Marty Stuart is perhaps the most tradition-minded country star of his generation. He came of age picking in the bands of such icons as Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash. He owns a museum's worth of honky-tonk memorabilia and is in his third term as president of the history-conscious Country Music Foundation. Yet, oddly enough, he's spent the past 10 years trying to parlay his rowdy blend of old and new sounds, his vaunted "hillbilly rock," into the No. 1 slot on modern country radio.
But with the recent deaths of Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe, and the advancing years of countless other pioneers, some in Nashville are looking to Stuart to be the keeper of the hillbilly flame. "The Pilgrim," his first album in three years, proves that this faith isn't misplaced. Gone is the party-hearty country-rock of Stuart's previous records. In its place is a tapestry that stretches across a century's worth of Americana, from old-time music and bluegrass to blues and honky-tonk.
The story Stuart tells in "The Pilgrim" has an epic sweep as well. Drawn from events that took place in the town of Philadelphia, Miss., while Stuart was growing up, the drama centers on a man and a woman who suffer tragedy and despair, but who also find redemption and, with it, each other.
Mixing bits of sung narrative with songs that comment on the action much as a Greek chorus would, Stuart enlists a Who's Who of country greats to help him unfold the album's plot. George Jones wrings an ocean of emotion from every syllable he utters on "Truckstop." Bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley sounds like a mountaintop prophet on "Harlan County." And Johnny Cash's craggy baritone is positively otherworldly when, intoning the blessing from Tennyson's "Sir Galahad," he welcomes the wayward pilgrim home.
Earl Scruggs, dobro player "Uncle Josh" Graves, Pam Tillis and Emmylou Harris also appear on the album. Yet, unlike most star cameos, none of the performances here seems gratuitous. Which isn't to say that the proceedings don't get a little overblown at times. The way Stuart has the pilgrim plunge into a life of drinking and hoboing, for example, is a bit melodramatic. And the way, on "Hobo's Prayer," Stuart reduces homelessness to a matter of being a "circle in a world full of squares" is at best naively romantic.
The album's greatest strength is its music, be it the shuffling honky-tonk of "Red, Red Wine and Cheatin' Songs," the crying steel and close country harmonies of "Reasons" or the noirish, half-recited, half-sung blues of "The Observations of a Crow."
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8172.)
CAPTION: Marty Stuart: Country's chronicler.