Marty Stuart's The Pilgrim

This appeared on the - October 22, 2013

I probably should have written this last week - it just never occurred to me to pull out the old Marty Stuart stories and run them here as long as I was discussing in my column the greatness of Stuart's album The Pilgrim.

So here a couple of pieces I wrote in connection with Stuart's appearance at Mattoon's Baglefest in 2002. It was one of my favorite interviews ever, and it gave me a smile when, during the actual show, a man walked up from the crowd and handed Stuart a tiny crate with some home-grown tomatoes in it.

My story previewing the concert:

Pilgrim's pride - Mostly ignored when it appeared, Marty Stuart 's 1999 album The Pilgrim has changed the course of his career

Sometimes, following your muse can be more costly and more rewarding than anyone could imagine.

Country singer Marty Stuart has first-hand experience with that.

Stuart is gradually ending a three-year break from the road. He comes to Mattoon on Saturday as the featured performer at Bagelfest, in what the singer calls one of his series of "off-the-radar shows."

A high-profile country chart-topper throughout the 1990s, Stuart had hits with songs including "Hillbilly Rock," "Don't Leave Her Lonely Too Long," "Tempted" and "The Whiskey Ain't Working."

In 1999, he released The Pilgrim, an ambitious concept album. Well-received by critics, it sold dramatically fewer copies than his earlier gold efforts.

"It cost me my record deal," says Stuart , who was dropped by MCA Records after The Pilgrim fulfilled his obligations to them.

But there's no bitterness over the loss of the deal. In fact, Stuart remains thrilled with the release.

"I knew when I was doing it that it was going to be a costly effort," he says. "But when all of those plastic things that came out around that time are gone, The Pilgrim will still be around."

However small the sales figures were, Stuart wound up with a diverse and devoted audience.

"The sad thing is," says Bob McCullough, operations manager for Mattoon radio station WMCI, "everybody is so driven by contemporary music that they don't give room for creative license. It's extremely unfair. Marty, regardless of what people may think of him, is a musical genius.

"There's a friend of mine who's into alternative music. The only country CD in his collection is The Pilgrim."

"It amazes me the people that come up to me and just say 'The Pilgrim', " Stuart says. "I had a guy yell it at me in an intersection of the middle of nowhere.

"I met (Led Zeppelin guitar player) Jimmy Page once, and he said, 'Look at what I've got,' and pulled out a copy of The Pilgrim."

The album may have asked too much of its audience.

"For some people," Stuart acknowledges, "anything that's more than a bunch of 2-minute, 30-second songs on an album requires too much from 'em.

"Once in a while, no matter what people think, you just get a burning desire to write something. And what God gives you is what comes out.

"I knew it was going to be one of those projects. It just came crashing out of me."

In one case, almost literally. The inspiration for "Goin' Nowhere Fast" hit Stuart in New York, "and I almost broke my leg running to write it down."

Another song on the album, Stuart reveals, proved to be financially costly.

"I was on vacation in the Bahamas," he says, "and I was miserable. I called up the front desk and said, 'I don't like the location of this room.' When they asked where I wanted the room to be, I said, 'Hawaii,' so we got on a plane for there.

"So I wrote 'The Observations of a Crow' and 'Reasons' on that trip, so it turned out OK."

Stuart acknowledges a conflict between the sides of his creative personality. On one hand, there's the rollicking "Marty Party." On the other is The Pilgrim, which, despite its theme of redemption, is darker than most of his work.

"It's that age-old equation of trying to make a living yet slowly grow as an artist," Stuart says. "The truth of the matter is I have so many friends who press up their own CDs and sell them out of the backs of their cars at festivals all over the country. And most of their stuff is 10 times better than most of what you hear coming from major labels.

"And that makes sense. Home-grown tomatoes are always better than anything you'll find in a store.

"The reality of the world is sometimes I have to get up and do 'the Marty thing.' I have to put on that bunny suit. I live with that character."

After touring in support of The Pilgrim, Stuart announced an indefinite conclusion to concerts, a moratorium he's just starting to break now.

"After 27 years," Stuart says, "I'd had enough green rooms and deli tray for a while. I decided I'd get me another box of crayons to play with."

Stuart will start recording his new album at the end of August, and he anticipates a major-label release sometime in the spring. He also hints at a "concept tour" for next year.

"I've put off a follow-up for a long time," Stuart says. "You just can't follow up something like that easily. The bar's been set too high. But right now I'm getting some songs together, and we're getting ready to put out another record.

"I'm really excited about a lot of things," he says. "It was worth taking three years off."

Part of the value in the break came in Stuart 's chance to exercise some other creative muscles.

"I didn't let up, I just shifted my focus," he says. "I've had plenty going on. I've just quietly pulled down the curtain on that (performing) side of things.

"I got into film scores, and I've done three of them. I wrote a book. I took up photography. We built a house. I was the president of the Country Music Foundation, and we got into a new Hall of Fame building.

"The Pilgrim was the root of all of it. Now I need to get back to square one. But once you do something like that, it's tough."

This isn't Stuart 's first appearance in Mattoon. He performed at the high school in the early 1970s on a tour with Barbara Mandrell and the Lester Flatt Band.

Stuart and McCullough promise an entertaining show.

"I think he'll draw a huge crowd," McCullough says. "The name is there. Unfortunately, he doesn't have anything current. If he's on, he's pretty great."

"If you're going to walk through it, you might as well stay home," Stuart says. "There will be familiar elements, and we'll have a firecracker band. It's just time to start playing these off-the-radar shows and start reseeding the crowd.

"Anybody with nothin' to do, anybody with a doubt in their heart or a trouble in their mind can come to Brother Stuart's travelin' show.

"Or anybody with a good home-grown tomato."

The column:

Album's story of fall, redemption reflects Stuart 's life

He was country when country wasn't cool. But Marty Stuart missed out on the credit and the sales.

The country singer performs Saturday night at Bagelfest in Mattoon. He'll be performing in front of a good-sized audience.

But the sad fact is if everyone attending Saturday's show purchased a copy of Stuart 's last new release - 1999's The Pilgrim - sales of that disc would jump almost 50 percent.

According to one trade publication, The Pilgrim sold 25,000 copies. (By comparison, the Grammy-winning soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? sold double that in an average WEEK, and almost 10 times that the week after it won its four Grammys.)

The Pilgrim deserves better. And that's not a statement from a raving Marty Stuart fan.

In 1993, Stuart performed at Nashville North USA in Taylorville. Those anticipating a performance from a true link between bluegrass music's origins and country music's present - as would have befitted Stuart 's talent and pedigree - received a disappointment.

Between songs, a handful of women in the hall exhorted Stuart , "Turn around!" Initially, he at least pretended not to realize they wanted photographs of his rear end. Then he teased the women from the stage, with some fans thinking the whole time, "Please, Marty, don't turn around."

There's no question the appeal Stuart has for certain members of his audience isn't his history as a bluegrass prodigy, nor his apprenticeship with country pioneers like Johnny Cash, Doc Watson and Lester Flatt. Some of them were looking at his tight jeans or his foot-high hair.

(And as someone who thinks the Beatles' hair in the 1960s is the essential definition of cool, it's easy to understand that image sometimes is as much a part of popular music as the music itself.)

Like Stuart 's The Pilgrim, this story is one of fall and redemption. The fall? When Stuart obliged the requests and turned around. The music took a seat behind his seat, and my exit off the Marty Party train was slowed only by the rush of people scrambling to get on.

And Stuart did quite well. Gold records, a TV show, a growing reputation as a superb performer. But for a handful of us, he still hadn't fulfilled his potential.

Then came The Pilgrim.

Perhaps Stuart is just a victim of poor timing. Remember those Grammys won by O Brother, Where Art Thou? That album was where many discovered the voice of Ralph Stanley. But two years earlier, Stanley sang "Harlan County" on The Pilgrim.

Emmylou Harris reached a wider audience with her O Brother performance with Gillian Welch and Decatur native Allison Krauss. But much earlier - in 1996 - Stuart stood side-by-side with Harris and Krauss singing at the memorial service for bluegrass music creator Bill Monroe.

And Harris also sang on The Pilgrim.

A concept album that tells the story of love lost and subsequent redemption, The Pilgrim has drawn comparisons with Willie Nelson's classic concept piece, Red Headed Stranger.

A key difference, though, is while Nelson relied on outside sources for about half of the material on his record, Stuart wrote or co-wrote everything on The Pilgrim (with the exception of Johnny Cash reading a Tennyson poem that caps off the whole album not with hubris or laughability, but a fitting amount of finality).

Somehow, some way, Stuart assembled everything in his past and present - bluegrass, country, rock, virtuosity, storytelling - in an album frighteningly head and shoulders above almost everything released in the decade.

(Unfortunately, of the three albums that top my list for the best of the 1990s - World So Bright by Champaign-Urbana's Adam Schmitt, Whitechocolatespaceegg by Liz Phair and The Pilgrim - only Phair remains signed to the same record label.)

With The Pilgrim, you don't even have to buy into the concept. Just listen to the 11 or 12 songs here without the story links, and you've got a fine album.

Add in the links, though, and you have a piece of art, something you can and should listen to in one sitting to have the emotion wrung out of you.

While the album starts with the driving country tune "Sometimes the Pleasure's Worth the Pain," and that's quickly followed by "Reasons," a classic 1960s-style male-female duet, the highlights come in the middle of the album, where one great song follows another and leaves you thinking, "This CAN'T get any better."

"Hobo's Prayer" - the one Pilgrim song Stuart says is most likely to work its way into his set Saturday - is his musical rewrite of "The Boxer," with a nice moral besides:

"Face the fact that you're a circle in a world full of squares / Trading sorrows for tomorrows, now that's the hobo's prayer."

Back in the 1970s, the last great golden age of popular music on AM radio, you could hear the Spinners followed by Grand Funk Railroad followed by Charlie Rich. At that time, Stuart 's "Goin' Nowhere Fast" would have been a Top-40 smash.

Imagine a fast Tom Petty song with a little bit of steel guitar.

The next cut is Stuart 's tour de force, the 5-1/2-minute "The Observations of a Crow." Written while flying to Hawaii, the song actually hearkens back to Stuart's youthful home in Mississippi. The song cries "swamp." There's a frightening amount of foreboding in it.

And if that's not cool enough, how about these lines:

"Hey quarter moon, well how was your night / Yeah well, any minute now God's gonna hit them brights /... And if he looks at you, well try not to look so afraid."

Isn't that amazing?

And a little later, in slides "Draggin' Around These Chains of Love," another sure hit single.

Not enough? How about a couple more instrumentals that should take your breath away? A nice package? A nice story?

It's not out of line to suggest this is a country music Pet Sounds - that is, an ambitious concept piece that didn't find the audience it should have. A rare piece of beauty, honesty and unexpected maturity.

It deserved much better, but it will certainly live on in the hearts of its fans.

By Tim Cain

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