Marty Party Is Over

Stuart puts career on the line with serious new concept album

This appeared in the Calgary Sun - July 28, 1999

A few years ago, just after he finished a second tour with Travis Tritt, Marty Stuart began to feel a general malaise infecting his career.

"I was a good little artist and coloured inside of the lines," he recalls over the telephone, "...but I got to feeling I was just coasting in my own tracks."

He had some fine success in the early part of the '90s with rockabilly-infused singles such as "Tempted" and "This One's Gonna Hurt You," and his Marty Party television specials kept him in the public eye, but he knew -- as his diehard fans knew -- that this hotwired hillbilly was capable of much more than cranking out snappy, assembly-line radio songs.

After all, he had been Johnny Cash's right-hand man for many years; he's an avid collector of country music memorabilia; and his encyclopedic knowledge of the genre make him one of the most respected artists in Nashville and beyond. He is capable of greatness. And with his ambitious and often-breathtaking new album, The Pilgrim, he's achieved it.

"It was time to go back to what I really, really believed in; to go back to why I fell in love with all this in the first place; and to do something that may get me kicked off the label, run out of town and blasted off Planet Earth. At least it's something I could have some integrity and conviction about," says Stuart, who plays the Camrose Big Valley Jamboree on Friday.

On one level, The Pilgrim is an extended song cycle about an unstable marriage, jealousy, suicide, estrangement and redemption played out against a tapestry of bluegrass, rockabilly, honky-tonk and sweeping, cinematic string arrangements. George Jones, Pam Tillis, Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash (who closes the disc by reading from Tennyson) are cast in various roles. If this were a movie -- and Oscar winner Billy Bob Thornton is writing a screenplay based on The Pilgrim track "Observations of a Crow" -- it'd be a dustbowl drama, intimate yet epic, shot in lustrous black and white.

Yet, on another level, The Pilgrim tells a larger story -- of a 20th century America bonded by the railway and spiritually united by shared hardships. It tells of a simpler way of life that just doesn't exist anymore as the new millennium approaches.

"It's absolutely that. I am saddened by the fact the America I did know is gone. The things I fell in love with about country music are gone. The people -- they're pretty much gone. Time has taken them away," says Stuart, who dedicated The Pilgrim's title track to his friend, bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, who died in 1996.

"Fifteen or 20 years ago, when you travelled, every little town had its own character. Every town had its own soul. And now it's the same set of commercial franchises. Everywhere I go is the same place."

In its own way, The Pilgrim fights back by rejecting the sort of cookie-cutter music-making we often hear in today's conglomerate-dominated music industry. But the album didn't come together easily.

At first, he considered charting the evolution of country music in 12 songs. He wrote "Same Old Train" "but then I thought (the concept is) a bunch of crap," he recalls, laughing. "Same Old Train" was exiled on the Tribute To Tradition album, where the song -- featuring Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard and Clint Black -- won a Grammy Award this year for best country collaboration with vocals.

But he still didn't have a workable concept. Recalls Stuart: "There were times, man, when I would walk to the mailbox of my heart every day and, again, no letter. There came a point where I didn't know what I was doing."

While Stuart waited for the elusive Grand Idea, he kept busy scoring some music for a film (Hi Lo Country) and his friend's stage production. "It slowed me down and taught me to relax and tell the story instead of trying to work the two-minute-and-30-second, grand-slam, across-the-board kind of thing," Stuart says.

"It made me want to tell a story and create a tapestry.... When I forgot about it and walked away from it, it finally came."

Now that The Pilgrim is out, Stuart can concentrate on completing his book of photographs, featuring images and anecdotes about his musical friends, from Cash to Monroe to Keith Richards. It's due in stores in September.

He doesn't know if The Pilgrim will get him "booted out of Nashville," but he does know one thing for certain. "I'm proud of this record," he says. "I don't have to go to bed at night going: 'Well, I pulled one off on them out there.' It came from the heart."

Written by Dave Veitch

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