Stuart’s ‘Pilgrim’ Making Progress

This appeared in the Times Record News - June 18, 1999

Here’s one you won’t be hearing on the radio. Marty Stuart was one of the original “new country” flavors of the week. Even so, I always liked him because, even as shallow and silly as his line dance mainstream hits were (remember “Western Girls”?), his albums featured plenty of the traditional country music he grew up with, playing alongside some of the legendary figures in the history of the music.But as the ’90s wore on, I must admit I wrote him off as someone whose best days had come and gone when he seemed to lose even those last bits of pure country direction.

Well, I’m happy to report he has his direction back now.

Marty Stuart’s new CD, The Pilgrim, isn’t so much a country recording as it is an event -- an opera. Or better yet, as the man explains himself, an Opry.

Better still, The Pilgrim is an album in the same sense that The Beatles used to produce theme-based albums. Fourteen of Stuart’s self-penned songs, of the 20 tracks, follow the story of a man’s troubled life.

The Pilgrim was in love with his co-worker, Rita. Rita loved the Pilgrim but already had a husband, Norman, who she never bothered to mention. When Norman found the two holding hands in the break room, he gave Rita a letter then shot himself. Guilt-ridden by Norman’s drastic commentary on his wife’s apparent infidelity, the Pilgrim left immediately after the funeral to become a wanderer. A wayfarer. A Pilgrim.

Stuart’s songwriting is some of the best he’s ever turned out. His solid story-based poetry never drifts or rambles, and his melodies, for the most part, are strong enough to evoke profoundly traditional country images on their own. And his production transcends the mere tweaking of knobs in a control booth to become pure art in itself.

Though The Pilgrim features an incredible cast of support performers – Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, George Jones, Earl Scruggs and other god-like names from Nashville’s glory days -- I like it for its depth, its ability to evoke honest emotional responses, its cohesive completeness.

In short, its direction.

From the hard country steel guitar weeping on “Reasons,” to Ralph Stanley’s ancient high lonesome vocals on “Harlan County,” to Stuart’s own fancy picking on “Sometimes The Pleasure’s Worth The Pain,” to the infectious swing on “Red Wine And Cheatin’ Songs,” this is a GREAT album. Every song, every back-up track, every little trick and device to advance the story is an unqualified delight.

There’s just no substitute for direction.

On second thought, no matter what I said at the beginning, The Pilgrim is so good that maybe some of it will make mainstream radio playlists after all.

I hope so.

By Don Chance

Return To Articles Return To Home Page