Thanksgiving with Marty Stuart: The Pilgrim

Stuart, Marty – The Pilgrim (Act I) (featuring Emmylou Harris) “The Pilgrim (Act I)” — featuring Emmylou Harris

With Thanksgiving approaching in the U.S., it seems appropriate to discuss one of my all-time favorite CDs, Marty Stuart’s The Pilgrim (1999). In another post, we discuss another Marty Stuart CD that covers the other side of the original Thanksgiving table.

Click album photo to see outstanding Amazon reviews.

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 concept album uses the word “pilgrim.”  On the album, we first hear the word in Emmylou Harris’s voice on one of the first songs on the CD (above): “I am a lonesome Pilgrim, far from home/ . . . I might be tired and weary, but I’m strong / ‘Cause pilgrims walk, but not alone.”

The True Story Inspiration

The Pilgrim is based on a true story about people Stuart knew in his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi. Over the years, Stuart continued to think about 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 former beauty queen 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 the Pilgrim’s travels, an observant crow sees the Pilgrim passing by in “Observations of a Crow”:

Take a look at that pilgrim, passing by;
He’s looking for love, I can see it in his eyes;
He’s running ’round in circles, you can take it from me;
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, across the miles, in “The Greatest Love of All Time” and “Draggin’ Round These Chains of Love,” the Pilgrim thinks back on Rita.  He considers his love for her despite everything that has happened.

The Pilgrim 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 is able to forgive himself and accept his love for Rita. He returns home to marry her and raise a family.

The Music: “A Fabulous Journey”

Of course, an album would not be great with just a good story. The music on the album is wonderful too, covering a number of styles of country music, including rockabilly, a drinking song, and some excellent short bluegrass instrumentals. While the songs together tell a story, they each may stand on their own outside the story too.

Marty Stuart’s voice tells most of the tale, but a few friends show up to help out, including Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, Pam Tillis, and George Jones. The music fits the Pilgrim’s tale perfectly throughout.

Unfortunately, the album did not do well in sales when it was first released, even though critics gave it good reviews.  Because of the poor sales, MCA Nashville dropped Stuart from his record deal at the time.

In retrospect, Stuart has accepted the loss well, realizing he created something worth more than a sales number.  Stuart recognizes, “But when all of those plastic things that came out around that time are gone, The Pilgrim will still be around.”

The Pilgrim is one of the great overlooked country CDs of recent decades. Johnny Cash called it “a fabulous journey.” You might discount Johnny’s statement because he was friends with Stuart.  Also, he helped with the album, as his deep booming voice provides the final words on the album, quoting Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Sir Galahad.”

But if you do not trust Johnny’s assessment, you can trust me.

I am a lonesome Pilgrim, far from home,
And what a journey I have known.
I might be tired and weary, but I’m strong;
‘Cause pilgrims walk, but not alone.

May your journeys this Thanksgiving and throughout the holiday season all be safe and happy ones.

What do you think of The Pilgrim? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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