Country Heritage: Gary Stewart
A few years ago, the venerable Ralph Stanley issued an album titled A Short Life of Trouble: Songs of Grayson and Whitter. Neither Grayson nor Whitter, a musical partnership of the late 1920s, lived to be fifty years old. Beyond that I don’t know much about the duo, but the title certainly would apply to the life of Gary Stewart.
Gary Stewart was a hard rocking, hard drinking artist who arrived at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Often described as “too country for rock radio and too rock for country radio”, Gary simply arrived on the market at the wrong time for his rocking brand of hard-core honky-tonk music to achieve general acceptance, for his music was neither outlaw nor countrypolitan, the two dominant strains of country music during the 1970s.
Gary Stewart was born in Kentucky, the son of a coal miner who suffered a disabling injury when Gary was a teenager. As a result Gary’s family relocated to Fort Pierce, Florida, where Gary learned to play guitar and piano and started writing songs. Playing the clubs at night, while working a full-time job in an airplane factory, Gary had the good fortune to meet Mel Tillis. Mel encouraged Gary to travel to Nashville to pitch his songs. While early recording efforts for minor labels failed to interest radio, Gary achieved some success pitching songs to other artists. Among the early efforts were “Poor Red Georgia Dirt”, a 1965 hit for Stonewall Jackson and “Sweet Thang and Cisco” a top ten record for Nat Stuckey in 1969 . Other artists also recorded his songs, most notably Billy Walker (“She Goes Walking Through My Mind,” “Traces of a Woman,” “It’s Time to Love Her”) and Cal Smith (“You Can’t Housebreak a Tomcat”, “It Takes Me All Night Long”).
In 1968 Gary was signed by Kapp Records where he recorded several unsuccessful singles. Disheartened, Gary headed back to Fort Pierce, again playing the skull orchards and juke joints.
Sometimes an artist needs help discovering his musical muse. Sometimes, as in the case of Hank Williams Jr, that help comes in the form of a near calamity that forces the artist to reassess matters. Other times that help comes in the form of a musical mentor to help mold and shape the raw talent. In the late 1960s, Gary started pitching material to Jerry Bradley, who would soon assume a position of prominence with RCA, bringing Gary with him in the process, where he hooked up with producer Roy Dea. Like Fred Foster with Roy Orbison or Ken Nelson with Sonny James, Dea seemed to know how to extract the best from Gary Stewart. This meant prominent steel guitar and a notable absence of the trappings of the “Nashville Sound” such as strings and vocal choruses.
After an initial cover of the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man” , which charted at #63 , Gary released “Drinkin’ Thing” which reached #10. The song was a stunning piece of honky-tonk released at a time when honky-tonk was almost extinct, replaced by “Nashville Sound” recordings and by “Outlaw County”. It harkened back to the earlier era of Ernest Tubb and Floyd Tillman, but with lyrics far more arch than either of them would have recorded. “Drinkin’ Thing” was followed by his first #1 record “Out Of Hand” (#1 Cashbox, #4 Billboard) and then by his biggest hit “She’s Actin‘ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)” which reached #1 on all of the charts . As John Morthland put it in his classic book The Best of Country Music: “Stewart knows all about bow-legged country girls and blustering men, empty beds and emptied bottles, wedding bands and wandering eyes. He’ll be happy to tell you more than you need to know about drinking too much and going home with the wrong person – or worse yet, going home alone because the right person went home home with the wrong person.”
Out Of Hand was Gary’s country masterpiece, containing all three of Gary’s top ten hits, as well as a song Gary wrote that was a #1 hit in 1974 for Conway Twitty in “I See The Want-to In Your Eyes“ . It was also the only Gary Stewart album that was sufficiently country that all of the tracks could be played on country radio.
At heart Gary was really a rocker with some country sensitivities and subsequent records were more rock than country, although still too country to gain much acceptance on rock radio. After the three top ten records on Out Of Hand, Gary would only ring up six more top twenty records, with “Your Place Or Mine” reaching #11 in 1977, the bitter “Ten Years of This” reaching #16 in 1977 and “Whiskey Trip” reaching #16 in 1978. Along the way Gary recorded a song that might be regarded as his theme song in “Flat Natural Born Good-Timin’ Man” which reached #20 in 1975 as the official follow up to “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)” . After “Whiskey Trip” Gary would never again reach the top thirty.
Dea split from RCA in 1980, a year which saw Gary release the Chips Moman-produced Cactus and a Rose which featured Southern rockers Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts, Mike Lawler, and Bonnie Bramlett as guest artists.
Gary remained on RCA through 1983, his last RCA recordings being part of a misguided pairing with Dean Dillon. RCA hoped to (a) revive Gary’s flagging career and (b) introduce Dean Dillon to the American public. While there were some interesting recordings released, none of the duet recordings reached the top forty, which was to be expected since Stewart’s wild, vibrato-laden tenor voice does not lend itself to duets and Dean Dillon’s voice does not lend itself to singing.
Released by RCA in 1983, Gary issued a few singles on minor labels, returning to Florida where he indulged the honky-tonk life of alcohol and drugs. During this period his son Gary Joseph committed suicide, apparently a result of drugs or alcohol.
Toward the end of the decade Gary pulled himself together, emerging on Hightone Records, where, reunited with Roy Dea, he issued some critcally acclaimed albums but no hits. Gary continued touring playing to large and enthusiastic crowds but on November 26 ,2003, Mary Lou, his wife of 43 years, died of pneumonia. Gary was unable to live without her and committed suicide, his body being discovered on December 16, 2003 by his daughter’s boyfriend and Bill Hardaman, a long-time friend of Gary’s.
There are three vinyl albums of interest to fans of honky-tonk country. The first is the RCA classic Out Of Hand, the second is an album that MCA issued of Kapp material in 1975 titled You’re Not The Woman You Used To Be (featuring songs written by Gary with friend Bill Ethridge), and the third is the RCA Greatest Hits which includes the big three plus his other top twenty singles except “You’re Not The Woman You Used To Be” which was an old Kapp recording released by MCA in 1975.
Other RCA albums will lean more heavily toward Southern Rock, although there are songs on each of them that fans of traditional country music might enjoy. Many fans of Southern Rock consider his 1978 offering Little Junior to be his best album, with as hard-edged a collection of songs as one is ever likely to hear. “Whiskey Trip” “Tequila After Midnight” and “Little Junior” are the standout tracks, but even the classic country tunes such as “Honky Tonkin’ “ and the Louvin Brothers classic “You’re Running Wild” have a hard edge to them.
Given his relative lack of commercial success, Gary Stewart is well represented on CD. Recently available CDs include the following:
The Essential Gary Stewart – This is a collection of Gary’s biggest hits on RCA plus a few key album tracks.
Best of the Hightone Years – Gary had no real hits on Hightone, but this CD is a nice collection of late 80s – early 90s tracks for a gutsy independent label
Cactus And A Rose/Collector’s Series – an odd two-fer of the RCA material with the Moman-produced Cactus And A Rose album coupled with one of RCA’s variations of a hits collection.
Steppin’ Out/Little Junior – a two-fer of RCA material consisting of Gary’s two best quasi-Country/quasi-Southern Rock albums.
Brand New – Gary’s 1988 comeback album on Hightone, a good effort throughout.
Live At Billy Bob’s – a nice, slightly post-peak recording of Gary before a live audience. The voice is a little frayed but it’s still worth having.
Brotherly Love / Those Were The Days – this set is comprised of the album and the mini-album RCA issued of Gary dueting with Dean Dillon, plus a bunch of Dean Dillon solo recordings, many of which later became hits for others.
Several other CDs have been available at various times over the years so search of stores that sell used product may yield additional titles such as Out Of Hand and I’m A Texan.