Marty Marches With The Pilgrim

This appeared on Country Standard Time's website - June 1999

Norman may have been your typical small town character. Not exactly Mr. Popular in the small town of Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Somehow he married the hometown beauty queen, Rita, much to the surprise of all.

But that, of course, didn't last. She became involved in a love triangle, leading to the suicide of Norman and the flight of The Pilgrim from being down and out drunk clear across America to returning to his love.

And this sordid, partially true tale evolved into Marty Stuart's new ode, The Pilgrim.

A country concept album? That idea seems farfetched to say the least in this day and age when everything focuses getting three minutes of radio fame. But don't tell that to Stuart, who put together the cohesively sturdy 20-song story about characters from his hometown through lyrics and instrumentals.

And while unheard of in country circles, Stuart says in an interview from Nashville, he was glad to take the chance, which he knows may be playing with fire career-wise.

While record companies usually exercise greater control over what goes on an album, Stuart says of MCA, "It wasn't that hard. I kind of had the story thought out. They agreed like 'Okay, Here's your own rope, and go try it.' If we hadn't had a 10-year relationship, it would have been a much harder sell."

The 10 years included such hits as "Hillbilly Rock," "Little Things," "Tempted," "Burn Me Down," and a few with Travis Tritt, "The Whiskey Ain't Workin' " and "This One's Gonna Hurt You (For a Long, Long Time)."

Stuart conceived the idea for The Pilgrim one night in California about 3-1/2 years ago while out there to talk about writing a possible film score for Primary Colors, which he ended up not doing.

"It was a conversation at dinner one night when I told the story for the first time," says Stuart. "I dredged out the story from inside myself from when I was a kid. The more I told the story the more I thought it was a pretty good song. I thought there was a pretty good idea for a song. When I got back to the hotel, I couldn't get to sleep. The more I thought about it, I was thinking about a movie at that time."

He settled for a CD.

The story occurred about 25 years ago in Philadelphia, Mississippi, which Stuart describes as "kind of a utopia growing up, a typical small Southern town. Courthouse in the middle of the square and a statue soldier on a lawn. All the regular little local businesses around the square....Basically, it was a friendly small Southern town."

Stuart knew Norman, who was about eight years older.

"We attended the same church. I'd see him at ballgames and stuff like that. I can't say that he was my best friend. He was a guy that I liked. I was also one of those people who when people didn't like somebody I wanted to know why. I always spoke to him."

"He was just strange," Stuart says. "He didn't look like a bum or anything. He wasn't a grimy person. He was just strange. If you had to nail him to somebody he was kind of like Anthony Perkins in Psycho. Uneasy is the right word. Uncomfortable. You had a feeling this guy was going to take off at any minute. That's what I liked about him."

The marriage did not last thanks to The Pilgrim and Rita.

Stuart never knew The Pilgrim, who actually lived about 40 miles away, but worked in the same hospital as Rita. Norman found out about their relationship and shot himself.

The Pilgrim soon took off, heading across the country before realizing his journey would take him back to Rita, who he eventually married.

Putting this story onto disc was not necessarily such an easy undertaking. Stuart booked time at Sun Studios in Memphis with no songs written.

While there, Bill Monroe, a big influence on Stuart, who has a bluegrass background, died. Thinking about his lost friend, Stuart came up with a recurring chorus about 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."

After a little tweaking, Stuart and his band put the lines down on tape.

But that was the only song for a year and a half.

"Once it's finally started flowing, once the story came and the songs , I at least had a focus and a direction," says Stuart. "I actually like that. Rather than just trying to find good songs out there and make a collection of songs into another album. I enjoyed the fact that this was different. It was something totally under itself. It had its own set of rules. I found that out very early on. I loved it."

Stuart wrote the 20 songs in a variety of places ranging from Maui to the Bahamas to New York to California to Nashville to North Dakota.

Along the way he enlisted his backing band, the Rock & Roll Cowboys to do most of the recording. "I used my band on the whole record. That was another rule that got broken. I'm not going to use studio players except to augment the band."

But he also had help vocally from ex-father in law Johnny Cash (he reads an excerpt from Tennyson's "Sir Galahad"), George Jones, Emmylou Harris and Pam Tillis.

"I never did know when a song would hit. Sometimes, weeks go by, and nothing would happen. I'd get jittery about it. Some days, I'd get two songs a day."For example, two very different songs stylistically "Reasons" and "The Observations of a Crow" were written two days apart.

Stuart incorporates many musical styles.

"It has more than one agenda," Stuart says of The Pilgrim.

"One of the agendas to me was that it was (me) standing on a vantage point from 25 years out. I've played bluegrass, honky tonk, rockabilly, hard core country music. I started thinking about the different kinds of music I've played under the umbrella of country music...It got fun for me again. I thought it would be more in that way rather than finding one style and putting it right there."

And that he does with the help of bluegrassers Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, Uncle Josh Graves and Mike Campbell of Tom Petty's band, The Heartbreakers, who co-wrote the more rootsy sounding "Draggin' Around These Chains of Love."

Stuart, 40, indicated he was intent on doing things his way after trying it their way.

"I thought Honky Tonkin is one of my best," he says, referring to his 1996 album. "I colored inside the lines, and I was a good little (boy), and I tried my best to make it work out, and nothing fired on there. 'You Can't Stop Love' wasn't a hit, I don't know what to do."

"That's when I stopped (going along)," Stuart says. "Apparently I'm out of style again. I've been in and out of style a whole bunch of times. It makes it harder. You can't just pick up the phone to turn things down."

Stuart doesn't care for what's been going down in Nashville in recent years.

"I just don't know how much more we can bear of the same sold same old around here. There's so much creativity that gets locked up in the Nashville. This could get me to lose my job (with MCA). I'll take what I got coming, good or bad from this record. It's time for a lot of Nashville more talent, more Nashville treasures than any other town on Planet Earth. Most of it doesn't get heard. This is one of those records that went 'okay, we got to do something different around here.' "

The early reception at least singles-wise has not been good as "Red, Red Wine and Cheatin' Songs" did not fare well."It came back to by research that it was too country," Stuart says. "I said, 'thank you very much.' I felt it was an incredible success."

Stuart, married to country great Connie Smith, has a clear idea what the recording means to him.

"The message that I find for me personally (is) it goes back to almost a reflection of my love affair with country music and the different styles. I've dedicated, sacrificed, given and been rewarded for a quarter century of my life for music that G-d has put it in my life and people. That's truly changed my life."

As for the story of The Pilgrim, Stuart says, "If you really are hanging out with true love, whether it's true love for somebody else, your call in life or a pocket knife in lost, if you stick it out, true love will reign if you just get out of its way and gives way to it. It offers a true ray of hope."

Stuart makes no apologies for The Pilgrim.

"If I'm not accepted in this arena for what I'm trying to do, the best thing to do is go crazy and be fearless," Stuart says. "If it all falls apart, I've got my integrity and my dignity in my pocket, and I don't have an album that I'm going to be beat over the head with for the rest of my life. It's total gamble."

"It's one of those records that will mean a whole lot 15 years from now than it does now. A lot of musical citizens will get it right off the bat. For a lot of them, it is not a disposable little ditty. For those (others), sorry I let you down. Maybe I'll be around next year."

By Jeffrey B. Remz

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