Twenty years ago, Marty Stuart found himself at a creative crossroads. Having straddled the lines of bluegrass, traditional country, rock, and even gospel music, Stuart shifted his priorities at the end of the decade and millenium, focusing his efforts on a project that would lead him, in his words, “to the outer edge of the awakenings of my true musical heart and soul.” The Pilgrim was a concept record based on the real life of Norman, a man in Stuart’s hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi, and the tangled romantic tale that unfolds with the town beauty queen and a mysterious man known only as the Pilgrim.
Guests joining Stuart on the recording, which was issued on vinyl for the first time late last year, included Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, Uncle Josh Graves, Earl Scruggs, Grand Ole Opry legend (and Stuart’s wife) Connie Smith, Johnny Cash, George Jones, and Pam Tillis.
In March 2000, Stuart appeared on Austin City Limits, performing songs from The Pilgrim. Joined onstage during his set by banjo icon Earl Scruggs and fellow Opry member Pam Tillis, Stuart is seen performing a chilling rendition of “The Pilgrim (Act 1)” with Tillis (Emmylou Harris sang it on the LP.) Stuart and his band, the Rock and Roll Cowboys, follow with another cut from the album, “Red, Red Wine and Cheatin’ Songs.” With Tillis adding harmony and Stuart’s electric guitar accompaniment reminiscent of the masterful playing of the late Don Rich from Buck Owens’ band the Buckaroos, the tune is quintessential Bakersfield honky-tonk.
Valentine’s Day next month will see the wide release of Stuart’s lavishly illustrated book, The Pilgrim: A Wall-to-Wall Odyssey. An in-depth chronicle of the making of one of the musician’s most acclaimed albums, the book features a foreword by actor-musician Billy Bob Thornton, and is packed with intimate images of Stuart, an accomplished photographer in his own right, making music with Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Rick Nelson, Merle Haggard, B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, John Lee Hooker, Willie Nelson, Keith Richards, Dolly Parton, and many others. Also included is the newly remastered version of The Pilgrim. Featuring 10 bonus tracks, the expanded version of the disc was first available when the vinyl version of the LP was released last fall.
Now backed by his band the Fabulous Superlatives, Stuart often performs tracks from this career-defining album in his live show. Although it was a commercial disappointment at the time of its original release, The Pilgrim has helped cement Stuart’s reputation as one of country music’s true renaissance men.