When Marty Stuart released The Pilgrim in 1999, the country music veteran knew — rightly — that the album was his first masterwork, and a career-altering one. He also figured it would hardly sell, and he was right about that, too.
“It never did go away," Stuart said over the phone from Jackson, Miss., a stop on a tour that will take him to Ardmore Music Hall on Friday. "People have brought their Pilgrim copies [to me] down through the years with their stories about how much the record touched them in various ways. That was meaningful to me.”
He recalled a conversation he had about the album with Johnny Cash, his one-time father-in-law.
“I always knew that, somewhere along the way, like John told me, this record will live again. It was too good to just fade away.”
Now it is back. The Pilgrim: A Wall-to-Wall Odyssey is a reissue of the album with 10 bonus tracks packaged in a lavish coffee-table book, with spectacular photos and Stuart’s eloquent narrative about the evolution of the project and what it has meant to him.
Sprinkled with cameos by such giants as Cash, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Earl Scruggs, and Ralph Stanley, The Pilgrim is an epic song cycle — a pilgrim’s progress — based on a true story from Stuart’s hometown of Philadelphia, Miss. Along the way, the music encompasses honky-tonk, country-rock, bluegrass, and more.
To make the album, the 61-year-old Stuart had to dig deeper than ever before.
“At the time the record came out, I had been part of the whole ‘90s country parade,” he said. “The music was loud and rocking. It wasn’t really country, it wasn’t really rock. It was just product. My efforts had pretty much run their course at that time.”
The Pilgrim “first and foremost restored my own credibility to myself. And the cred factor came back around from peers and from fans, and from scholars and serious music critics alike.”
Stuart has since lived up to the artistic standards he set with the album, doing the best work of his career as he and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, straddle the old and new worlds of country music.
“I like my station,” said Stuart, who at age 13 was playing mandolin in the band of bluegrass great Lester Flatt and later was a sideman for Cash. “I authentically came up from the era of the master architects [of country music], being trained up by them. But at the same time, we played 60-something shows last year with Chris Stapleton; we played with Tyler Childers last Friday at the Grand Old Opry.
“From Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family all the way up to Tyler Childers or whoever the hillbilly-of-the-moment is, I feel like we belong. There’s a bridge quality there.”
Stuart was a major presence in Ken Burns’ 16-hour documentary on country music that aired last fall on PBS. He calls the film “probably one of the greatest gifts country music has ever been given.” But while he remains a fervent champion of authentic country music, he’s not a prisoner of its traditions, which helps to give his music its progressive bent and stirring vitality.
“You can look behind you to tradition for inspiration, for knowledge, for wisdom,” he said. “But at some point you have to drop that and follow your heart to whatever you’re trying to do. Just trying to play honky-tonk music and keep music alive that was on the Grand Ole Opry 75 or 50 or 60 years ago, that can get old pretty quick.”
In the meantime, as he and the Superlatives tour — in addition to their local stop in Ardmore this week, they’ll be at the Met Philadelphia on July 31 on a bill with Steve Miller — Stuart takes satisfaction in seeing The Pilgrim gain in stature, and takes comfort in what he sees as a precedent.
“When I was working on the book, we were touring with Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman on the 50th anniversary of the Sweetheart of the Rodeo record,” he said, referring to the Byrds’ landmark 1968 country-rock album. “It’s similar in that the Sweetheart record came out and didn’t do much commercially. But over the years, it just keeps growing and growing, and won’t go away. It was a good reminder.”