In the annals of country music, the amount of concept albums proffered to the public have been very very few. But these extra efforts have almost always gone on to loom larger than their more standard format counterparts, and become pillars of influence from which scores of other albums draw their inspiration. Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears: Ballad of the American Indian was arguably country music’s first concept album, and has gone on to become a cult favorite. Willie Nelson’s Phases & Stages helped stimulate his rise in country as a performer, and his Red Headed Stranger is arguably the greatest country music album of all time. Hank Williams III’s Straight to Hell helped create a country music underground and put the 3rd generation star on the map. And even today, whether you consider Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music a concept album or not, it has critics singing its praises and marks the starting point of a fast-rising artist.
Lost among country music’s great concept albums though, unless you count yourself amongst the die hard Marty Stuart fans, was the 1999 offering from Marty called The Pilgrim released 15 years ago today. A commercial flop that was poorly-promoted but well-received by all the critics who happened to receive a copy, The Pilgrim produced no singles and no awards, but it wasn’t meant to. This was Marty Stuart flexing his creative muscles, and doing what he wanted to do at the end of a century, and the end of an era.
In 1999, Marty Stuart was at a crossroads. He still had his signature black hair and some semblance of a mainstream career, but the gray was filling in and he was quickly being forgotten by radio. He still was using The Rock & Roll Cowboys as his backing band. It wouldn’t be until his next album that Stuart would saddle up with his long-standing and current outfit The Fabulous Superlatives. The album was his last with MCA Nashville and an opportunity for Marty to do what he wanted, free of the commercial worry of a major label breathing down his neck about delivering on their investment. This brew of circumstances resulted in arguably the Philadelphia, Mississippi native’s crowning opus.
What some don’t know about The Pilgrim, even some of its apostles, is that the linear narrative of the album is based on a true story from Marty Stuart’s hometown. It begins with a man named Norman, characterized as “cross-eyed” but still able to land the town’s most beautiful woman by the name of Rita. When Norman becomes jealous and protective of Rita, she takes to the arms of “The Pilgrim”, who doesn’t know that Rita is married. When Norman finds out about the relationship, he commits suicide, and filled with guilt, The Pilgrim takes to traveling, ending up on the West Coast before returning eventually to be with Rita once more.
Along this journey, Marty Stuart takes the role of Norman, and other characters as he narrates the theme. Helping Marty unfurl the story of The Pilgrim is one of the most impressive collection of legendary country music names this side of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” session. The indelible voice of Emmylou Harris greets listeners early in the album, assuring that The Pilgrim will be full of surprises, turns, and towering contributions. Pam Tillis, George Jones, Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, and Marty’s former boss and father-in-law Johnny Cash also contribute, with Cash helping to conclude the album with a haunting performance.
The Pilgrim consists of twenty total tracks, including instrumental interludes and recurring “acts” that lend corresponding sonic shades to compliment the arc of the story. And it’s all written by Marty Stuart himself, aside from some contributions here and there from notables like Gary Nicholson, and Mike Campbell (Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers). Other notable musicians lend their talents to the music of The Pilgrim including fiddle player Stuart Duncan and organist Barry Beckett. The instrumentation on the album is nothing short of world class, pulling out all the stops to paint The Pilgrims‘ story in vibrant colors, and endow it with the timeless touch of some of country music’s most noble torch bearers.
In the twenty tracks, The Pilgrim exemplifies tremendous range, almost like an audio timeline of country music’s evolution. From blistering bluegrass-inspired mandolin numbers from Stuart’s nimble fingers, to the more honky-tonk style electric rockers that Marty is known for now and during his near past, to the poetic and smoky surprise of the album, a song called “The Observations of a Crow” that show a beatnik style from Stuart seldom seen, the music of The Pilgrim is in no way an afterthought to the story, and so many of the compositions can be taken out of context and thrive autonomously, and often do when Marty reprises many Pilgrim tracks during live performances; some of them staples of his Marty Stuart Show with The Fabulous Superlatives by his side.
Fifteen years after the release of this somewhat forgotten, but unquestionably iconic album, Marty Stuart looks like the genius for pulling it off, especially when some of the contributors would unfortunately pass on, and others lose the essence of their skills so soon after the release. Whatever financial flops The Pilgrim recorded on the books of MCA Nashville, it did what many other commercially successful albums of the period couldn’t—withstand the test of time, and grew richer with age.
Two guns up!
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