Vintage Review- Marty Stuart’s ‘The Pilgrim’ 15 Years Later
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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June 15, 2014 @ 8:37 am
I finally had the chance at last year’s Late Night jam to tell Marty in person that this album changed my life. I listen to it regularly- now more for enjoyment and a reminder of when I heard it because I needed to hear it. Thanks for highlighting it- wonderful review of a wonderful artistic work.
June 15, 2014 @ 8:41 am
This was my first Marty Stuart album. Picked it up in a bargain bin at Tower., I’m pretty sure. Great album and great to read about it again here.
June 15, 2014 @ 8:43 am
This is me at ten years old, I’m in the backseat of my mother’s car a 1998 Pontiac Grand Am with a Country Weekly in my hand, normally I’m not a big subscriber to Country Weekly unless I’m at Walmart and I see Garth Brooks on the cover (remember I’m ten years old and Garth was a big part of my life). That same trip I’m in my mother’s car and on the very first page I open that day was a huge spreadout promoting Marty Stuart’s The Pilgrim.
During that time, even though I practically owned every Garth album ever made I was always open minded about other singers and liked a few of them but never got around to buying their records. This one in particular, I actually wanted because as a kid the way that album cover was created and the name on that album itself, it made me think that there was a story involved and I wanted to hear this particular story. What stopped me from getting this album back then was because I never got around to thinking of it again and it slipped my mind.
A few years ago with help from Amazon MP3, I finally got around to getting this album after a few test listens from Rhapsody. Turns out I was right like I was 15 years ago, this album is like you said very rich with age and in my opinion, the story could still be as relevant today as it was in either the 60’s or the 90’s. Thank you Marty Stuart, because of this album it opened my eyes to what a real country song should be.
June 15, 2014 @ 9:20 am
Great review. I am a huge fan of concept albums of all genres. It’s rare to enjoy these in a singles oriented world. I have to say I’ve never gave this album a listen but I believe I need to. Love Marty’s work with the superlatives but this one deserves my attention for sure. Thanks!
June 15, 2014 @ 10:58 am
I read somewhere that it only sold 25,000 copies. That’s a travesty.
I was visiting Louisville last year and found it at Half Price Books. Bought it and I love it. Of course, the next month I found it at a music store the next county over from me. Left that one for someone else to enjoy. I was just surprised to find two copies in the same year.
June 15, 2014 @ 11:40 am
He can be very proud of his show on RFD, it’s the best. Last night, he and Vince Gill were off the hook, outstanding.
June 15, 2014 @ 2:00 pm
Although I’m always careful calling any recording the “best” in its particular genre, and feeling that music or art of any kind shouldn’t be a competition, Marty Stuart’s “The Pilgrim” is absolutely positively my all time favorite country music recording ever. What is striking is that it became so the first time i heard it on a trip through the San Joaquin Valley on Hwy 99 between Bakersfield and Fresno the day it came out. I had to pull over when it was done just to sort myself out. Mind blowing recording.
June 16, 2014 @ 4:53 am
It’s amazing how hearing an album for the first time while on the road adds to the experience. Some of my favorite albums were ones I popped in for the first time while driving, especially on a good road trip.
June 15, 2014 @ 2:34 pm
yeah, that’s great. but does he rap?
June 15, 2014 @ 3:38 pm
Or wear a wallet chain haha!
June 15, 2014 @ 5:26 pm
This was a pretty interesting article, Trigger. It appears Marty Stuart is pretty underrated, isn’t he? I enjoyed that song.
June 15, 2014 @ 8:24 pm
A real talent. Thanks for the heads up. Seems I’d see him in guest appearances here and there but never thought about seeing him concert, now I am looking at his tour dates!!
June 16, 2014 @ 5:52 pm
you will not be disappointed in that decision, Karen. i’ve seen Marty play at least a dozen times. they are as good a band that is touring these days. if they came back to town, i’d be in line to see them again. also, he and the band always hangs out to meet and greet until the last person leaves. class act.
June 15, 2014 @ 8:52 pm
tracked this cd down (along with hillbilly rock and this one’s gonna hurt you) after marty played an amazing set last summer at a small amphitheater near my hometown in western nebraska…definitely one of the top two or three country shows i’ve ever been to. my daughter was four at the time; it was her first concert and she absolutely loved it. the pilgrim is excellent and marty is waaaay underappreciated as an artist and performer (but no longer by me!). go see his band live; they are all superb musicians and vocalists and highly entertaining with the stage banter as well. i cannot speak highly enough of him…just an all-around outstanding artist.
June 15, 2014 @ 9:01 pm
A very cinematic album. So great.
June 16, 2014 @ 4:54 am
I was not aware of this album, just sampled some songs and it sounds great. Will be adding it to the collection.
June 16, 2014 @ 5:33 am
I’m a big Marty fan, but didn’t know much about this album – I’ll definitely check it out. Thanks for highlighting it.
June 16, 2014 @ 5:41 am
I bought this album the week it was released, because I’d heard “Red, Red Wine and Cheatin’ Songs” somewhere; maybe on the radio, I can’t remember. Anyway, I wasn’t all that impressed with the rest of the album, but that’s still my favorite solo Marty Stuart song.
June 16, 2014 @ 5:49 am
Probably the best true artist out there in country today. Big fan here.
TX Music Jim
June 16, 2014 @ 7:44 am
Never forget picking up the CD and litening to it in my truck. First reaction was WTF ? I listened again and thought Marty was a genuis and to me it ranks up there as one of the best works Marty has ever produced as an artist.Marty is a musical hero of mine I hope he keeps it up for years to come.
June 16, 2014 @ 4:05 pm
Thank you so much for writing this. I had no clue album even existed as I was far away from anything country during that time.
I’ll have to admit that I didn’t get into the story so much on the first listen. Not because it wasn’t wasn’t interesting, but because of the music. The music is phenomenal.
I’m not sure exactly when my focus shifted, I have only had the pleasure of listening once so far. The production is impeccable. The musicianship is fantastic. It drew me in like nothing has in a long time.
The way the instruments are weaved in and out of the songs. The subtle blending. I can’t remember what song right at the moment, but one was particularly incredible. You hear mandolin that is then faded out and replaced by pedal steel for a few moments before giving way to a fiddle (probably should say violin here) with a piano line making brief appearances.
It just flows so well that to my ears, the whole thing could have been an instrumental and it would have told a story.
That being said, I’ll be listening to this many more times. I may actually get around to the story being told.
THIS is why I love SCM.
Lions on Horses
June 19, 2014 @ 7:21 pm
Wow. What an incredible album. Thanks for the review; I never would’ve found it otherwise.
August 2, 2021 @ 7:05 pm
I know this is the better part of a decade later, but this album is still incredible. I didn’t get into it much the first passthrough, but it keeps calling you back. It became a favorite. Now it’s one of only a handful of entire albums I’ll just randomly think “I’m listening to that for the next hour.” Masterpiece.