Celebrating the life and music of Gary Stewart
Ten years ago, the death of singer Gary Stewart went by virtually unnoticed outside of hardcore country music circles. Stewart, 58, shot himself in his trailer home just before Christmas 2003, only two weeks after his wife Mary Lou died of pneumonia. They’d been married for 43 years. Do the math, because there’s a country song in that fact alone. That’s even before you know that their teenage son Joey was diagnosed with an incurable disease in 1987, and shot himself in the same trailer 15 years before.
Any account of Stewart’s life and career naturally veers towards the sad and the tragic side of life, but heartache wasn’t the only part – or even the main part – of the story. Stewart’s music was more about defiance than self pity, right from the time when his wild, Jerry Lee Lewis-ish vibrato earned him his first Nashville hit in 1974, with a song called ‘Drinkin’ Thing” ( “I’ve got this drinkin’ thing / to keep from thinkin’ things…And its a lonely thing / but its the only thing / that keeps a foolish man in love hangin’ on.)
It wasn’t all about country. At the outset, his record producer Roy Dea had been bowled over by a demo tape of Stewart singing Motown. “I’m a hillbilly,” Dea told reporter Jimmy McDonough in the Village Voice : “but my background is rock’n’roll, rhythm and blues. Country’s kind of a bore. I never knew anyone who blew me away like Gary, an’ I seen Elvis, Hank Williams – all of ‘em. You get hooked on Stewart – he’s like a damn drug.”
As McDonough noted, what was even more like a damn drug was the drugs. Stewart happened to briefly hit big in Nashville around the same time that country- inflected rock groups like the Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker Band – I guess you could the Eagles in – were in the popular mainstream. Thin and maniacally intense, his long hair flying out from beneath a big black hat, Stewart had the misfortune to fall right between the cracks : he was always too rock’n’roll for Nashville, while still a bit too countryfied for the 1970s rock scene. It couldn’t last. As one of his sidemen later noted, “ He was one of those downward mobility guys.”
It didn’t help that Stewart never did have much in the way of a management plan or any discernible ambition. “I was downtown in the shopping mall one day,“ he told McDonough in 1988, looking back at his so-called career : “ and this kid came up and said ‘Aren’t you Gary Stewart?’ an’ I said ‘Nope.’ He said: ‘You sure?’ I said ‘Not me.’ Stardom was not a goal, nothin’ I ever chased.. It gets hard to scratch your ass out on the street, cause everybody’s lookin’ at ya.” The news got around. As McDonough added, “$50,000 A Year” He Hates Self” became the headline to one story in which Stewart reportedly compared himself to a circus freak, and pined for the days when he played music for nothing. That was to happen again, soon enough.
In case anyone has never heard of Gary Stewart, I’d like to pause and provide a few examples. “Silver Cloud” is the eery kind of performance that makes you wish someone had taken Stewart in hand during the late 1980s and focused him on being a sparsely arranged singer/ traditionalist, much as Rick Rubin did later with Johnny Cash. There’s a spooky intensity about Stewart in this clip and in the way he makes eye contact with the camera. That same intensity is present on several of his 1970s Nashville tracks too, but you often need to tunnel beneath some dated musical arrangements to find it. On “Silver Cloud” its close enough to touch.
As for the rest….”Single Again” is among the best of his 1970s honky tonk barfly songs. Great lyrics : “The old bars ain’t changed much / just a new face or two, when you’re outa touch.” The sentiments could easily sound like self pity, but for how he snarls “OUTA TOUCH” and that tips the scales from self-pity into something more like self loathing.
Moving right along, “Ten More Years of This” was a marital breakup song written by Wayne Carson, and the song unfurls with such fluidity that the great lyrics and vocals fly by almost unnoticed. Bob Dylan happened onto Stewart’s recording of this song in the mid-1970s, just as Dylan’s own ten year marriage to Sara Lowndes was falling apart, and Dylan has talked about how Stewart’s recording cast a spell over him, and he’d listen to it over and over again. Finally, from the early 1980s, “Are We Dreamin’ The Same Dream” is over-wrought and irritatingly over- arranged – yet it remains a great love song regardless :
When I’m sleeping by myself at night (sleeping alone)/ Without you it just don’t seem right / Do you know what I mean? / Are you dreaming the same dream?
Despite Stewart racking up a string of country hits in the mid to late 1970s (eg. “Drinkin’ Thing” and “She’s Acting Single (I’m Drinking Doubles)” Nashville quickly disowned him. Stewart retreated to Florida. Ten years of silence later, McDonough’s brilliant Village Voice profile briefly re-kindled interest in him, and Stewart cut some new music on the indie label Hightone. Disappointingly, the three Hightone albums were pale copies of his former style, and there’s a live album from the 1990s that should be avoided at all costs.
Probably, tragedy was always on the cards. Stewart was born in Jenkins, a classic Appalachian coal town in eastern Kentucky – reportedly, as one of nine children all given first names that began with the letter “G”. Today, there’s a stretch of highway named after him. It runs through his old hometown, past the mine where his father was maimed. Jenkins was a company town. Even today the Jenkins town website reads its own history like this:
“It has been said that the [Consolidated Coal] company brought the citizens of Jenkins into the world since they owned the only hospital, and it also escorted them out of this town since it owned the only funeral home.”
The Jenkins website contains an impressive list of town ordinances from the early 20th century, on matters such as the proper treatment of wandering hogs, the fines liable for fornication and adultery (no less than $20 and no more than $50 each time ) and the courtesies required towards God-worshipping citizens engaged in their ‘bornful” business. The bylaws have never been formally revoked. Jenkins lies at the foot of Pine Mountain, in Letcher County. That puts it next door to Harlan County, site of the current hit TV show Justified and a region famed for its music and its trade union history. The anthems “Which Side Are You On” and “Oh Death” were both part of the union struggles in ‘bloody Harlan’ during the 1930s.
For a New Zealander, this might just as well be Mars. As I said, self-pity is not the ruling sentiment here, and whenever it shows up in Stewart’s songs, the anger and headlong hunger for experience tend to drive it out. What lends Stewart’s music some of its tension is that you can feel him there deep inside his misery, yet fighting against it and the tradition that it came from – mainly, by tapping into the liberating potential of rock’n’roll. Wayne Carson, his co-writer, also wrote “ The Letter” – the song that launched another legendary 1970s flameout, Alex Chilton.
These days, I’m inclined more to the ballads than the juke joint uptempo stuff, which hasn’t lasted quite as well. In his interview with Jimmy McDonough, Roy Dea chose to blame Stewart’s career downslide on his southern Baptist heritage, regardless. “ When I’d call Gary in Florida, he’d be laying on the couch stoned and he’d tell me :’Roy, I’m rotten from the inside, rotten. I’m gonna lie here on this couch an’ I ain’t gonna bathe. I ain’t gonna shave until I get so rotten on the outside as I am on the inside.’ What a choice of words, right? Self destruction – look into any hillbilly black or white – and you’ll find it in most of ‘em to a degree. That’s why so many of ‘em flip flop, quit singin’ and playing in clubs and start preachin’ But it don’t make it, ‘cause you can’t go back. You can never go back.”
I’m not so sure. True, there is a hellhound in Gary Stewart’s music as palpable as in any music by Robert Johnson. Yet bad luck dogged his career choices, too. The upshot was that even after McDonough’s Village Voice article rescued him from obscurity, Stewart never got his head around any inclination to change his course, let alone how it might be done. In his articles, McDonough talks about demo recordings of solo voice + piano, or solo voice + guitar tracks that Stewart would bang out in his trailer, or at the drop of a hat when asked, or goaded, into it. New songs, hymns, old blues and pop songs, soul songs. Probably, that stuff will never see the light of day. Surely, some label like Tompkins Square should hunt down the demos wherever they may be, and issue them. If “Silver Cloud” is anything to go by, they could be golden.
For now though, only an imperfect musical legacy remains. And that’s still a lot. Stewart really touched the people who could cope with him. “I feel that God has put me here for Gary,” Mary Lou told McDonough in 1988, “just as he’s here for me. So I’ll never be without him – ‘til death. And then somewhere in time. I’ll find him,” she added with a laugh, “ because that’s how much I love him.” We should be so lucky.
Footnote A : This essay owes a major debt to the 1988 Village Voice article on Gary Stewart by Jimmy McDonough, which also contains the quotes above by Roy Dea, Mary Lou and Gary Stewart. If I could link to that article online, I would. The obituary that McDonough wrote about Stewart is available online though, and is highly recommended
Footnote B : If you’re interested in Stewart’s music, the ‘Out of Hand/Your Place Or Mine’ double CD is a killer collection, and/or ‘The Essential Gary Stewart’compilation on RCA is also a good place to start. As indicated above, I’d avoid the Hightone recordings, and the 1990s live album.