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In 1984, Johnny Cash recorded a song called "Chicken in Black." It was a minor hit, reaching No. 45 on the country charts.

It was a story song, written by Gary Gentry, a truck driver who also wrote "The Corvette Song" for George Jones and "The Ride," about a hitchhiker who gets a ride to the outskirts of Nashville courtesy of Hank Williams' ghost. David Allan Coe cut that one, and Tim McGraw sometimes covers it in concert. So it's fair to say "Chicken in Black" is not the best song Gentry ever wrote.

But it might have been the worst thing Cash ever recorded, particularly since it was released as a single--it spent 11 weeks in the charts--and Columbia produced a video for it, which featured a cameo from Roy Acuff and Cash dressed for some obscure reason in the cape and tights of a downmarket superhero. (It wasn't released at the time, but you can find on YouTube, though you really shouldn't.) Later, in one of his autobiographies, Cash would say he recorded the song as an act of self-sabotage, to spite those record company executives too stupid to realize he'd recorded a terrible song on purpose, but others remember it differently. They say in 1984, Cash was desperate for a hit, and he and his new producer, Countrypolitan master Billy Sherill, thought that "Chicken" could be a novelty hit along the lines of "A Boy Named Sue."

Anyway, Columbia unceremoniously dropped Cash from the label a couple of years later, and he spent a few years wandering in the wilderness, playing to crowds of dozens in Branson theaters, before he was rehabilitated by Rick Rubin, who returned the focus to Cash's naked, reverb-free voice and simple but effective guitar playing. So we remember Johnny Cash not as corny joke but as an American monument, Rasputin crossed with Robert Mitchum's preacher from Night of the Hunter, a spiritual godfather to punks and rebels who nevertheless kept faith with the great tradition of country music.

Marty Stuart probably played on "Chicken in Black." A member of Cash's road band, he played guitar and mandolin on most of the tracks Sherill recorded with Cash in 1981 and 1984, for an album that was shelved until 2012. That he was close to Cash is undeniable; he married Cash's daughter Cindy in 1983, and perhaps even more tellingly, he appeared in Cash's very first concept video, one made for Cash's 1981 hit "The Baron."

In both the song and video, the titular character (Cash) is an elegant pool shark in hand-tooled boots who shows up in a small town to denude a young hustler named Billy Joe (Stuart) of his stake. After the Baron cleans the kid out, he puts up his last possession, his mother's wedding ring. The Baron quickly recognizes the ring as the one he'd given the wife he'd abandoned 20 years before and Billy Joe as the son he'd never known he'd had.

Stuart had been a child prodigy, playing mandolin with Lester Flatt at age 13. In 1986, he left Cash's band (though he maintained a close relationship with his old boss until Cash died in 2003) after signing his own record deal with Columbia and recorded an eponymous solo album, which yielded the Top 20 country hit "Arlene." But Columbia refused to release his second album, perhaps in part because Stuart had vigorously protested the label's dropping Cash from its roster.

In 1988, in the wake of his divorce from Cindy Cash, Stuart retreated to his hometown of Philadelphia, Miss., where he played fiddle in a bluegrass band led by his mentor Roland White, with whom who he'd played in Flatt's band. Stuart signed a deal as a solo artist with MCA in 1989. His album Hillbilly Rock put him in the forefront of the neotraditional country movement and evoked comparisons to artists like Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle.

As of the mid-'90s, country music became perhaps the country's dominant musical genre (hip-hop aficionados might argue) Stuart could have staked out an agreeably remunerative career.

"The '90s were an incredible decade for country music as an industry," Stuart told Lauren Daley of SouthCoastToday, the online iteration of the New Bedford, Mass., newspaper Standard-Times, last month. "We all kept playing louder and louder and getting more buses and more trucks and one day I woke up and said, 'I don't like the way I sound. I don't like the way I feel. I don't like the way this looks. I need to get back to the heart and soul of country music.'"

And so Stuart, in 1999, recorded The Pilgrim, a cycle of songs about a story he'd heard about a tragic love triangle--a prickly man called "Cross-eyed Norman" who marries the beautiful Rita, who is unfaithful to him with an unsuspecting lover, the title pilgrim. As it's a full-blown country opera where Stuart was joined by a cast of legendary voices in various roles (Ralph Stanley, George Jones, Emmylou Harris) that ended with Stuart's old chief Cash reciting the final lines of Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Sir Galahad," The Pilgrim was no one's ideal of a commercially viable country album.

It didn't sell great, peaking at No. 63 on the country charts. MCA didn't renew Stuart's recording contract. It would be four years before he'd release another album.

"I knew it would probably cost me my record deal, and my manager, and my band and all those things," he told Daley. Which it did. Commercially, it didn't work, but spiritually it did.

Stuart kept on making music of uncommon quality that both transcended and dithered genre labels. There was rock and mischief and twang and a jazzy love of complication in his work, as well as a certain fealty to the idea of country music as the plainsong of working folks. If you saw much of Ken Burns' recent episodic documentary Country Music, you saw a lot of Stuart, and you might have been impressed by his seriousness of purpose and offhand erudition.

And like a lot of records that didn't sell well when they were first released, The Pilgrim found purchase in the hearts of a few, who talked it up to their friends. It's a little like Willie Nelson's Red-Headed Stranger. A little like Pete Townshend's ambitious projects. It sort of anticipated the O, Brother Where Art Thou? album which was released about a year later. Maybe it was a little ahead of its time.

But it got a special 20th-anniversary release a couple of months ago, and Stuart and his band the Fabulous Superlatives are bringing it to the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Tech's Center for Humanities and Arts At 7 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $45 and $75. Call (501) 812-2387or visit tinyurl.com/tqungdd.

If you go, understand it's probably not cool to call out a request for "Chicken in Black."

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Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@arkansasonline.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

Editorial on 12/03/2019

Print Headline: PHILIP MARTIN: Ode to Billy Joe

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