Country star Gary Stewart died the week before Christmas, an apparent suicide. His frequent collaborator and wife of 41 years, Mary Lou Stewart, had passed away just weeks before. Stewart broke into the music business in 1968 as a songwriter but by 1975 was better known as a singer, with a string of hits including “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles),” which was number one on the Billboard country singles chart. His last studio album was released in 1993.
But for the fact that George Jones’s vocal cords aged to perfection during the same years, Stewart would have been the finest country singer of the 70s. He had a high tenor and a crazy vibrato, which he took to ever greater extremes as his career progressed. His hits were updated honky-tonk, hard and sleek at a time when Nashville was just starting to turn soft. “She’s Actin’ Single” and “Drinkin’ Thing” stand among the least compromised country sides of all time; “Your Place or Mine,” “I Had to Get Drunk Last Night,” “Single Again,” and “Honky Tonk Man” are not far behind. He recorded a rollicking take on Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time)” with the Jordanaires, and, though it wasn’t a hit, his “Caffein, Nicotine, Benzedrine” is one of the best of all trucker songs.
I’ll never forget the two times I saw Stewart perform live, in New York in the early 80s. The initial shock of seeing him take the stage, rail thin with bushy hair past his shoulders, was immediately supplanted by the greater shock of his band: there was no fiddle, no pedal steel, but it featured three Les Pauls (including his own) and absolutely roared. It was like watching Bob Dylan fronting Crazy Horse. I don’t make the Dylan comparison casually. Stewart’s singing on record was extreme enough; live it was off the charts. He shouted and growled and strangled words in the back of his throat. That famous vibrato grew so unwieldy it could have hurt someone. Performances of his hits bore as little resemblance to their studio counterparts as Dylan’s had on his ’66 tour of Europe. He was essentially a rock singer–of the Dylan/Ferry/Rotten school–trapped in a country career. Stewart’s 1981 appearance on Austin City Limits, a tough five-song set, only hints at how wild his live show was.
In 1979 Stewart wrote a song called “Shady Streets” with Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers Band. It’s a departure from the usual honky-tonk formula, a strange song that sounds more like Van Morrison than Webb Pierce. The tune drifts back and forth between two chords as Stewart spins mysteriously ordinary lyrics about long walks on sad Sunday afternoons. A simple steel guitar figure repeats over and over. It’s the one Gary Stewart record that could be described as hypnotic.
“Shady Streets” was a minor hit but Stewart’s single greatest performance remains unreleased, a heart-stopping demo of another of his own compositions, “Harlan County Highway.” A studio version of the song, polished to the point of anonymity, came out on the terrible 1980 album Cactus and a Rose, conceived as Stewart’s rock crossover. But the demo–one guitar, bass, drums, and a wrenching vocal–is riveting, a hill-country soul ballad.
“I was born…one stormy night,” he sings, and the world stops turning.
Daddy died inside a mine
Mama cried but she kept going
I quit school and took a job
Mama begged me not to take
Of running ‘tucky shine
Down the Harlan County Highway
The song sounds both a hundred years old and like it’s writing itself on the spot. The performance is so stark, so still, that whole lives seem to pass between snare shots. Every line is sadder than the last. The singer marries, has a son, the marriage fails, he takes off. Things get weird in the third verse:
Down the road a piece
Where the ponies run
Where a man can turn a dollar
Into a hundred on a hunch
He can buy his dreams
Or Heaven for a smile
Temptations on every corner
Seven corners every mile
Then the recording abruptly fades. It’s as dramatic a recording as Hank Williams’s “Ramblin’ Man.”
Gary Stewart’s live appearances over the last several years were limited to his hometown of Fort Pierce, Florida, and semiregular shows in Texas. He was 58 years old.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Juan Brown, the Stuart News.