The Lonesome Pilgrim and Marty Stuart
This time of year seems like an excellent time to revisit one of the great country music concept albums of the last few decades, Marty Stuart’s The Pilgrim (1999). Although we often associate the word “pilgrim” with the English colonists who sailed on the Mayflower ship, settled in Plymouth, and dined on the first Thanksgiving meal, the word in its broader meaning applies to any traveler or more specifically, “one who embarks on a quest for something . . . sacred.” It is in this sense that Marty Stuart’s album uses the word.
The Pilgrim is based on a true story about people from Stuart’s hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi. Through the years, Stuart pondered the tale, and after attending Bill Monroe’s funeral, he began putting the story into an album. The Pilgrim begins with the words of a man — the Pilgrim — who is in love with a friend, Rita. But unknown to the Pilgrim, Rita was married to Norman, who was jealous of his wife. In the song “Harlan County,” bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, reveals Norman killed himself because he believed he had been betrayed. In “Reasons,” Marty Stuart recounts Norman’s suicide note, where Norman explained, “I keep looking for reasons.”
Norman’s suicide sends the Pilgrim on the road as he struggles with how his love for Rita led to Norman’s death. He drowns his troubles in alcohol (“Red, Red Wine and Cheating Songs”) and travels as a hobo, heading west for the Pacific Ocean and “trading sorrows for tomorrows,” while “Goin’ Nowhere Fast.” During his travels, an observant crow sees the Pilgrim and notes in “Observations of a Crow”: “His shadow begs for mercy of every lost and found, / In city after city, town after town, / Tortured by the memory of a love he thought was supposed to be.”
Eventually, during his travels, the Pilgrim thinks back on Rita and his love for her. He visits a small graveyard where his mother is buried. At his mother’s grave, in “Redemption,” he says, “I keep hearing her and Jesus say ‘Surrender son and rest.'” The Pilgrim finally forgives himself and accepts his love for Rita. He returns home to marry her and raise a family.
The Pilgrim is one of my favorite CDs and a great hidden gem for those who have yet to discover its charms. In addition to the interesting story, the music on the album is wonderful, covering a number of styles of country music, including rockabilly, a drinking song, and some excellent short bluegrass instrumentals. While Marty Stuart’s voice tells most of the tale, some friends show up to help out, including Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, Pam Tillis, George Jones, and Johnny Cash.
In the refrain throughout the CD, the lonesome Pilgrim describes how he is far from home on his journey. But even though he is tired, he is strong, “‘Cause pilgrims walk, but not alone.” May your journeys throughout the holiday season be safe and happy ones.
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– Also, check out Michael Perry’s 1999 article on Marty Stuart from the No Depression archives discussing the inspirations and tour for The Pilgrim.