Gary Stewart: 1945 to 2003
Thirty years ago, Gary Stewart’s crazed intensity sparked and glowed like a neon bar sign across a Nashville struggling to cope with Outlaws, long-haired men, loud guitars and blue jeans. His voice was a serrated nerve ending; his leonine mane and lithe presence stood out in a time of conformity.
Born in Letcher County, Kentucky, a coal miner’s son, Stewart grew up in Florida. He married at 17, worked day jobs, and played blues, country and rock in clubs. Fellow Floridian Mel Tillis’ advice brought him to Nashville in the mid-1960s. He and ex-bandmate Billy Eldridge wrote songs for Owen Bradley’s Forest Hills Music, managed by Owen’s son Jerry Bradley. On Stewart’s own Kapp Records singles, bland, late-era Nashville Sound production couldn’t quite tame his keening vocal style on “Sweet ‘Tater And Cisco” or “You’re Not The Woman You Used To Be”.
Like many others, Stewart grew disheartened by Nashville. He returned to Florida in the early ’70s, but a demo tape of countrified Motown covers he recorded before leaving brought him back to Nashville. RCA producer Roy Dea, himself a maverick, had heard that tape. Jerry Bradley, Dea’s boss at RCA, already knew the score, but insisted the singer tone down an image considered too wild and funky for 1973 Nashville.
He played the game, and initially it seemed to pay off. In 1974-75 he had three Top-10 hits in a row: “Drinkin’ Thing”, “Out Of Hand”, and the cathartic # 1 “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)”. The cover of his 1975 debut album Out Of Hand featured a leisure-suit-clad Stewart sitting at a piano. At a time when Jerry Lee Lewis’ piano-based country hits were commonplace, he seemed…fashionable.
Stewart and Dea upped the ante on his second RCA album. Steppin’ Out offered up honky-tonk along with southern rockers such as “Flat Natural Born Good-Timin’ Man”, featuring Stewart’s Duane Allman/Dickey Betts-style slide guitar, still a fairly exotic sound in 1976 Nashville.
Their direction shifted again in 1977. The bluesy “Your Place Or Mine” grazed the Top 10, but the album of the same name went further. Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Nicolette Larson sang backup on a mix of country and southern rockers; the album also featured a searing traditional bluegrass arrangement of Willie Nelson’s “Pretend I Never Happened”.
By then, though, any mass acceptance of Stewart’s honky-tonk existentialism seemed lost in the dust. A few more RCA singles charted, among them the transcendent “Whiskey Trip”; but, as with Waylon and Willie, albums were Stewart’s medium, which posed a problem. Rocking, bluesy efforts such as 1978’s Little Junior seemed neither fish nor fowl, so RCA never marketed Stewart to the Hank Williams Jr. audience that was clearly in sync with his vision.
As Dea told me in a 1990 interview, “If [RCA] had shifted gears, that side of him could have taken off. ‘Drinkin’ Thing’ was over with. You couldn’t keep doing those formulated things.” His final RCA albums with singer-songwriter Dean Dillon sounded forced and ill-focused.
Stewart’s demons waxed in the ’80s, fueled by substance abuse and an old back injury. Mary Lou, his wife since 1962, left him at one point, their relationship further tested by son Gary Joseph’s 1988 suicide. To the surprise of many, Stewart rebounded. He and Mary Lou began writing together, and he soon gave Dea, long departed from RCA, a demo of their composition “Brand New Whiskey”. The producer approached rising indie label HighTone, whose owners were Dea/Stewart fans.
Brand New, released in 1988, was the first of three acclaimed HighTone albums. Stewart, his voice deeper and more knowing, seemed revitalized. Unconcerned with hits or performing in larger venues, he found his niche in smaller clubs and dancehalls, particularly in Texas, often to turnaway crowds. In 2003, he recorded an album at Billy Bob’s Texas, and they expected him back in late December.
Then Mary Lou, the one constant in his bumpy life, died of pneumonia in November. Burying her was a blow that Gary Stewart simply couldn’t abide. His grandson found him at home December 16, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the neck. The pain he’d so brilliantly chronicled in song and overcome in the past had become far too real.