle

This appeared on's website - July 17, 1999

Few artists have had as sure a grasp of country music's history and ethos as Marty Stuart. The pint-sized picker and singer toured with Lester Flatt, Doc Watson, and Johnny Cash before he turned 22, married Connie Smith in 1997, and still tours in Ernest Tubb's old bus. As president of the Country Music Foundation, Stuart has helped salute country music's past, often stocking Hall of Fame exhibits with his personal mountain of memorabilia.

However, Stuart's own albums, except for two early small-label bluegrass records, have rarely reflected his unusual sense of history. His drum-driven, amp-powered "Hillbilly Rock" rarely ventured from the usual sentiments about Saturday night. Stuart did this kind of country-pop better than almost anyone else, but it seemed odd that he didn't dig deeper into the past he knew so well. He finally has on The Pilgrim, an ambitious song cycle that realizes the possibilities of his long and winding career.

"In truth," he admits, "on the last couple albums, I was trying to be a good little artist and color inside the lines. I liked the music, but it didn't ring my bells and after a while it wasn't selling that great. About three years ago, I said, 'I'm done compromising; I want to do something that's really me.' I got tired of bitching and whining about it; I decided to just go into the studio and do something about it."

Wearing a blue alligator-print shirt, Stuart leans forward over a conference table in Nashville's MCA Building, eager to explain how The Pilgrim became the proudest project of his 25-year career. He's right to feel good about it, for the album covers the full breadth of country music history, from old-time mountain songs and bluegrass through honky-tonk and Western swing to countrypolitan and country-rock. The guests include Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Earl Scruggs, Johnny Cash, George Jones, and Pam Tillis, but it's Stuart's songwriting that gives the project the thematic heft and narrative thrust of Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger.

"I have enough styles of music under my belt to do it," Stuart says, "and enough numbers in my phone book to make it happen. I knew I had to do it now, because I've gone to too many funerals for the old-timers over the past 10 years. Plus it's the end of the century, the first century of country music, and I wanted to sum up."

In September 1996 he rented time at the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis without any specific songs to work on. The second day he was there, he got word that Bill Monroe had just died. He wanted to cry but couldn't get the tears to come. He tried dancing, singing, praying, and cussing, but nothing happened until, out of thin air, he created a simple mountain hymn: "I am a lonesome pilgrim, far from home / What a journey I have known." He didn't know who the pilgrim was yet, but he knew it was the title of his next album.

The next year he was in California working on music for the Mike Nichols film Primary Colors. One night at dinner he told a story from his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi. The town had been surprised when the local beauty queen married a cross-eyed loner with a bad temper. The marriage was troubled from the start, and eventually the wife found solace with a coworker who didn't know she was married. The husband confronted them at work, pulled out a pistol, and shot himself before their eyes. For years afterward, the devastated other man hitchhiked and rode the rails around the West in a drunken stupor. Finally he found God, sobered up, and returned home to the woman he still loved.

"It's a real story," Stuart swears. "I left out some things, because there were kids involved, but everything I included is true. It happened in the early '70s when I was 14 or 15. I knew the husband because he went to the same church as us, the North Calvary Baptist Church. He was an odd guy, sort of a loner who didn't want anything to do with anybody, but I liked to sit next to him in church just to see his eyes. When he married that woman, it was like the princess and the frog.

"Telling the story got me thinking; maybe it could be a song like 'Long Black Veil.' But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it wasn't just a song; it was a whole story. But I didn't connect it to 'The Pilgrim' until I met Billy Bob Thornton on the set of Primary Colors. He said he'd just been to Memphis and a friend of his at Sun Studios had played him 'The Pilgrim.' All of a sudden it clicked in my mind. Memphis was where the other man in that story went to get drunk after the suicide. He was the Pilgrim."

Stuart has been doing a lot of movie work--he's finishing up the score for Thornton's next film, Daddy & Them--and thus was in a narrative frame of mind. His new album has a cinematic sweep: all 20 tracks are linked to the same story, telling it via a series of monologues, sometimes by the principals, sometimes by the narrator, each in a different style of country music.

"I was out of the two-minute-thirty-six-second, aim-it-at-radio mode," Stuart points out. "I was in the movie-score, let-it-flow, let-the-story-tell-itself frame of mind. I tried to design it so if you have time to listen to the whole thing at once, you can enjoy it, but if you only have time to listen to one song, you can enjoy that, too. My only rule was every song should advance the story. As a result, I threw a lot of songs away.

"But it's not just the story of a jealous husband; it's also the story of country music. I wanted to include as many of the things that made me fall in love with the music as possible. I brought my whole warehouse and turned it loose on this record."

By Geoffrey Himes

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