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Marty marches with The Pilgrim

By Jeffrey B. Remz, June 1999

Norman may have been your typical small town character. Not exactly Mr. Popular in the small town of Philadelphia, Miss.

Somehow he married the hometown beauty queen, Rita, much to the surprise of all.

But that, of course, didn't last. She became involved in a love triangle, leading to the suicide of Norman and the flight of The Pilgrim from being down and out drunk clear across America to returning to his love.

And this sordid, partially true tale evolved into Marty Stuart's new ode, "The Pilgrim."

A country concept album? That idea seems farfetched to say the least in this day and age when everything focuses getting three minutes of radio fame.

But don't tell that to Stuart, who put together the cohesively sturdy 20-song story about characters from his hometown through lyrics and instrumentals.

And while unheard of in country circles, Stuart says in an interview from Nashville, he was glad to take the chance, which he knows may be playing with fire career-wise.

While record companies usually exercise greater control over what goes on an album, Stuart says of MCA, "It wasn't that hard. I kind of had the story thought out. They agreed like 'Okay, Here's your own rope, and go try it.' If we hadn't had a 10-year relationship, it would have been a much harder sell."

The 10 years included such hits as "Hillbilly Rock," "Little Things," "Tempted," "Burn Me Down," and a few with Travis Tritt, "The Whiskey Ain't Workin' " and "This One's Gonna Hurt You (For a Long, Long Time)."

Stuart conceived the idea for "The Pilgrim" one night in California about 3 1/2 years ago while out there to talk about writing a possible film score for "Primary Colors," which he ended up not doing.

"It was a conversation at dinner one night when I told the story for the first time," says Stuart. "I dredged out the story from inside myself from when I was a kid. The more I told the story the more I thought it was a pretty good song. I thought there was a pretty good idea for a song. When I got back to the hotel, I couldn't get to sleep. The more I thought about it, I was thinking about a movie at that time."

He settled for a CD.

The story occurred about 25 years ago in Philadelphia, Miss., which Stuart describes as "kind of a utopia growing up, a typical small Southern town. Courthouse in the middle of the square and a statue soldier on a lawn. All the regular little local businesses around the square....Basically, it was a friendly small Southern town."

Stuart knew Norman, who was about eight years older.

"We attended the same church. I'd see him at ballgames and stuff like that. I can't say that he was my best friend. He was a guy that I liked. I was also one of those people who when people didn't like somebody I wanted to know why. I always spoke to him."

"He was just strange," Stuart says. "He didn't look like a bum or anything. He wasn't a grimy person. He was just strange. If you had to nail him to somebody he was kind of like Anthony Perkins in 'Psycho.' Uneasy is the right word. Uncomfortable. You had a feeling this guy was going to take off at any minute. That's what I liked about him."

The marriage did not last thanks to The Pilgrim and Rita.

Stuart never knew The Pilgrim, who actually lived about 40 miles away, but worked in the same hospital as Rita. Norman found out about their relationship and shot himself.

The Pilgrim soon took off, heading across the country before realizing his journey would take him back to Rita, who he eventually married.

Putting this story onto disc was not necessarily such an easy undertaking. Stuart booked time at Sun Studios in Memphis with no songs written.

While there, Bill Monroe, a big influence on Stuart, who has a bluegrass background, died. Thinking about his lost friend, Stuart came up with a recurring chorus about 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."

After a little tweaking, Stuart and his band put the lines down on tape.

But that was the only song for a year and a half.

"Once it's finally started flowing, once the story came and the songs , I at least had a focus and a direction," says Stuart. "I actually like that. Rather than just trying to find good songs out there and make a collection of songs into another album. I enjoyed the fact that this was different. It was something totally under itself. It had its own set of rules. I found that out very early on. I loved it."

Stuart wrote the 20 songs in a variety of places ranging from Maui to the Bahamas to New York to California to Nashville to North Dakota.

Along the way he enlisted his backing band, the Rock & Roll Cowboys to do most of the recording. "I used my band on the whole record. That was another rule that got broken. I'm not going to use studio players except to augment the band."

But he also had help vocally from ex-father in law Johnny Cash (he reads an excerpt from Tennyson's "Sir Galahad"), George Jones, Emmylou Harris and Pam Tillis.

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