“In the same way the Bible is divided into the Old and New Testaments, Marty Stuart’s musical career is divided into everything that came before 1999 and everything that came after. The dividing line is The Pilgrim, Stuart’s 10th studio album.”
So writes music historian Scott Bomar in a preface to the book that accompanies a new deluxe edition of the CD. The recording found the country singer/songwriter going back to his roots and following his muse rather than looking for ways to continue the string of hit singles that he’d enjoyed in the early 90s.
The Pilgrim is a 20-track concept album that was written almost entirely by Stuart. Based on events that unfolded in his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi, it tells a story that seems tailor-made for country music: its elements include a failed marriage, a love triangle, alcohol, a gun, and a suicide. The music—which features contributions from Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, Pam Tillis, George Jones, Earl Scruggs, and Johnny Cash—is an engaging blend of roots country, honky-tonk, folk, and bluegrass.
When it first appeared, the record garnered little support from Stuart’s label and was a commercial flop. But critics liked it, and over the years it became enough of a cult favorite to prompt the release of this reissue, which features a remaster of the original album, 10 bonus tracks, and the aforementioned book.
That book—a 186-page hardcover affair called The Pilgrim: A Wall-to-Wall Odyssey—is as noteworthy as the music. It includes a foreword by actor and musician Billy Bob Thornton, a long and interesting essay by Stuart about the album at hand and music in general, reproductions of pages with his handwritten lyrics, and session notes. Throughout you’ll find striking black-and-white photos of Merle Haggard, Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Dolly Parton, and other Stuart cohorts. Stuart himself is in many of these pictures and, when he’s not, he’s often the man behind the camera.
Sweet Lizzy Project, Technicolor. The Mavericks’ Raul Malo, a Cuban American, first encountered Sweet Lizzy Project when he was in Havana two years ago to film a PBS show about the city. He signed the band to the Mavericks’ independent label and helped move them to Nashville, where they recorded this second album, which also marks their U.S. debut.
A few of the pop/rock songs—such as “Turn Up the Radio,” which sounds a bit like an ABBA outtake—are too lightweight and MOR-oriented for my tastes, but it’s not difficult to understand Malo’s enthusiasm. The title cut displays the lead guitar prowess of cowriter and band leader Miguel Comas while numbers like “These Words” and the Latin-flavored “Tu Libertad” show off the substantial vocal talent of group namesake Lisset Diaz. The best track, though, is the catchy “The Flower’s in the Seed, where the Mavericks join in and Malo shares lead-vocal duties with Diaz.
Phast Phreddie & Thee Precisions, Limbo. It’s not easy for anyone to make it in the music business, but it’s particularly tough for those whose music defies categorization. That may be precisely why Phast Phreddie & Thee Precisions, an L.A. band from the early 80s, wound up being “a footnote of a footnote in the history of rock ’n’ roll,” as Phreddie himself puts it in the liner notes to this double album.
The record—which includes remastered versions of the group’s 1982 debut EP and 1984 debut LP plus demos, live tracks, singles, and other rarities—displays an outfit that is bursting with talent; but how do you describe an album whose original music ranges from garage rock to jump blues and that includes covers of artists and writers ranging from Dizzie Gillespie, Gato Barbieri, and Lester Young to James Brown, Willie Dixon, and Wilson Pickett—not to mention Electric Flag, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf, and Bob Dylan? It’s a wild ride indeed.
Phast Phreddie sax player Steve Berlin, who would later join the Blasters and Los Lobos, is the must-hear instrumentalist on these CDs, but there are lots of other strong contributors, including the late Jeffrey Lee Pierce (who cofounded the group, then left to front the Gun Club) and such guests as Plimsouls leader Peter Case, X drummer D.J. Bonebrake (here on vibes), and Blasters guitarist Dave Alvin.
Grant Peeples, Bad Wife. Aside from a bonus track, this album consists entirely of folksinger Grant Peeples’s renditions of songs by female writers. He says in the liner notes that no male artist in the history of recorded music has ever made an album of women’s songs. That’s not quite true, but there aren’t many others, which is rather amazing when you consider how many albums consist of covers of songs by male writers. But being first in this regard is not why Peeples made the record; he created it to expose songs that have touched him over the years and also to mark the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.
The composers, all of whom have worked with Peeples at various times over the last dozen years, include at least a few names you’ll probably recognize; Eliza Gilkyson is represented, for example, as is Carrie Elkin. Most of the contributors are pretty obscure, though, which makes their material’s consistent excellence seem particularly striking. After listening to the intimate lyrics of exquisitely crafted songs like Phoebe Blume’s “3:52 a.m.” and Dayna Kurtz’s “Venezuela,” you’ll understand why Peeples says the tunes on this album “entered me, worked me over, and never left.”
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.