Marty Stuart Celebrates Pivotal 1999 Concept Album ‘The Pilgrim’ with ‘The Pilgrim: A Wall-to-Wall Odyssey’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

One of the most telling aspects of Marty Stuart’s 1999 concept album The Pilgrim is that it essentially moved his style into a totally new direction, from chart-topping hits, into some of the best concept albums we’ve heard in any genre over the past two decades. They include Souls Chapel, Badlands, Ghost Train, and Way Out West to name just four. His supporting band behind those recordings, The Fabulous Superlatives, is one of the best. So, initially, The Pilgrim was not a commercial success but look what it spawned. 

The Pilgrim: A Wall-to-Wall Odyssey is a richly illustrated, 11’’ by 10.5’’ tabletop book that details how the project reconnected Stuart with the deepest spirit of country music’s traditions while also breaking new ground. His insight in the book is delivered with handwritten lyrics, detailed notes on the songs, inspiration that fueled the studio sessions, and even photos of the instruments used. More than anything it is about a vision that set Stuart on an enlightened, new path.

Stuart says, ”This recording changed the course of my musical life. Year after year, since its original release in 199, I’ve heard stories from people all around the world about how The Pilgrim made its way into their lives and touched their hearts…Upon listening, those recordings stand as cherished, sacred documents of American roots music that have waited nobly in their shadows for their invitation onto the world stage of the 21st century. So many life lessons were offered in the creative process of making The Pilgrim. Perhaps the toughest of them all was letting go when the record was considered unsuccessful. However, in letting go, I learned that some things do, in fact, come back around.” 

The ambitious concept project was based on true events that transpired in Stuart’s hometown of Philadelphia, MS when he was a kid. It’s the story of a weary traveler who went on a pilgrimage of his own after an episode of shocking violence separated him from the woman he loved. He was determined to end his own life, but the power of true love brought him back from the brink and back to the woman who became his lifetime partner. Stuart wrote all the songs, with some co-writers, and he produced the album with Tony Brown overseeing as Executive producer. 

The original had 20 tracks but only half of those are full-length songs, the others being snippets or instrumentals. {The ten bonus tracks in this package feature guest appearances from Ralph Stanley, Uncle Josh Graves, Emmylou Harris, Earl Scruggs, (all of whom are on the original) and Stuart’s wife, Connie Smith. The original also has a memorable cameo from Johnny Cask, in whose band Stuart played for six years. It also has vocals from George Jones and Pam Tillis, guitars from Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, and Hammond B-3 from Barry Beckett of Muscle Shoals fame.

Stuart plays both the title role, of a man who unknowingly falls in love with a married woman, and cuckolded husband who commits suicide. Perhaps having someone else play the other role would have made the story clearer.  A concept album as ambitious as this one is like a movie. On can find fault with casting, film editing, or any number of aspects. Regular albums of songs don’t lend themselves to these kinds of critiques. That may explain the lack of initial commercial success as well as it being a departure, as mentioned above, from his previous rather rowdy hit-making material. Even listening now, to be fair, not every song is strong, some come across as reaching a bit too much, but the sum is far greater than the individual parts.

So, let’s touch on those individual parts. It begins with a chugging steam train, segueing into orchestral dissonance before we hear what might have been a hit, had it been released, “Sometimes the Pleasure’s Worth the Pain” a rousing country-rocker, written with Gary Nicholson. Yet, we’re not sure this is the voice of the cuckolded husband or the unknowing adulterer. The lovely voice of Emmylou carries “The Pilgrim (Act 1), leading into the high lonesome bluegrass sound of Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys on “Harlan County.” Then Marty sings the husband’s suicide note in traditional country fashion with gorgeous harmonies from Pam Tillis, on “Reasons,” one of several standout tracks as is “Red, Red, Wine and Cheatin’ Songs” also with Tillis. One needs to pay careful attention in these sequences as it’s not clear which role Stuart is playing. For example, in the short interlude, “Love Can Go to…” we hear the voice of the lover saying, “I didn’t know she was married.”

The distinctive voices of first George jones and then Emmylou, playing the part of a waitress who encounters the lover who has left town, labeled the ‘pilgrim’ of the title, are featured in “Truckstop.” That leads to the confessional “Hobo’s Prayer,” into the revved-up, but rather ordinary “Goin’ Nowhere Fast.” Then comes perhaps the most interesting, if not necessarily the best piece in the five minute plus half-spoken, poetic, jazzy “Observations of a Crow.” The pedal steel-laced “The Greatest Love of All” has the man looking back regretfully before a long instrumental section reprises the theme. “Draggin’ Round These Chains of Love” picks up with a driving tempo with Emmylou on harmony. 

Ralph Stanley sings a second verse for “Act II’ before Marty has the pilgrim surrendering to God in a churchyard in “Redemption.” This leads to the album’s highlight, the six-minute-long ballad, “Act III” sung in beautiful confessional fashion by Stuart. That’s followed by the brief recitation by Johnny Cash quoting lines form Tennyson’s ‘Sir Galahad’ about finding the Holy Grail. Stuart, on mandolin, then teams with Earl Scruggs for the instrumental closer, “Mr. Henry, Steel Driving Man.”

The Pilgrim is not only an adapted true story of love conquering all, but it remains an essential recording in country music, not just because it’s a concept album, but because of the pivotal role it played in Stuart’s own journey. Stuart is touring behind it now.


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