Gary Stewart - Out of Hand/Your Place or Mine
Although he's yet to make a superstar status, Gary Stewart is one of the well-established acts on America's country scene, treading individual pathways with a music that's spread between basic themes of honky-tonk and slippin' around and the more up-tempo rock-beats of the south lands. ALAN CACKETT investigates
Gary Stewart, one of the most dynamic, individual and talented country artists of recent times, has sadly been overlooked by many country fans. Six years ago he invaded the country charts. Ignoring Nashville's typical formulas and taking the music back to its roots in the honky-tonk style of Lefty Fizzell, Ernest Tubb and early George Jones.
Honky-tonk, unlike countrypolitan pabulum, is combo music meant for dancing and drinking, with lyrics to match. Apart from isolated entries in the genre from Jerry Lee Lewis, Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard, and more recently Moe Bandy and T.G. Sheppard, it is a music of the past. But Stewart is the man who has helped change all that.
Like any self-respecting country star, he boasts a colourful but humble past. He was born and raised in the hills of Kentucky. A member of a large family with eight brothers and sisters. Gary was exposed to country music early in life. When he was twelve his family moved to Florida, where Gary found a broader range of musical influences.
By the time he was fifteen he was playing in rock’n’roll bands, making the usual rounds of clubs and bars. His first professional engagement was at the Merry-Go-Round bar, Fort Pierce, and soon he hit the road with a rock band.
A few months away from home, roughing it up a bit, was not the kind of life he had been dreaming of. He returned home to Florida, taking a day job at an aircraft factory and working evenings at an Okeechobee club called The Wagon Wheel.
Working in a club atmosphere enabled Gary to experiment with differing moods and styles, and he would sing country, rock, blues and bluegrass songs. One of those impressed with his talents was Mel Tillis, who often stopped by The Wagon Wheel (during visits from Nashville to his nearby hometown) and encouraged the young singer to writer. Mel’s influence and the budding friendship with a Fort Pierce policeman named Bill Eldridge combined to help Gary achieve his goal of becoming a successful songwriter.
Gary and Bill began writing songs together, and Bill’s past experience in the business when he used to lead a band of his own, plus some useful contacts in Nashville, led to them getting some songs published. Stonewall Jackson was the first established artist to record one of their songs, placing Poor Red Georgia Dirt in the lower regions of the country charts. Within a few years the pair emerged as one of the most successful writing partnerships in country music.
Billy Walker scored a top five hits with She Goes Walking Through My Mind, When A Man Loves A Woman, Traces Of A Woman and It’s Time To Love Her, Cal Smith made the charts with You Can’t Housebreak A Tom Cat and It Takes Me All Night Long, and Jack Greene scored with There’s A Whole Lot About A Woman A Man Don’t Know. The Eldridge/Stewart team also provided top songs for artists such as Jim Ed Brown, Peggy Little, Roy Drusky, Johnny Russell, Ernest Tubb and Nat Stuckey.
This success as a writer led to Gary signing a recording contract with Kapp Records and releasing singles like You’re Not The Woman You Used To Be and Sweet Tater And Cisco. The latter song was also recorded by Nat Stuckey , who changed the title to Sweet Thang And Cisco and scored a top ten country hit in 1969. Kapp was taken over by American Decca, who after one more single from Stewart that failed to make much impression, dropped him from the label.
For a while Gary worked at Bradley’s Barn, a recording studio in Nashville, running the tape machines and generally cleaning up. Then he tried an experiment and recorded some old Motown songs, and adapted them to country music. He sent the tapes to Roy Dea, a producer at Mercury Records, who was suitably impressed, but before he was able to do anything he was offered a staff producer’s job at RCA by Jerry Bradley, a co-owner of Bradley’s Barn, a former producer of Gary Stewart and now Vice-President Nashville Operations for RCA.
By this time Gary had returned home to Florida, convinced that his chance of making the big time in country music as a singer and entertainer had slipped away. Them came a call from Roy Dea urging him to come back to Nashville for one more crack. Together Roy and Gary worked in the studio and came out with a double-sided record. Drinking Thing coupled with I See The Want To In Your Eyes. Unfortunately both sides gained radio plays and the record just stood still on the charts. A few months later, towards the end of 1973, they put out Gary’s version of The Allman Brothers’ Ramblin’ Man. This time he made the charts, but was up against strong opposition from Jimmy Payne, who also made the charts. Gary won out, just, but instead of being a major success it peaked at number 63.
RCA were convinced that Drinking Thing should have been a bigger success, so in the spring of 1974 they re-issued the single and eventually it made the top ten, Gary followed this with a number one hit, Out Of Hand, and another top five success with She’s Acting Single (I’m Drinking Doubles). Although these singles were cut in a conservative Nashville mould, using choral back-up and session musicians, the accompaniment was relatively sparse, and the lyrics hard-core country.
Gary was singing of men beyond the brink, helpless before their own instincts. ‘Out Of Hand, Out Of Hand’ he wails on his second hit single, ‘I'm A Hard Lovin’ Kind Of Man, I Need More To Keep Me Goin’, Than This Gold Wedding Band.’
His singing is something else again. Even on a ballad like She’s Acting Single, there’s a quavering edge to the man’s vibrato, a hint of wildness that is a far cry from the staid treatment most weepers endure. On his first album, OUT OF HAND, that wildness blossoms on the up-tempo numbers, particularity Troy Seals’ Honky Tonkin’.
Stewart pushes the band to the point where they sound clumsy. Against a clatter of strumming guitars and a stiff drummer he asserts his own vocal style and, in the background, plays his own piano. Where the band grinds out formula licks, Stewart hovers on the verge of anarchy, growling, howling, his voice breaking with a force that recalls classic rockabilly.
Just prior to this success he had been playing piano in Nat Stuckey’s band The Sweet Things. As Out Of Hand was breaking into the country charts, he joined Charley Pride’s band, again playing piano and performing his songs before Pride took the stage. He was with Pride when he toured Britain in the early months of 1975, and certainly impressed me and many other people during his short set that echoed the music of Jerry Lee Lewis and the bar-room.
He was only with the Pride show for a year, but it certainly gave Gary some much needed exposure and all-important experience. Today he tours with his own band and is equally skilled on piano and guitar. His act, like his records, is a blend of country, blues, honky-tonk and rock’n’roll. It’s an exciting musical fusion, rooted in real country, but much broader in scope.
Gary’s second album for RCA, STEPPIN’ OUT, released in the early months of 1976, was perfectly titled. It had the singer once again wandering through the lonely world of honky-tonks.
It’s a world found in noisy, dark taverns, a providence that hinges upon, but exists apart from, home and work. It’s a world of boasts and complaints, good times and fist fights, raising hell and silently drowning your sorrows. Alcohol is its liberation. Love is its ritual. Love, or the lack of it, informs the whole of the honky-tonk tradition.
Over and over, marriages collapse and start over again. Navigating through this hazy, smoke-filled landscape, where the only guideline is survival and the only rules are your own, whether it be his own songs (Lord What A Woman) or those of Willie Nelson (I Sill Can’t Believe You’re Gone) and Danny O’Keefe (Quits), Stewart performs a music instilled with as much despair as celebration.
The winning factor with Stewart is in his styling; a quavering voice which pits over his material with authority and leading the accompanying musicians with a sound that’s strictly good-time.
The album presented him with more top-selling singles like Oh Sweet Temptation, Sterling Whipple’s superb In Some Room Above The Street, Flat Natural Born Good-Timin’ Man and Quits, a belated release that was put out almost two years after it was recorded. American Decca, which by that time had changed its name to MCA, gathered together all the tracks which Gary had recorded for Kapp and Decca, and put out the album YOU’RE NOT THE WOMAN YOU USED TO BE. |Considering it is a series of oddities, it’s amazing how complete this album sounds, both musically and stylistically. It casts Stewart as a hell-raiser and never-do-well of the highest order.
The first thing you notice is that voice, a pinched tenor that quavers in all of the right places. The music combines country’s rough and ready honky-tonk tradition with the no-holds-barred spirit of rockabilly. Though Ernest Tubb, Lefty Fizzell, Webb Pierce and its other practitioners would probably deny it, honky-tonk shares some values with rockabilly. At the very least, both stood opposed to the glossy saccharine elements of pop music. But the differences are crucial, defining the difference between country and rock in general. One is a music of limits and resignations, the other a music of boundlessness and possibility.
Stewart draws from the world of honky-tonk and recasts it in rockabilly terms. His writing is short on narrative, but smoulders with a sensual rock essence. It’s almost a throwback to the country music of twenty-five years ago; there’s a wild edge to it that you rarely hear today, and Stewart is not nearly so concerned with singing each note ‘correctly’ as he is with putting his story across.
And what stories! The title song, You’re Not The Woman You Used To Be, Here Comes That Feeling Again, and especially Merry-Go-Round are all superb weepers. But he really shines on the novelty songs. A good old boy in the promised land, Stewart thumbs his nose at the preacher and gets down to some therapeutic, guilt-free sins. In Sweet Tater And Cisco he’s arrested three different times for three different nights out on the town. Each time he and his friend have sort of innocently (but not too innocently) wandered into these situations and decided to enjoy it.
In The Snuff Queen he is set upon by a homely groupie who want to marry him. Drunk out of his mind, he finds himself ready to do so against his better judgement, but is saved by the fact that she ‘couldn’t even pass the blood test’.
He regularly gets himself into such ridiculous situations and then revels in the absurdity of it all. He has a quick, ironic wit and he handles sex in a joyous, almost carefree, yet totally innocent way.
So far Gary has recorded another three albums for RCA. Each one is honky-tonk based, but the music seems to be moving towards rock’n’roll. He’s blessed with the finest, most flexible country voice since Merle Haggard, one that can sail above the careening, headlong rush of Leah and stand agonisingly alone on Jack Tempchin’s Walk Away.
He has continued to score on the country charts with songs like Ten Years Of This, Whisky Trip, Your Place Or Mine, Stone Wall (Around Your Heart), Shady Streets and Mazelle, though he has failed to make the top ten since the autumn of 1975. These albums are full of some of the finest, exhilarating, hard-core country music you’re every likely to hear in this day. One the album YOUR PLACE OR MINE he is joined by such talented singers as Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Jerry Wallace, Nicolette Larson and Sue Richards, plus musicians of the calibre of Weldon Myrick, Pete Drake, Josh Graves, Tommy Williams, Mickey Raphael, Buck White and Reggie Young.
There is an exciting bluegrass sound brought to songs like Pretend I Never Happened and Can’t You See, whilst other songs on these three albums are straight honky-tonk—the titles give it all away: I Had To Get Drunk Last Night, Whisky Trip, Single Again, Broken Hearted People (Take Me To The Bar Room) and The Blue Ribbon Blues.
Stewart has this knack of picking up on some of the best downer songs currently being written. Wayne Carson’s Whisky Trip is typical. Steel guitar introduces the number, a rhythm guitar keeps it going in the quieter moments, making you think he’s treading Marty Robbins’ country. Rodney Crowell’s Rachel is one of the best stories you’re ever likely hear about a woman cheating on her husband. Superb perceptive lyrics and a vocal performance that knocks me off my feet every time I hear it.
In Little Junior he sings of the expectations of a good time with a joy that is more generous than lustful. Then with songs like If My Eyes Touch You and The Same Man he shifts from such bravado to the realisation that love and sex always have their price. He could easily move over to a pop or more realistically a rock following with songs like Mazelle, I Got Mine and Walk Away, but he would be sure to lose his country following if he did, so wisely he walks a tightrope. He is clearly more comfortable with songs about guilt, slipping around and drinking the bar room dry.
But the move to rock might take place. He has recently been in the studios working with some of the more notable southern country-rock musicians. It could be the direction that Gary needs to take to bring his unique talent to a much wider audience.
Gary Stewart is very much an acquired taste, and British country fans have still to develop an appetite for his music. But like Joe Ely, Stewart has the sound, style and personality to appeal to a discerning rock audience this side of the Atlantic. A tour tied in with this forthcoming album might just be the formula to ignite a following for Gary Stewart in Britain. A following that would bring honky-tonk music to a wider audience and do a lot of good for hard-core country music.
Gary Stewart Albums
Out Of Hand – RCA LSA 3215
Steppin' Out – RCA APL1-1225
You’re Not The Woman You Used To Be – MCA 488
Your Place Or Mine – RCA PL12199
Little Junior – RCA APL1-2779
Gary – RCA AHL1-3288