Posted March 23, 2020 by Jeff in Books

Marty Stuart Talks About Revisiting His Concept Album ‘The Pilgrim’

Marty Stuart
Marty Stuart

Country singer-guitarist Marty Stuart taught himself to play guitar and mandolin when he was only 12 and has a career that dates back to the 1960s. He found commercial success in the early 1990s but took a detour with 1999’s The Pilgrim, a concept album that features guests such as Emmylou Harris, Pam Tillis, George Jones, Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs and Johnny Cash.

Stuart recently released a book that chronicles the album’s journey and marks its twentieth anniversary.

When we reached him by phone a few weeks ago to discuss the project, he was in the midst of a particularly good day. Speaking from a Pennsylvania tour stop, he was about to head to Camden, NJ to visit the original site of the Victor Talking Machine Company, which was back up and running. He was slated to receive a tour of the archives. “How about that!” he said at the start of our conversation.

Talk about the genesis of the book. What sparked the concept?

I kept my eye on the 20-year mark and the anniversary. I thought the re-release of the record would get lost in 30 minutes. It was a profound moment in my life and my musical journey. I wanted to honor that. I’m an archivist. I keep stuff, and I had all my files. It just seemed like it would be more prominent if the record had some bonus tracks and a book around it tracking the evolution of this project.

The album’s first session yielded only two songs, “Endless Sleep” and “I’m Coming Home.” Is that really the start of the record?

Absolutely. I didn’t know it, but absolutely. I knew at the end of the ’90s that everything I had done during that country explosion had run its course. [My music] had become a revolving door of mediocrity, and it was hard to live with. I saw myself as a parody of what I was trying to be. I was looking for a place to get me back to the real stuff and the heart and soul of the matter. It’s usually a story or a song, and in this case, it wound up being both.

Talk about how Bill Monroe inspired the title track.

I booked Sun Records’ studio for two nights without any songs. The first night was pretty much a waste. On the second night, I got a call that Bill Monroe had passed way, and they asked me to come back and be a part of his services. That kind of rocked me. It wasn’t a surprise because he had been in decline. Still, losing that old fella was like watching an oak tree fall. I just took a walk around Sun Studios and called timeout from the sessions. On the walk back to the studio, the chorus came and I wrote two more verses in my head. I walked into the studio and said, “Guys, it’s for Bill Monroe and it’s the key of D and it’s lonesome. Turn off the lights and let’s take a journey.” That’s how “The Pilgrim” came about.

In the book, you’ve said you were so shocked by his death that you couldn’t even cry.

I was stunned, but I don’t know what I was. It was September, so I’m sure I was tired from touring and from fighting the game. I was probably just numb, uncomfortably numb.

How did that song evolve into a concept?

I went on a journey. I sat around, and I’d get up in the mornings after Bill Monroe’s funeral, and I started feeling things change. I felt like I was a million miles from home and I was finally finding my way back. All of a sudden, some of my standards and some of my beliefs and some of my passions started resurfacing. I started thinking about trying to get above just becoming a country music sensation who makes sparkly videos. My heart and soul started reappearing. I hung out with famous friends and folk heroes. I became a photographer and a visitor and a seeker and a missionary. I became all of those things in search of a story. I named it my “wall-to-wall odyssey.” It’s a personal thing. When I got home from playing with the band, I would take trips on my own. It was just a journey looking for songs. One night in Los Angeles, this story came around. It was this tragic story about a husband suspecting his wife of infidelity. She was actually innocent but he came in and killed himself in front of his wife and kid. It reminded me of a story that happened in my hometown. I went back to the hotel that night and couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking, “There’s a song in there.” The more I thought about it, the more I realized it was a whole story. It became Shakespearean in scope. I wanted to score it with the history of country music underneath it, and that’s how the concept emerged.

In the book, you say that Connie Smith and Thomas B. Allen were the two people that lived through the album with you. Talk about their respective roles.

Connie and I were freshly in love and freshly married, and we still are. That was our starting place. I found in her a profound artist. I found in her a profound heart with an enormous capacity for understanding and she comprehended what I was trying to do. You can look at Connie’s face when you ask her a question and there’s your answer. She can’t hid anything. Thomas B. Allen was an illustrator who did a lot of album covers in the ’50s and ’60s. He did like 18 Flatt and Scruggs album covers. I called Louise Scruggs to see if he was still alive. He taught at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. I met him and instantly found my artistic professor for life. He comprehended what I was trying to do. He didn’t have a dog in hunt but from a scholarly place he advised and encourage and inspired me . . . a lot of times probably without even knowing it.

You were disappointed with the reception the record received, but Johnny Cash helped you get past it, didn’t he?

Concept records are tricky. You usually need to have a big ole “Boy Named Sue” in the middle of it, or they’re just going to go off and do what The Pilgrim did. The sad part to me was that I knew there were some hits inside it. There was a lack of vision, and it was probably too much work for any record company in Nashville to take on at the time. That being said, when it failed commercially, it killed me. The realist in me understood, but I needed someone to help me get over my broken heart. I called John R. He said, “Listen. This record will live again. The people who are dropping you won’t be powerful men, and the label that is dropping you probably won’t exist anymore.” He was right.

In retrospect, is it better that it wasn’t a commercial success because you learned you had to find a way to carry on without the support of country radio?

Absolutely. Unquestionably. Last year or the year before, me and Superlatives got to be the Byrds. We played thirty-something shows with Roger and Chris. We toured the fiftieth anniversary of the Sweetheart [of the Rodeo] record, which was a dud when it came out. But that record never let up and it has inspired and entertained generation after generation of scholars and fans alike.

It reminded me that sometimes the money changers ain’t right, and the people are.

What was it like to go back to the record and dig up all the bonus tracks that accompany the reissue?

The thing that first and foremost hit me was the fact that the work was good. It was solid. It was not trying to be part of a popularity parade or trend. It was my first stroke at getting back to the eternal zone, the bedrock of country music and American music. When I pulled up the tracks and the unfinished songs, I saw that I was reaching in the right direction, and a lot it found its mark. It felt solid to me. And it felt timeless.

“That’ll Be All Right with Me” is such a great song. Why didn’t it make the album?

I think we ran out of space. What we did was that we took the vocal track off and used the instrumental as the outro piece to set up Johnny Cash. We ran out of space and didn’t need any more story.

Have you ever played the tune?

Not really, but we played the album in its entirety at the Country Music Hall of Fame last fall, and we did use it there. It was fun to play.

It’s a good thing you had the original masters because they disappeared in a fire.

I didn’t have the masters. Thank goodness Jamey Tate, the guy who engineered the record, happened to have a backup copy. He hung onto it for all these years. He was a young engineer when he took on this project. He was very proud of this record. It was his first notable project and out of sentiment he hung onto his backup copy.

Talk about the book’s photos. How’d you find such a great group of photos?

I’m an archivist. I’m a pack rat. Everything in our office is archived by year. There’s a photography file by year from 1972 forward.

What will the tour with the Steve Miller Band be like?

We played thirtysomething shows with them last summer. I found out he was a huge fan of my TV show. We did 156 shows, and he can quote you verse and scripture from those shows. We were on the road somewhere and he and his wife came and hung out with us. They invited us to play a couple of shows when they were at the Ryman Auditorium. It was an unlikely pairing but it worked. He invited us to play with him last summer. We had a ball. It fit what we were up to for the past two and a half years, which was our mission to play music for people who have never heard of us before and make new fans. It’s a risky concept, but there comes a time when you have to re-seed your audience. Steve’s band and his audience fit our mission. That worked out great because every single night, his audience received us very nicely.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].