Country Singer On Ambitious Pilgrimage

This appeared in The Morning Call - May 26, 1999

Marty Stuart, who will perform Thursday night at Ramblers Ranch in Jim Thorpe, once received some sage advice from country star Roger Miller: "Having talent is one thing. Learning how to use it is another."

Stuart, 40, openly admits it took him quite some time to begin to master the second part of that equation. A highly talented guitarist and mandolin player, he began his career at age 13 playing with the legendary bluegrass combo of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Next, he did short stints with fusion bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements and folk guitarist Doc Watson before spending six years touring and recording with Johnny Cash. His instrumental talents also landed him high-profile studio work, including sessions with Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Waylon Jennings and Billy Joel.

Sandwiched around all this activity were two tentative steps to establish a solo identity -- "Busy Bee Cafe" (1982) and "Marty Stuart" (1986). Neither album brought Stuart's sound into focus, and it was only after he signed to MCA Records in 1989 that his sound and songwriting prowess began to blossom.

His five previous discs for MCA -- "Hillbilly Rock," "Tempted," "This One's Gonna Hurt You," "Love & Luck" and "Honky Tonkin's What I Do Best" -- found Stuart drawing on his love of traditional country, bluegrass and rock 'n' roll to create a frisky, tangy and twangy sound. While rooted in the past, his music had a decidedly modern edge.

"Sometimes I felt like I was overqualified," Stuart said. "Sometimes I felt like I couldn't focus if I had 12 camera lenses in front of me. It's so much easier, I think, on the surface, if you can just go by the mall and pick up a cowboy hat and have somebody write you a couple of hit tunes. That's the easy way. That's the quick fix. It's a whole lot harder when you are just filled up with all these different directions and different avenues. I felt like for the first 10 years, I was really just trying to sort it out," he said.

Stuart is proud of his previous albums on MCA, and reflected where he was musically and personally at the time. But with his new disc, "The Pilgrim," due out June 15, Stuart feels he has really raised his game as a songwriter and artist.

It's no wonder why Stuart feels that way. "The Pilgrim" is easily the most ambitious record of his career -- and one of the most ambitious works to emerge in country music in recent years. It's a 20-song concept album -- some of which will be previewed during the Ramblers Ranch show -- that tells the story of a man Stuart knew while growing up.

Stuart says the entire story -- while remarkable and filled with sadness, tragedy and eventually redemption -- is true.

It begins with Norman. Cross-eyed and not exactly the town's leading man, Norman, to the surprise of the townfolk, married a community beauty queen named Rita. Norman, though, was the possessive and jealous type, and eventually Rita was drawn to a man she worked with at the local hospital. That man is the pilgrim in Stuart's story.

Throughout their romance, Rita never told the pilgrim she was married and never fully responded to his overtures. Yet Norman sensed that Rita was drifting away from him.

One day Norman returned home and Rita wasn't there. Furious, he wrote a letter he put in his pocket, got his gun and went out in search of his wife. Norman found Rita in the hospital break room, holding hands with the pilgrim, which sent Norman into a rage. The pilgrim tried to defend Rita, and told Norman he didn't know Rita was married and wouldn't so much as speak to her again. Norman, though, wouldn't hear it. He handed Rita the letter, drew his gun and shot himself to death.

The pilgrim was shattered. He was crucified by town gossip, even though his only crime was falling in love with a woman he didn't know was married.

Most of "The Pilgrim" continues the story from the point where the pilgrim leaves town and falls into a life of drinking and hoboing as he hitchhikes and rides the rails across America. Eventually it answers whether the pilgrim was able to face down his demons and come to terms with his life, his love for Rita and his own soul.

Creating this complex, multi-dimensional work was a huge task that stretched over three years. Recording involved not only Stuart and his backing band, but an array of other artists he cast to sing or play parts. Among the featured guests are Emmylou Harris (on "The Pilgrim (Act 1)" and "Truckstop"), Ralph Stanley ("Harlan County"), Pam Tillis ("Reasons"), Earl Scruggs ("Truckstop" and "Mr. John Henry, Steel Driving Man") and Johnny Cash ("Outro").

"I saw it as almost an opera," Stuart said, explaining his decision to have other musicians put their own stamp on many of the songs. "There was just a different color in a tapestry, a different movement that just passed from one spot to the next. Nobody sticks around very long. It's like they make an appearance and then they disappear."

The 20 songs that make up "The Pilgrim" are among Stuart's finest. Though the disc is a bit more acoustic and country-flavored than his previous albums, various songs touch on virtually every style that has informed Stuart's music -- and country music in general.

"Harlan County" is rooted in the bluegrass of Stuart's youth. "Hobo's Prayer" echoes the folk music Stuart played with Doc Watson. "Red, Red Wine and Cheatin' Songs" reflects Stuart's honky tonk roots. "Draggin' Around These Chains Of Love" brings in a taste of rock 'n roll. "Goin' Nowhere Fast" features the propulsive, freewheeling sound Stuart encountered in his years playing with Cash.

In a real sense, "The Pilgrim" both sums up Stuart's musical past and perhaps sets a tone for the future. The more relaxed acoustic-oriented material puts Stuart in a slightly different context than any of his past albums. "This record is the most rewarding musical experience of my life," Stuart said. "I've never had anything that wrestled me as hard. One day I would leave the studio at three in the morning and I would win. Some days the record would win. This record kicked and fought and bucked the whole way, but man, it was a joy to keep up with it."

By Alan Sculley

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