When Marty Stuart decided to record what became 1999’s “The Pilgrim,” his radio hits were drying up on country music radio, and he had a come-to-Jesus moment where he was at a crossroads in his career. Should he keep trying to chase the golden ring of commercial success or follow his heart?
He chose the latter and recorded what friend Billy Bob Thornton later called, “the hillbilly ‘Tommy’ or the country version of a Roger Waters concept album.”
Although early success evaded the album (and Stuart subsequently wasn’t re-signed to his then-label MCA), it gained mythic status, with critics fiercely embracing it and its famous fans included President Bill Clinton, Tom Petty and Jimmy Page. Merle Haggard even once told Stuart, “That record could give that ‘Pepper’ record of the Beatles a run for its money.”
On Valentine’s Day of this year, Stuart commemorated the album’s 20th anniversary with the release of “The Pilgrim: A Wall-To-Wall Odyssey,” a gorgeous 11-inch by 10.5-inch tabletop book (with CD) that details the making of this seminal album. Packed with photos from Stuart’s archive, it tells the story of the decision to go down this path, the process involved and the aftermath of the record making. He’s quick to agree when it’s suggested that the process was not unlike it being the country music equivalent of “The Iliad and the Odyssey.”
“If you have any form of success, some morning you wake up and realize that you are boxed into this character,” he recalled. “I had become, in the public’s mind, this thing here that made me successful. I’d had a good long run as the guy who wore rhinestones and was a flashy, butt-wigglin’, ’90s kind of guy. That was all well and good. It paid for my car, OK?
“Then one day, I woke up and it wasn’t working anymore. I was forced into changes. The major change that was happening at that time back then was that the radio hits we were having had run its course. It was time to look for something different. I chased for a minute and then I was tired of chasing. I knew I had to do something completely different and go deep here. That’s where ‘The Pilgrim’ came about,” Stuart said. “I thought the sky was the limit, and it was a wall-to-wall world that I’ve explored, and I was going to touch every bit of it before I made this record. So I brought the whole show to the microphone with me.”
The narrative at the heart of this record is the true story of a weary traveler on a pilgrimage of his own that stemmed from a horrific incident of violence that separated him from the woman he loved. Determined to end his life, the title character was deterred by the power of true love that brought him back from the brink of personal hell and back in to the arms of the woman who became his lifelong partner. (“Achy Breaky Heart” it wasn’t.)
As a bluegrass prodigy who started playing in the legendary Lester Flatt’s band when he was a teenager (and who not only played in Johnny Cash’s band but was his son-in-law), Stuart had a pretty extensive Rolodex from which to pull. Among the artists who recorded parts for “The Pilgrim” were Cash, Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Pam Tillis, Heartbreaker Mike Campbell and “Uncle” Josh Graves. And though Stuart was rightfully concerned about the reception it was going to get from his label, he recalls the joy he got from taking this deep dive.
“The absolute most thrilling part was being like a 5-year-old kid following his heart through a coloring book with all the crayons of the world at your disposal,” he said with a smile. “It was the first time in my life that I said, ‘Come hell or high water, this is where we’re going to go. We’re going to go take an adventure.’ And it was a fearless flight. That was the most thrilling part of it — the absolute joy of doing it, creating it and watching it come to life.”
Thanks to Stuart’s love of photography, the Grand Ole Opry member chronicled his making music with a number of storied names, including Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Rick Nelson, Bill Monroe, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, The Staples Singers, Tom Petty, John Lee Hooker, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and numerous others. All of this came in handy when it came time to give “The Pilgrim” this most recent deluxe treatment.
“You know me, I keep things,” he said. “All those years were pretty well archived. ‘The Pilgrim’ had gone on to live in about two or three different boxes, so when it was time to organize all these files and photos, it was just a matter of pulling all the pieces and parts together. It turned into architecture. But at the core and heart of it all, the music still sounded relevant. It was all alive in the dirt for me, and it was a matter of pulling the whole truthful story together with words and music. That’s what the job became.”
Fast forward to 2020 and Stuart is as busy as ever. He has not only wrapped up production of his wife Connie Smith’s 54th studio album, but he has also got what he calls an instrumental hillbilly surf record that he cut with his band, The Fabulous Superlatives, set to come out later this year. There’s also a string of summer dates that will find him and the Superlatives hitting the road with the Steve Miller Band. As someone who has rightfully earned a reputation for being one of the last links to the original greats of country music, he has a unique insight into the state of the genre.
“It’s ever evolving,” he explained. “I think if you go back to the 1927 Bristol Sessions and start there and look at what was committed to the microphone at that time, which was mountain music, gospel music, folk music, story songs, ballads and pop-tinged country offerings — it’s still that if you look at country music today. It’s just more homogenized than it ever was before. It’s about appealing to the masses.
“If you want the real stuff, it’s still out there and you have to dig a little deeper for it.”