My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Country Heritage: Gary Stewart – A Short Life Of Trouble (1944-2003)

Readers of The 9513 will be familiar with Paul W. Dennis’ excellent Country Heritage (aka Forgotten Artists) series. We are pleased to announce that Paul has agreed to continue the column for My Kind of Country:

A few years ago, the venerable Ralph Stanley issued an album titled A Short Life of Trouble: Songs of Grayson and Whitter. Neither Grayson nor Whitter, a musical partnership of the late 1920s, lived to be fifty years old. Beyond that I don’t know much about the duo, but the title certainly would apply to the life of Gary Stewart.

Gary Stewart was a hard rocking, hard drinking artist who arrived at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Often described as “too country for rock radio and too rock for country radio”, Gary simply arrived on the market at the wrong time for his rocking brand of hard-core honky-tonk music to achieve general acceptance, for his music was neither outlaw nor countrypolitan, the two dominant strains of country music during the 1970s.

Gary Stewart was born in Kentucky, the son of a coal miner who suffered a disabling injury when Gary was a teenager. As a result Gary’s family relocated to Fort Pierce, Florida, where Gary learned to play guitar and piano and started writing songs. Playing the clubs at night, while working a full-time job in an airplane factory, Gary had the good fortune to meet Mel Tillis. Mel encouraged Gary to travel to Nashville to pitch his songs. While early recording efforts for minor labels failed to interest radio, Gary achieved some success pitching songs to other artists. Among the early efforts were “Poor Red Georgia Dirt”, a 1965 hit for Stonewall Jackson and “Sweet Thang and Cisco” a top ten record for Nat Stuckey in 1969 . Other artists also recorded his songs, most notably Billy Walker (“She Goes Walking Through My Mind,” “Traces of a Woman,” “It’s Time to Love Her”) and Cal Smith (“You Can’t Housebreak a Tomcat”, “It Takes Me All Night Long”).

In 1968 Gary was signed by Kapp Records where he recorded several unsuccessful singles. Disheartened, Gary headed back to Fort Pierce, again playing the skull orchards and juke joints.

Sometimes an artist needs help discovering his musical muse. Sometimes, as in the case of Hank Williams Jr, that help comes in the form of a near calamity that forces the artist to reassess matters. Other times that help comes in the form of a musical mentor to help mold and shape the raw talent. In the late 1960s, Gary started pitching material to Jerry Bradley, who would soon assume a position of prominence with RCA, bringing Gary with him in the process, where he hooked up with producer Roy Dea. Like Fred Foster with Roy Orbison or Ken Nelson with Sonny James, Dea seemed to know how to extract the best from Gary Stewart. This meant prominent steel guitar and a notable absence of the layerings of the “Nashville Sound” such as strings and vocal choruses.

After an initial cover of the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man” , which charted at #63 , Gary released “Drinkin’ Thing” which reached #10. The song was a stunning piece of honky tonk released at a time when honky tonk was almost extinct, replaced by “Nashville Sound” recordings and by “Outlaw County”. It harkened back to the earlier era of Ernest Tubb and Floyd Tillman, but with lyrics far more arch than either of them would have recorded. “Drinkin’ Thing” was followed by his first #1 record “Out Of Hand” (#1 Cashbox, #4 Billboard) and then by his biggest hit “She’s Actin‘ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)” which reached #1 on all of the charts . As John Morthland put it in his classic book The Best of Country Music: “Stewart knows all about bow-legged country girls and blustering men, empty beds and emptied bottles, wedding bands and wandering eyes. He’ll be happy to tell you more than you need to know about drinking too much and going home with the wrong person – or worse yet, going home alone because the right person went home home with the wrong person.”

Out Of Hand was Gary’s country masterpiece, containing all three of Gary’s top ten hits, as well as a song Gary wrote that was a #1 hit in 1974 for Conway Twitty in “I See The Want-to In Your Eyes“ . It was also the only Gary Stewart album that was sufficiently country that all of the tracks could be played on country radio.

At heart Gary was really a rocker with some country sensitivities and subsequent records were more rock than country, although still too country to gain much acceptance on rock radio. After the three top ten records on Out Of Hand, Gary would only ring up six more top twenty records, with “Your Place Or Mine” reaching #11 in 1977, the bitter “Ten Years of This” reaching #16 in 1977 and “Whiskey Trip” reaching #16 in 1978. Along the way Gary recorded a song that might be regarded as his theme song in “Flat Natural Born Good-Timin’ Man” which reached #20 in 1975 as the official follow up to “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)” . After “Whiskey Trip” Gary would never again reach the top thirty.

Dea split from RCA in 1980, a year which saw Gary release the Chips Moman-produced Cactus and a Rose which featured Southern rockers Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts, Mike Lawler, and Bonnie Bramlett as guest artists.

Gary remained on RCA through 1983, his last RCA recordings being part of a misguided pairing with Dean Dillon. RCA hoped to (a) revive Gary’s flagging career and (b) introduce Dean Dillon to the American public. While there were some interesting recordings released, none of the duet recordings reached the top forty, which was to be expected since Stewart’s wild, vibrato-laden tenor voice does not lend itself to duets and Dean Dillon’s voice does not lend itself to singing.

Released by RCA in 1983, Gary issued a few singles on minor labels, returning to Florida where he indulged the honky-tonk life of alcohol and drugs. During this period his son Gary Joseph committed suicide, apparently a result of drugs or alcohol.

Toward the end of the decade Gary pulled himself together, emerging on Hightone Records, where, reunited with Roy Dea, he issued some critcally acclaimed albums but no hits. Gary continued touring playing to large and enthusiastic crowds but on November 26 ,2003, Mary Lou, his wife of 43 years, died of pneumonia. Gary was unable to live without her and committed suicide, his body being discovered on December 16, 2003 by his daughter’s boyfriend and Bill Hardaman, a long-time friend of Gary’s.

DISCOGRAPHY

VINYL

There are three vinyl albums of interest to fans of honky-tonk country. The first is the RCA classic Out Of Hand, the second is an album that MCA issued of Kapp material in 1975 titled You’re Not The Woman You Used To Be (featuring songs written by Gary with friend Bill Ethridge), and the third is the RCA Greatest Hits which includes the big three plus his other top twenty singles except “You’re Not The Woman You Used To Be” which was a Kapp interloper released by MCA in 1975.

Other RCA albums will lean more heavily toward Southern Rock, although there are songs on each of them that fans of traditional country music might enjoy. Many fans of Southern Rock consider his 1978 offering Little Junior to be his best album, with as hard-edged a collection of songs as one is ever likely to hear. “Whiskey Trip” “Tequila After Midnight” and “Little Junior” are the standout tracks, but even the classic country tunes such as “Honky Tonkin’ “ and the Louvin Brothers classic “You’re Running Wild” have a hard edge to them.

COMPACT DISC

Given his relative lack of commercial success, Gary Stewart is well represented on CD. The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has available the following CDs:

The Essential Gary Stewart – This is a collection of Gary’s biggest hits on RCA plus a few key album tracks.

Best of the Hightone Years – Gary had no real hits on Hightone, but this CD is a nice collection of late 80s – early 90s tracks for a gutsy independent label

Cactus And A Rose/Collector’s Series – an odd two-fer of the RCA material with the Moman-produced Cactus And A Rose album coupled with one of RCA’s variations of a hits collection.

Steppin’ Out/Little Junior – a two-fer of RCA material consisting of Gary’s two best quasi-Country/quasi-Southern Rock albums.

Brand New – Gary’s 1988 comeback album on Hightone, a good effort throughout.

Live At Billy Bob’s – a nice, slightly post-peak recording of Gary before a live audience. The voice is a little frayed but it’s still worth having.

Brotherly Love / Those Were The Days – this set is comprised of the album and the mini-album RCA issued of Gary dueting with Dean Dillon, plus a bunch of Dean Dillon solo recordings, many of which later became hits for others.

Several other CDs have been available at various times over the years so search of stores that sell used product may yield additional titles such as Out Of Hand and I’m A Texan.

Editor’s note: A quick search on Amazon reveals that a fairly extensive selection of titles is available there, on CD and vinyl.

21 responses to “Country Heritage: Gary Stewart – A Short Life Of Trouble (1944-2003)

  1. bll May 16, 2011 at 10:40 am

    First off thanks to Paul for continuing this series; they all have been enjoyable and this one highlights one of my Dad’s favourites, so I heard Stewart’s music a lot during high school/college.

    Gary was quite a talent and it’s a shame that he didn’t get the air play he deserved in spite of writing some wonderful songs.

  2. rob May 16, 2011 at 11:20 am

    Got here from a link by Galleywinter… thanks for the article about one of my favorites that I did not know enough about.

  3. Tom May 16, 2011 at 11:29 am

    …great arrangement, folks – this series has always been one of my favourites.

  4. Ken Johnson May 16, 2011 at 11:59 am

    Paul: Always enjoyed reading your postings at the 9513 and I’m glad to see that your bylines will continue here.

    Got to admit that even for country purists like myself Gary Stewart’s voice is an acquired taste. I recall hearing it best described by Ralph Emery on his syndicated radio show as “the sound a cat makes when its tail gets slammed in a screen door.” Not sure who was actually responsible for that quote but it definitely applies.

    To expand on Gary’s early discography, following his unsuccessful run of Kapp singles (1968-1970) one Decca single was issued in 1971, “She’s The Best Thing” b/w “Something to Believe In.” Unfortunately for Gary that single fared no better than his earlier releases.

    Though Gary achieved his first success as a songwriter, both sides of his first RCA Victor single were written by Wayne Carson. “I See The Want To In Your Eyes” b/w “Drinkin’ Thing” was released in 1973. Though that single failed to chart Conway Twitty was inspired to record his version of “I See The Want To In Your Eyes” after hearing Gary’s version on the radio. Following Gary’s second RCA Victor single “Ramblin’ Man,” his first single was re-released in 1974 making “Drinkin’ Thing” the “A” side and “I See The Want To In Your Eyes” the flip. Gary’s producer Roy Dea said that “Drinkin’ Thing” almost had to be re-recorded because someone mistakenly threw the master tape recording into the trash can at the studio. Luckily it was retrieved before it was hauled away but the tangle of loose tape had to be carefully re-wound onto the reel before it could become Gary’s first hit.

    Sad that Gary’s life ended so tragically. He was definitely an innovator. His hard-edged style might received wider acceptance in the early 1980’s Hank, Jr./Charlie Daniels/Alabama era of country radio.

    • SONNYTACKETT May 17, 2011 at 11:48 am

      I was there both times Ralph Emery interviewed Gary, and he had nothing but praise for him.And Gary was there in the 80’s, but country radio ignored him.How could CMT do a TOP 100 DRINKING Songs and not include “Drinkin’ Thing’ or even a mention of Gary. I lived many years in Nashville, was close friends with Gary, and was present at some of the meetings with record execs, and It’s all politics.Gary was like so many people [rOBERT jOHNSON} unappreciated until he was gone. Some of his videos online have over 100,000 hits.His voice might have been an aguired taste for you and some other straight country folk,but people all over the world LOVED IT and are keeping his memory alive.He was treated like crap by Nashville, had his problems for sure, but I’ve known and met hundreds of country artists,and never met one whom I thought had the talent, voice,charisma, and attitude Gary had onstage.Also, many recordings Gary did were not released,deemed “too rock” by RCA.Also there were live recordings much better than the crap released on Hightone. I know because I recorded it myself in the 80’s,during his time between RCA and Hightone.And I also have much better live recordings from Billy Bobs than the ones they released.They waited too late , by that time Garys voice was shot, and He personally hated the Hightone live cd, thinking it made him look cartoonish.That recording came from the 2000 era, mine was from the early 90’s, but the best Ive ever heard is the one I own from the mid 80’s, when his voice was in great form.I am heavily involved in getting a “Gary Stewart Museum” in his birthplace of Jenkins Ky,I have a meeting tomorrow with the Mayor of Jenkins and the committee.I read things all the time on here about Gary, but the one thing I have to say is,you don’t really know what happened unless you were there.

  5. Pingback: Shelton and Lambert Wed; Country Heritage Series Continues; New Jack Ingram Song | Country California

  6. Occasional Hope May 16, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    Thank you for agreeing to continue your series here, Paul. I’ve always enjoyed reading it.

  7. Razor X May 16, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Great job, Paul. Aside from a few of his bigger hits like “She’s Acting Single (I’m Drinking Doubles)”, I’m not very familiar with Stewart’s catalog. I’m looking forward to rectifying that.

  8. luckyoldsun May 16, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    Stewart is definitely a strange singer. I can never tell if he’s doing straight honky tonk or if he’s spoofing on it. I guess that’s why he’s sort of “left field.” Other hard-core country artists of the era like Mel Street, Moe Bandy or Gene Watson seem to be playing it straight.

    Stewart’s OK in small doses–until the phony vibrato/temolo finally gets to you and you have to either shut him off or slap yourself silly.

    • SONNYTACKETT May 17, 2011 at 1:09 pm

      There was nothing Phony about Gary.The vibrato was part of his natural singing voice, and most singers would do more of it, but are not capable.Gary was the real thing, and was admired by more musicians than any artist I know.The great Bob Dylan went out of his way while on tour and visited Gary and Lou at their home in Florida,taking hours out of his schedule. He told Gary that “Ten Years of This” was the greatest recording he ever heard, that it put a spell over him and he listened to it over and over. It was filled with Garys vibrato.While halfass country artists like Con Hunley and Moe Bandy were snubbing their noses at Gary, one of the greatest artists of all time is going out of his way to meet him.NOTHING about Gary was Phony,and saying that shows that you didn’t know him at all.

      • luckyoldsun May 17, 2011 at 8:37 pm

        I should have used the word “exaggerated” instead of “phony”.

        But what’s this about halfasses like Hunley and Bandy snubbing Stewart?–Is there a story there?

        I’ve never heard Con Hunley but I find Moe Bandy’s honky-tonk records a lot of fun. He’s an average singer, at best, but he got some great material from top writers in Nashville and he ran with it.

  9. Leeann Ward May 16, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    I’m glad this feature found a new home.

    What a tragic life Gary Stewart had.

  10. SONNYTACKETT May 17, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    Paul, I’m glad you’re writing about Gary, as I was a close friend and co-writer.But its difficult to research and get all details right, especially in view of the fact that if you were not there there’s no way of knowing the real truth. One that I’d like to elaborate on here is the comment on Gary Josephs death.It had nothing to do with drugs or alcohol, even though those may have helped him do it easier.He had been told, at the young age of 21, that he had AIDS.He couldn’t accept that and tell Gary, so he went out the hard way.A follow up autopsy showed he did not have it, and his death was useless,making it a double tragedy. Gary and Lou spent most of their money from then on trying to have something done about it.I personally know this, because Lou blamed Gary for not somehow stopping it, and they broke up for the only time in their marriage. Gary stayed at my home in Ky during this period,for three months.During that time, between the RCA and HIGHTONE years, I recorded the greatest live Gary album ever recorded, in his prime,which has never been heard by the public. We plan on going into the studio to master it soon,and release it on my Moondancer Records label as “Gary Stewart-Live In Ky”.I also have talked the city of Jenkins Ky where he was born, into doing a Gary Stewart Museum.They’ve agreed, and our first meeting with Jenkins Mayor Kincer and the committee is tomorrow.The problem with doing articles on people like Gary is finding the real truth, the real reasons, and the man behind the myths, and there were many about Gary.People like to claim they knew him, and by doing so give false or misleading information.Even the song chart positions on some are wrong on many sites, but once again its a matter of being there or having the proof. I checked Billboards site on one song, and it says #41, however theres a Billboard Hot Country Chart hanging on my wall showing it at # 9.I tore it out of Billboard Magazine at the time,had it laminated onto a wooden frame ,and theres the proof hanging on my wall.Anyway,keep writing, and best of luck with your series, Sonny Tackett

  11. edd May 17, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    I think Stewart was ultimately too raw for real long-term country stardom. He was a lot of things, but I hear the country in even the rock stuff, and “Your Place or Mine” is a great country record and a great ’70s rock ‘n’ roll album. “Single Again” ranks up there with the greatest Stewart tracks, in my book. But I think the country audience didn’t really connect with Stewart in any way beyond those few hits, and his persona was a little advanced even for Americana today–he obviously anticipates Americana. It’s to Nashville’s credit they bankrolled him for what he was.

  12. edd May 17, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    and the above comment about Gary’s vibrato–that’s valid enough, and he did sing that way. but I think he mostly made it work; it comes out of Jerry Lee Lewis and rockabilly.

  13. Randy Gass May 28, 2011 at 9:25 am

    Hey there.This man was an awsome singer…I can set and listen to his music for hours…I grew up around country music and southern rock…Hey gary’s music could take the edge off any mood…Folks should have listen closer to his music..All they heard was the music [Not the words]..This man tried to make folks happy with his music…Yeah sure it sounded like honky tonk music but didn’t everybodies back then…Take Meral Haggard for instince he grew up fast and hard…He paid with time…But is still one of my favorest…I love his music…But gary had a voice i loved to hear…Sad a man such as this had to have such a hard time…My he [REST IN PEACE] but i will always love his music….Sin RANDY…A BIG FAN…

    • Luckyoldsun August 24, 2013 at 1:02 am

      Interesting story–even after two-plus years. It strikes me as somewhat curious that you have so much contempt for the barely remembered Con Hunley after so many years over what seems like a minor incident. I suppose Hunley or a friend of his might tell the story differently. I didn’t know Gary Stewart and I didn’t know Con Hunley, so I have no dog in this fight.
      Stewart had some good songs and made some good records, but I would not equate him with Hank Williams!

  14. Sonny Tackett August 24, 2013 at 12:36 am

    This is for Luckyoldsun.There is definitely a stry about Con and Gary.I was in the radio station with them both when Con smarted off to Gary n the air,not knowing Gary had recently lost his son .Gary went across the table with the intention of kickin his ass and I was the one who stopped him.Con was a perfect example of the drugstore cowboy,Gary was the real thing, just ask Gregg Allman,Warren Haynes,Bonny Bramblet,Bob Dylan,Dickie Betts,Ronnie Dunn ,Tanya Tucker and many more who state today they loved him.Gary was like Hank Sr,a real artist,completely misunderstood andnever able to fullfill his unique potential.Con ran from the studio like the halfass nerd he was, afraid of a man half his size..Gary and I finished the interview and did the show that night..Con faded into obscurity,Gary will never be forgotten despite Nashvilles attempts to do just that,but his fans are forever.As one of them said to me”If you have to ask,you,ll never get it.

  15. Paul W Dennis August 25, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    I don’t know how much of a cowboy either Conley or Stewart were, but they were both talented artists that Nashville has forgotten. I wouldn’t regard either artist as being authentically country in the same sense as Faron Young, Buck Owens, Lefty Frizzell or Merle Haggard but both were talented artists that had a short window of opportunity in Nashville. Gary made more recordings I didn’t like than did Con Hunley – I’d regard Gary’s best recordings as better than Hunley’s best recordings but his worst recordings as far worse.

    Anyway, slandering Con Hunley doesn’t do anything to make the case for Gary Steward. As for Con’s alleged cowardice, as a younger buck I retreated from a few fights where I could have annihilated the other guy – It’s far better to be thought a coward than be convicted of manslaughter !

  16. Pingback: My Kind of Country turns 10 | My Kind of Country

  17. Pingback: My Kind of Country Turns 10 | The Pappalardo Periodical

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: