The Unbroken Circle is a recurring feature where I discuss classic country songs
There’s two points in time, arguably, where rock ‘n’ roll threatened country music’s existence. The first one threatened its business structure, where teenagers in the ‘50s preferred Elvis Presley over Lefty Frizzell. Granted, country music during this time period wasn’t marketed to a younger demographic, but the onslaught of rock ‘n’ roll certainly decimated country record sales and an interest in the music in general, to which the industry responded with “The Nashville Sound” – an attempt to polish the genre’s rougher edges in favor of something more sophisticated and presentable.
The second point in time where rock ‘n’ roll threatened country music, however, spoke to more of a cultural divide. Rising country artists in the ‘70s were products of their influences, and that included both country and rock artists. All it took was someone like Johnny Cash to show how one could bridge that divide.
And what that divide reflected was a common point of tension in the country music genre’s history – tradition versus progress. Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson could get along just fine with long-haired hippies who liked their country music with an edge, and Gram Parsons remained the misunderstood kid trying to bridge those same gaps during his short life. But there were, also – and perhaps understandably – those always worried that the next new trend would strip country music of its core.
So, then, what the hell does one do with a performer who sounds like the love child of Jerry Lee Lewis and Hank Williams?
Enter Gary Stewart, born in Letcher Country, Kentucky in 1944. As most of these stories go, Stewart gravitated toward music at an early age, and by the time he was a teenager he played country and rock music in bars around Fort Pierce and Okeechobee, Florida. During one particular set, Mel Tillis heard him and encouraged him to move to Nashville.
Initially a songwriter, Stewart penned two hits for Billy Walker – “When A Man Loves A Woman” and “She Goes Walking Through My Mind” – both of which peaked at No. 3 on the charts in 1970. Stewart, however, didn’t just belong to country music or its establishment. A stint as pianist with Charley Pride’s band introduced him to a wider public, but after seeing the Allman Brothers in 1971, Stewart went home determined to merge country with the increasingly popular southern-rock sound. Before he left, he cut a demo tape featuring country versions of old Motown rock classics. Producer Roy Dea found the tape and encouraged Stewart to return to Music City to sign a record deal with RCA in 1973.
Dea once claimed there was no one who could blow him away like Stewart. Even with the growing outlaw movement within country music in the 1970s, Stewart’s albums and live shows were louder and wilder in comparison with what most Nashville artists offered then. His erratic vibrato and snarling renditions of classic hits made him a unique presence in the genre, but it may have been a little more than Nashville and country music fans could handle at the time. Stewart’s legacy is intact, though one could argue his influence is underrated; he never did reach the upper echelons of stardom, after all.
If anything, it’s what makes his 1975 debut album, Out Of Hand, a true landmark release for its time. It’s the true country-rock fusion Stewart had envisioned earlier in his career, but it’s not the album one plays on a jukebox when they want to cut loose. It’s a decidedly dark listen meant to be heard alone, preferably with the shades pulled down and the lights off. It’s marked by regret, made for those ailing from a hangover knowing full well they’ll do it again tomorrow. A master of self-destruction, Stewart used his own heartbreak to paint pictures conveying the broken dreams of those who connected with his music. Authenticity can’t be measured; it’s just something you feel, and though it’s dangerous to throw around that word too often, it’s the only way to describe that album and Stewart’s music in general. Like most country music legends, he was quite candid about his demons through song.
It’s that album that also produced Stewart’s only consistent run of hits: the title track (at No. 4), “Drinkin’ Thing” (at No. 10) and his only No. 1 hit, “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles).”
That No. 1 single was a difficult record to make, too; Stewart thought the arrangement was “rather confusing,” but with Dea at the production helm, they kept overdubbing instruments – putting some in and taking some off – until Dea got just the right sound he and Stewart wanted. It sounds like a seamless cut to this day, even in spite of that. Wayne Carson penned the tune as well as four more of Stewart’s best-remembered singles: the aforementioned “Drinkin’ Thing,” “Oh, Sweet Temptation,” “Whiskey Trip” (Stewart’s final top 20 hit) and “Ten Years Of This,” one of Bob Dylan’s favorite songs.
Despite how I described Stewart’s music, though, it made him a favorite among younger audiences and rock critics. Rolling Stone, which rarely featured country artists during this time, hailed Stewart as a “vintage country boy gone crazy,” which only further made the Nashville establishment wary. And, eventually, the ghosts evident in his music caught up to him, as his turbulent personal habits and indifference to stardom slowly sunk him. He was too country for rock music and too rock for country music.
Though at a much slower pace by then, Stewart continued recording and performing into the next decade, mostly through a few duet albums with friend and fellow songwriter, Dean Dillon. In 1983, the pair co-wrote “Leave Them Boys Alone,” a top ten hit for Hank Williams Jr., Waylon Jennings and, in his final performance on record, Ernest Tubb.
By the mid-’80s, Stewart’s recording career seemed to be over; he returned to Fort Pierce and continued to play bars in Florida and Texas. Marital problems and drug problems, worsened by his son’s suicide in 1988, kept him from recording. Stewart wasn’t done quiet yet, though. California’s HighTone Records released his greatest hits and early albums as well as put Stewart back in the studio with Dea for three more records between 1988 and 1993.
His final album, Live at Billy Bob’s Texas, was released in 2003. It was also that year Stewart lost his wife, Mary Lou Stewart, to pneumonia in November. On December 16, he was found dead in his home from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Some bonus for songs for what would’ve been Stewart’s 76th birthday today, too: