MARTY STUART'S MUSICAL PILGRIMAGE
Twenty years after Marty Stuart’s concept album The Pilgrim was released, it’s out again, with a deluxe edition that includes a coffee table-style book of photos and stories about why the record was a turning point for the country star.
The mandolin prodigy who promised to marry singer Connie Smith upon their first meeting after her concert in Stuart’s hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi—he was 12 at the time—Stuart soon would join Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, back Lester Flatt starting at the age of 14 (and once opened for the Eagles and Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris), and play in Johnny Cash’s touring band.
This was all before he was 40.
Now in his early 60s, the silver-haired Stuart has become a godfather and historian of traditional country music and the styles of music it touches—including soul, blues, rock ‘n roll, folk music, and various shades of gospel. He's featured prominently in Ken Burns' 2019 Country Music documentary series for PBS.
After hitting it big on the country charts in the 1980s and 90s with music that often was beneath him, although he and soulful singer Travis Tritt sounded good together on records and tours, Stuart was ready for a change.
After leaving a show at a casino in the Mississippi Delta late one New Year’s night, Stuart and Smith, who really did marry in 1997, decided to drive all the way back to Nashville. Smith mentioned how nice it’d be to happen upon a church service.
They stopped and wandered into a little church, just across cotton fields from the weird high-rise casino hotels outside of Memphis. There and on the return trip, Stuart had a musical epiphany and spiritual awakening, which he details in the new volume accompanying the remastered, extended, deluxe version of The Pilgrim.
Stuart writes: “I have been to Rolling Stones shows, sung ‘Uncloudy Day’ with the Staple Singers as the earth shook to Pop Staples’ tremolo guitar, traveled the world with Johnny Cash, been knighted by Lester Flatt, felt the unbridled horsepower of Bill Monroe’s mandolin coming at me while playing ‘Rawhide’ with him, played Jimmie Rodgers’ guitar, put a dent in the wee hours of the night in Paris alongside Jerry Lee Lewis while listening to him play the piano and preach, watched Elvis Presley walk out on stage, felt the thunder of multitudes of people cheer for me, sung ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ eye-to-eye with Bob Dylan, met and played for presidents, won a few Grammy Awards, played music in the hanging gallows at Folsom Prison, lit the nation’s Christmas tree in Washington, D.C., been a part of inducting Merle Haggard into the Country Music Hall of Fame, held Hank Williams’ handwritten lyrics to ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’in my hands, held the boots Patsy Cline was wearing when she lost her life, played music sitting knee-to-knee with Earl Scruggs as the sound of his banjo went all the way to the bottom of my heart, played music with Ray Charles and B.B. King, performed shows with Tony Bennett, sat with Sam C. Phillips in the control room of Sun Studio and listened to Howlin’ Wolf’s recording of ‘Smokestack Lightning,’ played ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ with Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, sing ‘The Joker’ with Steve Miller, sung ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’ with Tammy Wynette when I was going through a D-I-V-O-R-C-E,’ and spent an afternoon playing guitar for George Jones while he sang country songs that were hits for other people to show me how he would have sung them.
"All big stuff, no doubt, but none of the above comes close to the power I felt emanating from the lady I would come to know and love as Pastor Evelyn Hubbard, the divinely ordered shepherdess of the Commerce Boulevard Christian Church in Robinsonville, Mississippi. … Her sound is part volcano, part freight train, and all sunshine.
“The impartation sent forth at the Commerce Church service, January 1, 2000, was to love, protect, defend, promote, and further the culture of traditional country music and its people,” along with the musical legacies of Mississippi.”
A country music photographer who plans to open Marty Stuart's Congress of Country Music museum in his Mississippi hometown, Stuart’s book features photos of The Pilgrim sessions, along with Stuart’s own and others’ photos of Cash, Dolly Parton with Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, and many others. Santa Fe photographer Jim Arndt’s haunting images of Stuart as a black-caped pilgrim also add to the book.
Most incredible are the photos of Stuart’s collected guitars in the book, most of which belonged to music legends and that he played on The Pilgrim:
· Cash’s 1957 customized J200 Gibson, played on “I Still Miss Someone,” which Stuart strums on “Draggin’ Around These Chains.”
· Luther Perkins’ 1955 Fender Esquire played on Cash’s original Sun Records recordings and by Mike Campbell on “Draggin’ Around These Chains” and “Pleasure’s Worth the Pain.”
· Mother Maybelle Carter’s 1967 Fender Kingman played at Cash’s San Quentin recording and used by Stuart on two tracks on The Pilgrim.
· Other instruments played or owned by Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and The Byrds’ Clarence White.
As for the music on The Pilgrim, it’s great. It opens with a short instrumental, then launching into the honky-tonk rocker “Sometimes the Pleasure’s Worth the Pain,” which he wrote with Gary Nicholson.
Then Emmylou Harris, one of the world’s greatest songbirds, starts the real journey, singing: “I’m a lonesome pilgrim, far from home. … Pilgrims walk, but not alone.” (See the video for "The Pilgrim, Act I," below.)
She’s followed by the wondrous, late Ralph Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys (check out their albums with Jim Lauderdale) performing the rustic “Harlan County,” a place in Appalachian Kentucky that Stuart describes in The Pilgrim book as a birthplace of American music. (See video later in this article.)
One of the coolest and best-written songs here is "The Observations of a Crow," which Bob Dylan reportedly called Stuart to compliment him on, Stuart sings (and narrates):
“Hey quarter moon. Well, how was your night? Yeah, well, any minute now God's gonna hit them brights So if you stick around, don't say that you weren't told Well, take it from me, you better grab your shades And if he looks at you, well, try not to look so afraid Just do the best that you can, but don't think that he won't know…
Creosote's dripping from the high line poles Fast as you can count 'em, 12 in a row Blessed accommodations, for the daily observations of a crow…
“Later,” as the bird flutters away. (See video below.)
Stuart, who was so impressive on tour in 2018 leading his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, in backing The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman on their Sweetheart of the Rodeo 50th anniversary tour, also rocks his country ass off. The best uptempo number here is “Draggin’ Around These Chains of Love,” (see video below) co-written with Mike Campbell, lead guitarist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and co-writer of Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer.”
The steel guitar parts by Gary Hogue are beautiful and elemental on The Pilgrim. Tragically, Hogue died in a tragic fall at home the following year. He was only 46.
There are weepers here, too. George Jones and Emmylou Harris duet on a beautiful segue song, “Truck Stop”:
“At a red-hot truck stop with a dirt floor parking lot A waitress named Shirley Poured him some coffee and she said:
‘Hello stranger, where're you going? I see the dust of where you've been Seems like the fire of trouble Claims you like the next of kin You look as new as tomorrow And as old as where you're from If I've got it right, and I think I might, I believe that you're a Pilgrim.”
Another highlight: Stuart’s “Hobo’s Prayer,” describing life on the road for drifters and for all of us:
“Mother Mary is a lady from down in New Orleans She's seen a lot of living since she was 17 She said, ‘I'm bona fide and worldly wise, with original parts, 'Cept for what set me to traveling. I'm talking about my heart.”
Ralph Stanley closes the album with his own version of the short “The Pilgrim,” sung acapella, much like his version of the ancient “Oh Death,” on the Oh Brother Where Art Thou Soundtrack, along with “Mr. John Henry, Steel Driving Man,” with banjo master Earl Scruggs.
The Pilgrim’s expanded tracks include an unreleased version of the title track, bringing together Stuart, Stanley and his boys, Harris and Connie Smith, for some beautiful harmonies, singing a call-and-response to Stanley’s plaintive, high-lonesome solos.
There also are some likeable, unreleased demos (that sound finished) made for the 1999 project featuring some of Nashville’s best musicians: a nice additional track by Stanley and his group, an instrumental with Stuart and dobroist Uncle Josh Graves, another with fiddler extraordinaire Stuart Duncan, and two other demos, one of them featuring Stuart and his Superlatives.
Thank the Lord that Marty Stuart found his crossroads on The Pilgrim, his country soul at Pastor Evelyn’s church, and then brought the gift of this album back around for all of us who wander.