Marty Stuart Recounts His Spiritual Journey to Make “The Pilgrim”

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photo by Glenn Cook

Pretty soon Congress will be in session. Marty Stuart is raising funds for his new museum in his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi. There’s a chance to have your own name on a pew in what will be known as Marty Stuart’s Congress of Country Country Music Museum.

A visit to the website reveals the museum will be Coming Soon and describes its purpose, ”Through a lifelong awareness to protect and preserve country music’s legacy: Marty Stuart has assembled a collection that spans over 20,000 pieces to tell a rich, emotional and personal story of the lives of our common heritage.”

All that it portends and all I know about Stuart makes me think that this is the country music equivalent of the baseball field in Field of Dreams. If you build it, we shall come.

I first had this mystical sense of Stuart when I stepped into the birthplace and family cabin of country pioneer A.P. Carter on the property of the Carter Fold. It now sits on the property in Hiltons, Virginia where the pharmacy he ran after his days in the Carter Family and is now a Carter Family museum.

“You know Marty Stuart was responsible for this,” a volunteer told me of the historical monument. He had a gleam in his eyes when he said it. It wasn’t so much a fact as something that bore greater witness to the mystical aura that hovers around Stuart, the great country music preservationist.

Stuart has just published an elaborate tabletop book The Pilgrim: A Wall- to-Wall Odyssey (BMG). The book includes a CD of the record Stuart made more than twenty years ago (along with ten bonus tracks), a concept project inspired by true life events in his hometown. It chronicles the struggles he went through to create what is his most revered album. 

Stuart admits he had been a youthful picking legend but now was striving for a creative breakthrough. The record, which featured a slew of guests and country legends such as Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Earl Scruggs and Dolly Parton, was initially rejected by his record company and marked a personal turning point.

The book is a treasure trove of Stuart’s own Americana landscape, featuring many photographs he shot of gospel singers, South Dakota Native American Indians and backwoods circus performers he met along the way. Among the striking pictures of country music royalty whose path Stuart crossed, there is a Polaroid picture taken by his mother Hilda of a young twelve-year old boy alongside bluegrass legend Bill Monroe. Monroe gave him his mandolin pick and told the young boy to take it home and learn how to use it. Stuart took the advice to heart and later as an adult can be seen playing with him in the book. 

When Stuart began recording what became The Pilgrim, he got the news of his passing, the words of “The Pilgrim” came to him and it provided a creative jumping off point. In the new book, Stuart takes you along the journey that led to the finished album.

Throughout the book, the flow and cadence of Stuart’s writing reminds of the lyrical flow of Bruce Springsteen’s memoir Born to Run. Stuart’s deep introspective reflections and cadence reveals his spiritual quest and struggle for greater expression—and being open to be in the right mindset to allow inspiration to come.

The book finds Stuart, inheriting the torch from his country brethren who adopted him and passed on their blessings as a favored son. 

One sense a sort of divine presence that seems to follow Stuart. There’s a sense of destiny that’s shaped his life. Stuart briefly mentions the story of how when he was eleven, he went to the Choctaw Fair to see the country singer Connie Smith. He writes it was love at first sight. On his way home, he told his mother that one day he would marry her. Twenty-seven years later he did.

Stuart recounts after their marriage vows had been spoken, a lightning storm flashed in all directions of the sky. “God performed a light show for us that evening that was beyond words. I chose to believe it was a wedding gift of confirmation from the Creator.”

Stuart’s young love of bluegrass was album covers of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs he hung in his bedroom. During the making of The Pilgrim, it led him to seek out the illustrator Thomas B. Allen. Stuart’s visit led him into a creative direction that he details in wonderful detail.

“The word ‘art’ appears twice in the name Marty Stuart,” Allen says. “Follow your heart and grow into your name. It shouldn’t take more than a lifetime, although it seems you are on your way,” the artist told him.

The approach to the book has his trademark flair for preservation. It’s  less a scrapbook than the roadmap of a journey and assessment of the mysteries of creativity with the vantage of time and distance.

In the wake of The Pilgrim’s being passed over by his record company, Stuart sought the advice of his mentor Johnny “J.R.” Cash. As Stuart writes, with that Johnny Cash voice of ages, he proclaimed, “Your Pilgrim record will come back around someday I assure you!”

All these years later it sounds prophetic but for Marty Stuart, maybe that’s not all surprising.


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