Marty’s last release on MCA, in 1999, was an ambitious concept album telling a story, inspired by a true story of passion, death and undyin love which took place in his Mississippi home town. He wrote all the songs, with occasional co-writers, and produced the album, with Tony Brown acting as Executive Producer. There are 20 tracks in all, but just under half are full length songs, with several instrumentals and some half-length numbers. Marty plays both the title role, of a man who unknowingly falls in love with a married woman, and the cuckolded husband who commits suicide. Possibly using a different singer to play one or other of the roles would have made the story clearer.
It opens with the whistle and chugging of a steam train, seguing into discord and orchestral strings (‘Intro’), and then launching into ‘Sometimes The Pleasure’s Worth The Pain’, a loud country rock chugger not too far removed from Marty’s hits, which he wrote with Gary Nicholson and might have been a hit single. It is not quite clear whether this is the voice of the cuckolded husband or the unwitting adulterer.
Emmylou Harris swoops in to sing the anguished first verse of the title track (labelled ‘Act I’), which is beautiful but feels incomplete, leading into the high lonesome bluegrass of ‘Harlan County’. This is a minute and a half of narrative telling the tale of the husband’s suicide on discovering the affair. Sounding like a traditional song, the lead vocal is taken by the legendary Ralph Stanley, who is perfect for it. This in turn leads into Marty singing the husband’s suicide note, the traditional country ‘Reasons’, with Pam Tillis’s exquisite harmony on the chorus. This is a real highlight, but for the sake of narrative clarity, it would have been more effective to use a guest vocalist on this for the husband’s voice – George Jones, for instance, who is underused with half a short track.
A short interlude entitled ‘Love Can Go To…’ provides the voice of the lover, claiming “I didn’t know she was married”.
‘Red Red Wine And Cheatin’ Songs’, the only single, failed to make an impact on country radio, but is a great song, with Pam Tillis on harmony again. Once more, I am not quite sure if this is supposed to be the husband or lover whose “baby went wrong” (I assume the former), but it is a great honky tonker about a man taking refuge in the bottle:
For ten long years not one single drop
Twelve months later I haven’t stopped
George Jones sings another narrative section, ‘Truckstop’, with Emmylou then playing the part of a waitress who encounters the lover (who we know from the liner notes has left town to escape the scandal) and labels him the “pilgrim” of the title.
The confessional ‘Hobo’s Prayer’ traces the pilgrim’s descent into rootless wandering, continued with the more contemporary and not very interesting ‘Goin’ Nowhere Fast’ where he realises he is making no progress. The part-spoken ‘The Observations of A Crow’ is poetic, atmospheric and jazzy, but while interesting and artistically adventurous, I’m not sure if I like it very much.
The steel-laced ‘The Greatest Love Of All Time’ has the man looking back regretfully before a long orchestral section which is a bit too much. In the country rock ‘Draggin’ Round These Chains Of Love’, he is exhausted by the years trying to escape his feelings; Emmylou Harris harmonises.
Ralph Stanley sings a second verse (or ‘Act II’) of the title track before Marty then brings us the pilgrim’s ‘Redemption’ scene, as one night in a churchyard he surrenders to God. He then sings the six-minute long Act III of ‘The Pilgrim’, a beautifully paced confessional in which he admits,
Pilgrims walk, but not alone
There’s been a hand to guide me along the way
And it held me up when I went astray
A recitation by Johnny Cash of lines from Tennyson’s ‘Sir Galahad’ about finding the Holy Grail, and one sung line, lead into an instrumental version of ‘Mr John Henry, Steel Driving Man’ by Marty and Earl Scruggs to end the collection.
This album was critically acclaimed, but lacked commercial appeal, and Marty subseqquently left the label. The whole is more than the sum of its parts; at times the unconventional tracking verges on the pretentious and not all the songs are particularly strong in their own right. But even if not everything pays off, the artistic ambition is laudable and the project is worth hearing.