|This appeared in the New Times LA - July 29, 1999|
"Ambitious" is not a word often used to describe modern-day mainstream country music. Not when it's so formulaic -- a music factory for Mark McGwire types in Wranglers and Celine Dion wanna-bes -- that its collective artistic achievement rivals that of the coinciding cute-pop revival of the Backstreets and Britneys in terms of depth and potential lack of legacy. But here comes Marty Stuart with The Pilgrim, a rare moment in recent years in which the mighty Nashville machine eschews commerce for the sake of -- gasp! -- art. Ambitious? You betcha.
His 11th album since this erstwhile guitar and mando prodigy left behind his role backing Lester Flatt, Doc Watson, and onetime father-in-law Johnny Cash to pursue the solo spotlight in 1982, The Pilgrim is a song cycle based on a true-life story Stuart learned in his Mississippi youth about a love triangle shrouded in death, redemption, and spiritual revelation. Yep, all the good stuff. Propelled by Stuart's wondrous string work, this is a Crock-Pot of Americana -- honky-tonk tunes, tear-in-beer laments, bluegrass, Buddy Holly-ish pop twang, and country rock -- all brimming with the sort of heart and soul that a hundred Garth songs could never match. Featuring a made-for-cinema story line and gobs of drama, a good portion of the album's emotional impact stems from the vocal cameos by an onslaught of national treasure stylists, including Emmylou Harris, George Jones, Ralph Stanley, and the aforementioned Man in Black. It's hard to go wrong when Emmylou's ethereal tones represent the album's first mystical overture, while Johnny Cash's preternatural rumble is the outro that excerpts the soul-searching passages from Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Sir Galahad."
But Stuart's no slouch himself. His strength has never been his unspectacular albeit warm vocals (especially in light of the company he keeps here), but his genre-spanning song craft and passion for country's rich traditions remain something special. It's no different, really, than what he's been doing for most of his career, but the vision's had this type of reach or purity before. (Plus, his Darryl Hall-ish mane and Nudie clown suits may have clouded the issue in the past.) The Pilgrim, which will be performed in its entirety at the intimate Troubadour, is a endlessly emotional, ear-grabbing experience. Better yet, it's an unexpected moment in which Nashville country suddenly -- shockingly -- proves itself vital once again. Tue., Aug. 3, at the Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood.
By Neal Weiss
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