Marty Stuart certainly knows how to keep fans guessing.
The singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who plied his trade in the bands of Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash proudly trumpets the charms of hillbilly music. At the same time, the guy with the big hair, who plays Sunday at the Crazy Horse in Santa Ana, isn't reluctant in the least to grab an electric guitar and crank it to 10.
His new album, "The Pilgrim," puts his feet firmly back on traditional soil.
The acoustic-driven recording not only features such country and bluegrass greats as Johnny Cash, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Earl Scruggs and Ralph Stanley, but some of it is played on guitars originally belonging to Hank Williams, Lester Flatt and Mother Maybelle Carter as well, a reflection of Stuart's passion for country-music artifacts.
"The Pilgrim" is an ambitious concept album--a song cycle, really--about love, guilt, alcoholism, death and redemption. The story, based on people Stuart knew--centers on the entanglements of a small-town beauty queen who inexplicably marries a local misfit named Norman.
After a brief period of marital happiness, the husband succumbs to feelings of suspicion and rage. In a fit of jealousy, Norman explodes one day and kills himself upon discovering that his wife's been involved with another man--the Pilgrim.
Although the Pilgrim never knew the woman was married, he flees in shame, drinking and traveling across the country before having an epiphany at his mother's grave just outside Bakersfield. He ultimately returns home to claim the woman he still loves.
The story is propelled by spirited, elegant music, ranging from pure country ("Reasons"), honky tonk ("Red, Red Wine and Cheatin' Songs") and bluegrass ("Harlan County") to tender folk ("Hobo's Prayer"), a rock-flavored burner ("Draggin' Around These Chains of Love") and a Johnny Cash reading of Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Sir Gallahad" (retitled here as "Outro.")
The album has been critically praised for the most part since its release last month. But will the public embrace a roots-driven concept album in the fluffy pop-country era of Shania Twain and Faith Hill?
"The only thing I can tell you is I was following my heart and soul, and this is where it's led me," Stuart, 40, said by phone earlier this week from his Nashville office. "My sixth sense told me it might take a while to catch on.
"Up front, I thought I'd get a critical hug and a commercial beating. But you know what? It doesn't really matter to me," he said. "I'll take whatever I've got coming because just the joy of letting MCA hand me enough rope to hang myself was more fun than you can imagine."
"This kind of project does, at least, challenge the system around here," he said. "Nashville has fallen into a zone where they run a kid by the mall, buy him a cowboy hat, stick a hit song in his mouth and put him in the revolving door of the machine.
"As long as you've got hits, life is very easy," he said. "But with something that comes out of the dark like this, you find out what kind of record company, management and band you really have."
Two events inspired the making of "The Pilgrim." The first was bluegrass-music innovator Bill Monroe's death in 1996, which Stuart said motivated him to do some soul-searching.
A short time later, he was asked to write songs for a play titled "Moonshine," written by a friend, Mary Willard--the wife of actor Fred Willard--who is still looking to get it produced in Los Angeles.
"Writing material for 'Moonshine' walked me through the steps of trying to tell a story," Stuart said. "I love the old mountain folk songs. They're simply newspaper reports--or tales--set to music.
"That's what I was after in 'Harlan County,' one of the first songs I wrote for 'The Pilgrim.' It tells of the events leading up to Norman's suicide. It seemed to me that Ralph Stanley was the perfect voice to pull it off," he said. "That pure, lonesome tenor of his . . . man, it's chilling. He is absolutely the last link between ancient tones of the old world and modernized country music."
The Mississippi-born Stuart discovered bluegrass listening to a Flatt & Scruggs record when he was 5. He says he fell in love with the music at 12 while attending a bluegrass festival on Father's Day in Bean Blossom, Ind. Stuart started playing mandolin in Lester Flatt's touring band a year later.
Over the years, he's toured and played sessions with Doc Watson, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Travis Tritt and Randy Travis, among others. For a spell during the '80s, Stuart joined the band of one of his all-time idols--and former father-in-law--Johnny Cash.
Still, despite his reverence for country music's rich heritage, Stuart is no purist. He corralled Mike Campbell from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers to play the 12-string guitar on "Draggin' Around These Chains of Love."
"Sure, I have roots that stretch way back, but sometimes, I do like playing country with a rock 'n' roll kick behind it," he said. "Why not? Why limit what you do just because someone else says you can't do this or do that?"
Stuart talks with enthusiasm about bringing country music into the 21st century, yet he laments some of the changes he's witnessed during this one.
"I'm a world traveler by trade, and the thing I struggle with sometimes is that we're losing touch with each other," he said. "When I first started out, every town had its own character, soul and set of values. Now, each place I pass through has the same franchises and cold, generic look."
"A little bit more of our hearts fade away with advances in technology," he said. "It used to be a precious thing to walk down to the mailbox and get a letter from an old friend. I guess I'm sounding like a dinosaur, but taking a pen and piece of paper to write to someone is fast becoming a thing of the past."
* Marty Stuart plays Sunday at the Crazy Horse Steak House, 1580 Brookhollow Drive, Santa Ana. 6:30 and 9:15 p.m. $38-$43. (714) 549-1512.