Gary Stewart had a voice that could make angels weep. It was filled with loneliness, heartbreak and obsession. His trembling vibrato and world-weary raggedness spoke of the darker secrets that lurked inside the man’s heart. Gary was spooked by a lot in life and tried to deal with it in the ways that many of us do: drugs and alcohol. When his wife of 43 years, Mary Lou, died of pneumonia in 2003, Stewart’s shaky connection with mortality unraveled entirely and he ended it all with a gunshot to the head. In the 59 years he lived, Stewart left a legacy of some of the finest, purest and realest country songs ever written. Heartfelt, but free of cornball sentiment, his sad tunes are the very definition of “tears in your beer” country. And the cat could rock. His upbeat numbers are stripped-down, no frills, dance floor fillers that honky tonk with the best of Buck Owens, Joe Ely, Steve Earle and The Flying Burrito Brothers.
I discovered Gary Stewart right around the time punk was starting to break. His 1975 album Out Of Hand appealed to me in the same ways that The Clash and The Ramones eventually did. Stewart made songs that were free of artifice and posturing. His writing was to the point and primal. There was no gloss. His distaste for the slickness of Nashville and the Hee Haw attitude of a lot of country stars made him an outsider in the staid and predictable country music industry and therefore considered “difficult.”
Stewart didn’t like being confined to a particular kind of music. He may have played country and western music but he had a rocker’s sensibility and wasn’t afraid to create music that at times was so emotionally stark and intense that the major labels didn’t know what to do with it. Fortunately, RCA records managed to release a bunch of Stewart’s albums without fucking with him too much. They are among the greatest records, of any genre, to be put to vinyl. The first thing I did when my band was signed to RCA was to demand free copies of all of Stewart’s RCA recordings. They were the best thing I ever got from the label.
If any musician deserves a biography and documentary, it’s Gary Stewart. The closest thing we’ve got is a short, but insightful, bio on Stewart called “Little Junior, King Of The Honky Tonks: The life and death of Gary Stewart” written by Jimmy McDonough, who also wrote the very fine Neil Young biography Shakey.
There’s very little video of Stewart on YouTube that gives you a real sense of the artist. Most of the stuff is either poorly shot amateur footage or prettified crap from various mainstream country network shows. Stewart shined in dives. Here’s a couple of clips that I feel capture some of the soulfulness of the man.
This first video is from the early ‘80s and features Stewart in a TV studio in Hazard, Kentucky singing “Silver Cloud,” a song he wrote in a graveyard in Dallas (McDonough says Atlanta).
The second video is from some TV show broadcast in the late ‘70s. Gary’s voice is tentative at first but grows stronger as the song progresses. It’s hard to tell if he’s uncomfortable in a TV studio or just in the grip of the deep lament that is “In Some Room Above The Street,” a song that compresses what seems a lifetime of longing into a few heartbreaking verses. This feels like country noir, something Jim Thompson might have written if he’d had a heart.
If you’re interested in exploring more of Stewart’s musical legacy here’s a good place to start.