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Marty Stuart gets back to country music's roots on his latest

By Michael McCall

JUNE 21, 1999:  Marty Stuart beamed as he guided his aged Lincoln Continental sedan onto Interstate 40. He'd just left a listening party for his new album, The Pilgrim, and the crowd of attendees--mostly MCA employees and Nashville-based country music journalists--had been genuinely enthusiastic about his new work.

As he drove, he shared several ecstatic smiles with his wife, country singer Connie Smith, who kept patting her husband's leg, as if congratulating him on an important victory. In a way, the listening party was just that, for Stuart realizes that The Pilgrim butts against current trends on Music Row. At a time when country music is becoming increasingly pop-oriented, Stuart's new collection is steeped in traditional country music. For this ambitious theme album to succeed, it's going to need strong support from critics and the tenacious promotional efforts of MCA employees.

Once on the highway, Stuart tuned into WSM-95.5 FM just in time to hear a deejay announce that he had the new Marty Stuart single in hand and was getting ready to premiere it in a "smash or trash" segment. Shortly thereafter, the first notes of a muscular honky-tonk shuffle, "Red, Red Wine and Cheating Songs," jumped from the speakers, and Smith leaned over and cranked it up. With its soaring, bluegrass-style harmonies and its singing steel guitar, the song sounded as prototypically American as Stuart's car, as Southern as the landscape slipping away through the rear window.

As the song ended and the deejay excitedly asked for responses, Stuart turned down the radio, despite his wife's protests. It seemed like a potent symbolic gesture, considering that the singer had made a conscious decision not to pander to country radio when he recorded The Pilgrim. A 20-song cycle, the album is much more than a collection of potential singles strung together in one package--which is the way nearly every other Nashville-based country album is assembled. Instead, there are songs over five and six minutes long, as well as brief instrumental and vocal interludes that clock in at 30 seconds or so.

For any kind of comparison, one has to look back to Emmylou Harris' 14-year-old Ballad of Sally Rose, or, perhaps most appropriately, to Willie Nelson's 24-year-old Red-Headed Stranger--which, like The Pilgrim, deals with love, betrayal, murder, renewal, and redemption.

For his part, Stuart says he simply wanted to get away from business-as-usual and rediscover the inspiration that first drew him to country music. "Behind every closed-door meeting, at every gas pump, at every cocktail lounge, the main talk with any of us is how bad the music is," he says. "We're capable of better. I just got tired of bitching about it and decided to take a shot at something that tried to help in any way."

Indeed, The Pilgrim accentuates the enduring, important qualities of real country music. In telling his story, Stuart uses bluegrass, honky-tonk, gospel, folk, and country rock, and he perfectly casts George Jones, Johnny Cash, Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, and Pam Tillis to provide guest vocals that resonate with character and weight.

"I wanted the agenda to be about the story, but I also wanted to tell country music's story and my story as well," he says. "At the same time, I wanted to write songs that fit together and moved the story along, and I wanted to be able to lift a few of the songs out to stand on their own, to be radio songs. I thought I had to at least try to do that, but I wanted to do it without compromising anything or thinking about it too much."

Stuart based the story on an infamous hometown episode from his youth in Mississippi: A beautiful cheerleader unexpectedly marries a rough, troubled, working-class guy. Later, as the relationship splinters, the woman begins an affair with a guy at work, who has no idea she's married. One day, her husband shows up at work, drunk and carrying a gun, and finds them snuggling in a break room. After a few cross words, he puts the gun to his head and shoots himself.

The woman's lover, angered at what she hid from him, leaves her and the town behind. He begins drinking excessively and ends up a homeless, destitute alcoholic. He eventually decides to hitchhike to California, to visit his mother's grave before killing himself. While there, he experiences a spiritual revelation about love and the meaning of life. He decides to return to Mississippi to seek out his former lover. They reunite, move away, start a family, and live as happily as could be expected.

Though the story is told from the point of view of the drifter--The Pilgrim--Stuart's songs are particularly potent in explicating the motivations of both the husband and the lover. "Reasons," one of the album's most powerful songs, reveals the husband's tortured thoughts as he prepares to surprise his wife and take his own life.

"It was the perfect excuse to get drunk, as if lately I've needed one," the song begins. "It was the perfect excuse to buy bullets for the barrel of my favorite gun." As the song continues, and as it becomes clear that the man intends to commit suicide, certain lines stick out like a wound, such as "I thought that I had loved you, I did the best that I could." It's one of those rare songs that takes a sympathetic look at a confused, angered man unable to deal with his pain.

As Stuart explains, "That cry of despair, that's something that we cover up so much in country music these days, and we didn't used to. That cry is the people's voice. Hank Williams had that cry in a lot of his songs, and Hank Williams was the voice of a whole segment of people."

The genesis of The Pilgrim came after the death of Bill Monroe, an event that motivated Stuart to take a hard look at himself and at country music. Monroe's death deeply affected the singer, and it ultimately caused him to renew his commitment to his musical career. Ricky Skaggs and Steve Earle have made similar comments about how Monroe's passing impacted them and their own music as well.

"When it's all said and done, I don't know if there's ever been a more important musician in this town, or in country music," Stuart says of Monroe. "He affected so many people in so many ways, he inspired and changed so many musicians, that I don't think it could ever be measured. I mean, from Elvis on down the line, he was a primary influence for a whole lot of us. He set the standard for making music with conviction and passion."

Stuart hopes to see some of that conviction return to the music he loves. "We need a solid heart-and-soul victory in this town," he says. "Not just one that's dictated by numbers, but by the heart and soul that's put in the music. It doesn't matter if it's this record or a Ricky Skaggs record or a Vince Gill record; we need one, wherever it comes from. It's the only way we're going to save our credibility."


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