Marty Stuart's The Pilgrim: Who'd have guessed?

"Country concept album."

There are only a few three-word phrases that petrify me as much. When pressed, I might throw out:

Gratuity not included
Trip to Cleveland
Shopping at WalMart
By Lionel Richie
Starring Andi McDowell

So as I started reading early reviews of Marty Stuart's THE PILGRIM referring to it as a "country concept album," I cringed. For a lot of reasons.

In 1993, I went to a Marty Stuart concert. Anticipating a performance from a true link between bluegrass music's origins and country music's present -- as would have befitted his talent and pedigree -- I received a huge disappointment.

Between songs, a handful of women in the 500-seat theater exorted Stuart, "Turn around!" Initially, he at least pretended to not realize they wanted photographs of his ass. Then he teased the women from the stage, with me thinking the whole time, "Please, Marty, don't turn around."

I mean, I knew that the appeal Stuart had for certain members of the audience wasn't his history as a bluegrass prodigy, nor his apprenticeship with Johnny Cash. Some of them were looking at his Nudie suits (and those ARE cool, don't get me wrong) or his foot-high hair. And as someone who thinks the Beatles' hair in the 1960s is the essential definition of cool, I understand that image sometimes is as much a part of popular music as the music itself.

But there's always a line. And that night in 1993, I drew the line at Marty Stuart wiggling his fanny in front of a bunch of women when I'd paid to hear his music.

Now, this wouldn't be a tale of fall and redemption if he didn't turn around. He did. And as soon as it happened, I thought, "That's fine. You've turned your back on me, on your music, on everything you've built up to this point. You want to be Marty Ray Cyrus. Fine. Do it without me."

I followed Stuart's career with a distant eye from that point on. When the "Marty Party" concept reared its ugly head, I thought, "Why am I not surprised at this?"

Understand, there was very little heartbreak in this breakup. I had little invested in Marty Stuart. And he did quite well without me in his corner, I've noticed.

My remote contempt for Stuart had grown to a comical proportion by the time I popped in a tape of THE PILGRIM made for me by my pal Tom Weber. A handful of songs jumped out at first listen, jumped so clearly that I thought, "I wonder where Marty found all these good songs?" Stunningly enough, he wrote everything, 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, somewhere, Stuart has assembled everything in his past and present -- bluegrass, country, rock, virtuosity, storytelling -- in an album that's frighteningly head and shoulders above everything else I've heard this year.

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.

I swear, there are six top 10 country singles here, and there are two songs that would fit solidly into rock or adult rock radio formats. (Not that I'm foolish enough to believe that would ever happen ...)

He kicks off the album with the driving "Sometimes the Pleasure's Worth the Pain," a solid piece of upbeat country writing. "Reasons" is a 1960s-type male-female duet that used to be George and Tammy or Dolly and Porter territory. (I can't tell if the female voice is Emmylou Harris, but it sure sounds like her.)

But 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" is his musical re-write 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, and I would have stood in line with my 88 cents plus tax to buy a 45 of it. 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." The liner notes say he wrote in Hawaii, but I'd like to know how. 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 bit later, in slides "Draggin' Around These Chains of Love," another sure hit single in the Tim Cain Universe.

Not enough? How about a couple more instrumentals that should take your breath away? A nice package? A nice story? Is any of this hitting you anywhere?

Good Lord, go out and buy this. My album of the year awards have cursed people off labels lately. I don't want to be the one to stop the Marty Party.

By Tim Cain
Picked this album as the #1 album for 1999

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