Marty Stuart – A pilgrim’s progress
I’ve used up every trick that I had hidden up my sleeve
Think it’s time I reconcile with what I had to leave
— Marty Stuart, “Redemption”
The president of the Country Music Foundation — currently serving his third term — is gigging at a casino in Reno. He is following an elephant act. Wayne Newton, in all his black-rinse, bankrupt glory, is working the other end of the hall.
The president in question, Marty Stuart, has become country music’s greatest curator. Beginning when he was still a teenager on the bluegrass circuit, Stuart bought one country music-related object per week, from old records to old guitars. Eventually, by his own admission, “it just got out of control.” Today, he owns an entire warehouse of country memorabilia, from Hank Williams’ hat to Jimmie Rodgers’ lantern.
Recently, he has become concerned with his own legacy — with the art of his craft. He has been seeking, as he says, “a deeper place.” Still, he betrays no compunction for performing in the wake of elephants. “I kinda like what Keith Richards says,” chuckles Stuart. “He says art is short for Arthur.” He continues. “Mom and Pop, or that dude that’s worked hard all week, he really don’t give a shit about my art collection, or my knowledge of Bill Monroe’s first band. He don’t care about Charlie Poole. In truth, they are there to be entertained, and we’ve got to remember: That’s the gig.”
Stuart is using this nine-day casino stand to work out the particulars of a new set incorporating material from The Pilgrim, a concept album released in June on MCA. The Pilgrim is one part musical, one part parable, one part tribute, and one part shot at redemption. Once a precocious disciple of country’s hillbilly progenitors (he joined Lester Flatt’s band at the age of 13 over a quarter-century ago, playing rhythm guitar and mandolin) and its iconic outlaws (with extended stints as Johnny Cash’s guitarist and son-in-law), Stuart eventually hit the big time with a solo career in which his musicianship was frequently obscured by coiffure and couture.
At the peak of his fame, Marty Stuart was a rockin’ little rooster prone to butt-wiggle — an embroidered, hot-pickin’ cool breeze, blowing into town with a Saturday night band to tear things up and move on. Lots of flash and grin, doin’ a little thing they called the hillbilly rock. Lester’s little boy-wonder done gone Nashvegas.
It worked, in a party-hearty sort of way. Still, when you’ve paid your dues pickin’ “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin'” for the man who wrote it, but paid for your bus by singing “Touch me, turn me on, and burn me down,” you know that somewhere out there ahead of you is a crossroads: One path leads to statesmanlike viability, the other to geriatric parody.
The Pilgrim grew out of two events: the death of Bill Monroe, and a good book. Stuart was recording at Sun Studios when he got the call about Monroe. He went walking in the back streets of Memphis and came back with a verse in his head:
I am a lonesome pilgrim, far from home
What a journey I have known
I might be tired and weary, but I am strong
Pilgrims walk, but not alone
He wrote two more verses, played it once for the band, then recorded it in a single take. “For a year and a half, it was the only song I had to show for this project,” says Stuart. In the interim, he found himself participating in a series of memorial services: Monroe, Grandpa Jones, Roy Huskey Jr.. Time was passing in the form of friends.
He also read Nicholas Dawidoff’s In The Country Of Country. “That book had as much to do with kickin’ this album off in my head as the death of Mr. Monroe,” says Stuart. “When you opened it up, there was a map of the United States. And all the towns highlighted were like spiritual touchstones. Tupelo; Meridian; Bakersfield; Rosine, Kentucky; Turkey, Texas.
“And I noticed I wasn’t included in that book, nor should I have been. But it gave me something to strive for. I wanted to go back and dig through all the vines, the myths, the fables, the experiences, everything I had packed on my back for the past 25 years. I wanted to cut through every bit of that and find a place where I could hear the pure holy tones, and hear those ancient voices from that other world. And they’re still there. You just gotta go get ’em.”
The album is called to order by a train whistle, followed by the sounds of a fidgeting orchestra, tuning while the house lights dim. Then a shimmering glissando spills from the string section, cascading like a clutch of pearls down a spiral staircase, converging with a steam-train snare and the Doppler moan of a steel guitar, the whole works sweeping into a chonkety-chonk rhythm that’s all center line and telephone poles, off to track the troubled path of a pilgrim.
Loosely structured around the true story of a man from Stuart’s hometown who killed himself in front of his wife over her infidelity, the album’s structure (woven with prelude and reprise, split by a 31-second intermission in the form of the Clinch Mountain Boys’ “Cluck Old Hen”) draws heavily on Stuart’s recent involvement in writing for the stage and screen. Stuart just completed work on a musical by Los Angeles playwright Mary Willard, and wrote and performed the score for the upcoming Billy Bob Thornton film Daddy And Them.
“It really was kind of the training wheels for this album,” says Stuart. “Instead of goin’ for that mentality of a Tin Pan Nashville song, to where you try in two minutes and thirty seconds to cram every nook and cranny with a hook, I think it taught me just to relax and tell the story, let it flow.”