Wynn Stewart – The Best of the Challenge Masters
A misleadingly little-known figure from the West Coast country scene of the 1950s and 60s, Stewart first came to my attention via his 1959 hit Wishful Thinking included on Rhino Records indispensable Hillbilly Fever series. That song is the first of 29 tracks on this exemplary reissue that attempts, quite successfully, to make a case for Stewart deserving the kind of unanimous regard and renown granted fellow West Coast legends Buck Owens and Merle Haggard the latter of whom played bass early on in Stewarts band and had his first hit with the Stewart-penned Sing a Sad Song.
Topping the list of Stewarts considerable gifts is his voice, an effortlessly smooth, slightly twangy tenor that serves as an ideal vehicle for the kind of two-and-a-half-minute country-pop classics he cranks out with consistency and ease on this disc. Among the contents are a modest stock of Stewarts own tunes plus a few co-writes; a healthy handful of songs by Stewarts close friend, country hitmaking kingpin Harlan Howard; and a couple of duets with Howards first wife, Jan Howard.
Not only does this music make for deliciously pleasant listening, it also is clearly an influence on modern-day artists seeking inspiration from country classics. For example, Ive always heard Monte Warden touted as a Buddy Holly revivalist, which he is but it seems clear from listening to Donna On My Mind and She Just Tears Me Up that Warden has taken his share of hints from Stewart as well.
Stewart, who died in 1985 at his home in Hendersonville, Tenn., at the age of 51, never really got his due as a prime figure in country music history, despite a modest string of hits. The Best of the Challenge Masters offers ample evidence that he earned a greater place in the ranks of the greats but more importantly, its just a hell of a lot of fun to listen to, day after day after day.