In my youth, I was utterly obsessed by the country records of Gary Stewart. Songs such as “Single Again,” “Your Place Or Mine,” “Pretend I Never Happened”— intense performances of such commitment and wild abandon it took my breath away. In 1986 or so I found the guy – and managed to sweet-talk my way into his Fort Pierce, Florida trailer hideout by bringing him an obscure old 45 record he greatly coveted. I’ve written plenty about that experience elsewhere.
Doing that story was a crazy adventure, and one Stewart didn’t always want a ticket for. After all, this was a guy who’d completely turned his back on Music City stardom. Gary didn’t give a shit about being “hot” again, so what use did he have for some nutty reporter digging into his life?
Sometimes it took days for him to venture out of the bedroom during my visits. A glimpse of Gary ambulatory became about as rare as a Bigfoot sighting, even though I was in the next room and only about fifty feet away from the guy.
I wasn’t about to give up, though. I had to know what made him tick, so to pass the time I started digging through the trunks of tapes Gary had lying around. He was more than happy to let me. It was easier than facing a goddamn tape recorder.
By sifting through these recordings, I unearthed a far different Gary Stewart. One far more wide-ranging and complex than the guy who’d recorded a string of classic 70s Nashville honky-tonk hits. Hearing this stuff at 5 AM in some deathly quiet Florida trailer with the AC blasting was a mind-altering experience, let me tell you.
And there’s the point of this little story. As great as Gary was, I learned that he was even GREATER, and that some of his best music had never been heard. Or even properly recorded.
Gary Stewart music is a genre unto itself. This was a guy who could ease from blues to rockabilly to country to rock without batting an eye. And Gary could take it so far out there it could get a little scary. That kind of intensity just didn’t fly within the rigid confines of Music City, USA. Nashville, unfortunately, only wanted one easily-categorized sound from him, and I think he got completely bored delivering it. Gary’s tapes tell a different story.
There are also live recordings here. During the period I was around him I recorded plenty of impromptu performances on my small, brick-like black Walkman Pro. Plus Stewart would send me a tape in the mail out of nowhere every once and awhile. Some of this music comes from there.
Nobody has managed to release any of this material, so I’m going to liberate some of it right here and now. I’m tired of guarding the box full of tapes in my basement.
This guy was not only one of the greatest country singers ever, he was probably the most gifted musician I’ve encountered in any kind of music, and I’ve known a few. Nowadays you barely hear Gary’s name mentioned, even by lofty potentates who are supposed to know about such things. That’s criminal, particularly since country music doesn’t even exist anymore.
Gary Stewart was an outlaw. A real outlaw, not the kind you buy at the store. He was hilarious (sometimes unintentionally), yet highly attuned to the deeper vibrations in life. He could be easily hurt – this was the kind of guy who felt the flutter of a butterfly’s wings. An intricate, unpredictable being, not to mention a little crazy, haha. Gary could’ve sprawled on his couch for a year doing nothing but watching Bronson in The White Buffalo. Despite his monumental talent, he just didn’t give a fuck. Or did he?
Everything that Gary was – well, let’s just say it left quite an impression. He cast the longest shadow I know of. I grit my teeth just thinking about just how great Gary Stewart was, OK?
So just imagine we’re sitting in my rumpus room in a couple of comfy beanbag chairs, and they’re handily within reach of my Thorens turntable and Nakamichi tape deck.
Need something to drink, a hot dog or something more…esoteric? My lovely assistant Svetlana will get you anything you might desire, just name your poison.
Sit back, relax and listen. Time to let Gary do his thing.
GARY AND THE TOMCATS: IS A BLUEBIRD BLUE
Here is a rude, crude performance of a teenage Gary singing a Dan Penn song covered by Conway Twitty in 1960. Fumbling through the chords, but who cares? He’s already got what it takes.
This nearly unlistenable (but hugely entertaining) tape is from a live performance at the Wagon Wheel, a country joint over in Lake Okeechobee that was something of a regular gig for Stewart in his early days. He told me it was there that he observed the grizzled old regulars that inspired his later song “Hank Western.” And it was also at the Wagon Wheel that Mel Tillis told Gary that if he wanted to make it in Nashville, he should become a songwriter – which he did.
Listen to Gary charge through a couple of his Kapp-era songs plus some interesting covers: “Workin’ on the Railroad,” “Here Comes That Old Feeling Again,” “Joe and Mabel’s 12th Street Bar and Grill,” “Last Thing on My Mind,” “Susie Q.” You also get to hear Gary host a limbo contest (“He wants some girl to hold his pole”).
The Wagon Wheel was sometimes run by a steel player by the name of Hubert Thomas, and one late night on the phone Gary got choked up remembering him. “He helped me so much through the years. Hubert was a few years older than me, but he was as young in mind as I was. One day I asked him real serious-like, ‘Hubert, how old are you?’ And he said, ‘I never think about it.’ He said it so beautiful – and funny, Lord… Y’know, he always had all these young girlfriends…it wasn’t because Hubert liked young girls, all the pretty girls liked Hubert ’cause he was such fun.
“When Hubert was around I always felt I had somewhere that I could go if everything fell under. I had a buddy that I could just go be with and live forever. Because he was a little kid like me.”
For a period in the early seventies, Gary and Mary Lou lived in the Battlefield Trailer Park in Franklin, Tennessee, where Gary worked at writing songs for people like Billy Walker and Nat Stuckey with fellow Floridian Bill Eldridge. The music he made on his own in that trailer was something different, though – much closer to The Basement Tapes, or something that would’ve seemed at home on Shelter Records. Just Gary alone with the tape recorder. It sounds like he’s making it up on the spot (dig the whistling). Listening to this I see a John Ford movie in my head.
THE BALLAD OF CORSEY AND JOHN
This was a song Gary worked on for years until boiling it down to a nifty, conventional country song he cut in a full-band demo which you’ll hear below. Years earlier in that Franklin period, though, he’d entertain friends with a long, spoken intro to the song, getting more and more into the story as he old it. I have two recordings done this way, one is missing the actual song. This is the other performance, which is far more restrained.
This murder ballad was co-written with his wife Lou and keyboard player Rick Durrett while Gary was living in the Franklin trailer park – which was in Williamson County. It wound up as the album closer on his first album, Out of Hand, and while that version is a fine, respectable, almost jaunty interpretation of the song, this version here is the one you want to play over and over at 2AM.
I have a vague memory of Gary telling me this was cut at Bradley’s Barn around 1973 or so when he was doing odd jobs there for producers like Jerry Bradley and Walter Haynes (this was a couple of years before his solo deal with RCA). Listen to the metallic insect acoustic guitars, the electric ghost-snake solos at the beginning/end, not to mention the piercing vocal. Drink it all in and wonder what Gary could’ve accomplished had he been given free reign. Nashville couldn’t handle this kind of raw, untamed beauty. Music from the dark end of the holler.
LIVE IN 1975
Stewart’s early songwriting partner Bill Eldridge paints a picture of Gary’s trailer park scene just before he abandoned Nashville the first time to return to Fort Pierce. Bill was old school; Gary was letting his freak flag fly. “One night he called me up an’ said, “Bill, I want to do some writin’, so I stopped to get a bottle of Scotch. When I got there, there was about fifteen people in the trailer, that fuckin’ place was packed. They were watchin’ porn flicks…had an old 16mm or 8mm projector rigged up. A mixed crowd. Kids were runnin’ in and out of the place, and they were burnin’ quite a bit of the weed.
“With all that shit bein’ passed around, I got to thinkin’ to myself, ‘Goddamn, if somebody at the trailer park were to call one o’ these redneck cops around here, they’re gonna love this shit.’ And I knew Gary wasn’t it any shape for me to tell him. So I just excused myself.
Their songwriting days ended. “I think Gary became disenchanted with Music City, he was kinda bored with what we were doin’. It got to be routine, it wasn’t as much fun writin’ in Nashville as it was just hangin’ around Fort Pierce. He wanted to branch out, he heard a change in the music comin’.”
Back in Fort Pierce Gary played in his pal ‘Boogie’ Bob Melton’s band, Phoenix. He was just another picker in the band – not the star – and years later Gary would wistfully refer to this nine-month period and maintain it was some of the best music he’d made in his life. “It was a jam, one continuous song, and it would go every kind of beat, every kind of style,” he told me. “It was a magic carpet ride. The kind of music that I like best.”
“That band really clicked with him,” recalled Bob Melton. “We all loved making music together. We jammed our asses off in that band. Gary was the most inspiring person we ever knew. He was at the top of his game on the guitar in that band. The best he ever played.” Sadly, no tapes exist from this period.
Phoenix covered the Allman Brothers (Stewart was an Allman fanatic), Marshall Tucker, Buddy Holly, Willie, Waylon, old blues numbers like “Stormy Monday,” and they also performed originals by Stewart and keyboard player Fred Bogert. Even though Gary was just another nobody then, his first album for RCA soon exploded, and he asked Melton and company to back him up on a Fort Pierce show at a pizza place called Green Gate. It was the week “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)” hit #1 on the charts.
Gary Stewart live tapes are hard to come by, so here is a recording of that 1975 show, minus the Rockin’ Ricky hilarity. “Pretty funky, but some good moments,” is Melton’s estimation of the tape (Melton stresses this was not a Phoenix show, even though three of the members were present). “No rehearsals, just a cold jam…we kind of just wandered into some of the songs. Gary had just gotten off the road with Charley Pride. He and I still jammed together when he was home, but it wasn’t the same as playing together every night. His slide playing was a little rusty from playing piano all the time then.”
The band on this performance – Drums: Howard “Bingo” Folcarelli. Bass: Darrell Dawson. Keyboard: Fred Bogert. Guitars: “Boogie” Bob Melton and Gary Stewart (he also played slide.) Bass: Johnny Beamsderfer (here Gary calls him “Johnny Beanstuffer”).
Let it Burn
Ballad of Corsey and John
4th of July
This white-hot studio demo session featuring Gary and his then-band Aberdeen Rockfish Railroad (augmented by the great Weldon Myrick on steel) is from February 1976. Everything here kills. Listen to the way Stewart colors the word “Hollywood” on the chorus of this gloriously cliched tale of a Tinseltown streetwalker dreaming of stardom. Just beautiful. “Bedtime Stories” is another highlight, Gary at his filthiest and funniest. But my favorite is “4th of July.” Only Gary Stewart could make our patriotic holiday sound sexy and dangerous. He mythologizes his own family in conversational yet indelible fashion: “Yonder comes Mary Lou/Looks like she’s takin’ a walk.” Stewart’s piano playing here is beyond exciting, as is his vocal, and the whole thing feels so good. Gary thinks so, too: catch the way he slips into the verse early. I have played this over and over for decades and can recreate the whole damn performance note for note in my head, that’s how deep its hold is over me.
Aberdeen Rockfish Railroad: Ralph Profetta (banjo and steel guitar). ‘Boogie’ Bob Melton (electric and acoustic guitar, and vocals). Donnie Coleman (acoustic guitar, vocals, and fiddle). Chris Casses (electric guitar and mandolin). Darrell Dawson (bass and vocals). Larry “Mouse” Munson (drums). With Weldon Myrick, steel guitar.
SINGLE AGAIN DEMOS
Here’s a relaxed three-song demo of Gary doing a Randy Newman song – “Riders in the Rain” – as well as the old Louvin Brothers hit “Running Wild,” as well as the devastating “Single Again,” one of Gary’s greatest numbers. The last two he recorded on Little Junior (1978). I believe that’s Hubert Thomas on steel guitar.
HARLAN COUNTY HIGHWAY DEMO
Here is the original demo of a song that wound up on the overproduced Cactus and Rose album. That’s certainly a fine recording, while this is unfinished – a last verse was added to it by Dickey Betts – but who cares. What a performance. I can barely talk about this one. I have listened to this demo for thirty years now and it never fails to make the neck hairs stand at attention. If you only listen to one thing here, make it this. Gary Stewart at his finest. “Temptation lurks on every corner/Seven corners every mile.”
IT’S TRUE DEMO
“It’s True” was written by Gary and sisters Carol and Mary Beth Anderson, who also sing backup on this fabulous demo. Gary plays piano. He was embarrassed of his ability on keyboard, but I loved every drop of it (that’s him playing on his frenetic 1976 cover of Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time”). He told me that the song he really loved to do on piano was Merle Haggard’s “I Can’t Be Myself.” (What I would give to have heard him do that song. I begged him to do it for me many a time…)
This number was recorded by Terri Gibbs on her 1980 album Somebody’s Knockin’. Carol Anderson (who cowrote the titanic “Your Place or Mine” with Gary, as well as “I Can’t Be Your Backdoor”) told me how the song came about:
“Back in 1979 my sister and I were driving down Music Row and we saw Gary walking down the street. We pulled over and said, “Gary! What’s happenin’?’ and he said ‘You are.”
“He jumped in the car and said, ‘Where are the three of us goin’?’ And we told him that we were on our way to a demo session to cut some new material.
“He said, ‘Let’s write one together – NOW!’ So when we got there, we said ‘Don’t start the machine yet, because we haven’t written what we’re gonna put down.’ So we proceeded to write and cut ‘It’s True’ in the next hour.”
LIVE IN A MOTEL NEAR GRACELAND
By chance I crossed paths with Gary and Mary Lou in Memphis while on a cross-country car trip heading to Hollywood to work for Andy Milligan in 1986-7. They’d had a fight while driving on the highway and one of them had pulled the car key from the ignition. That was all forgotten as we headed to visit Graceland together.
That night we convened at a nearby cheap motel. Gary, who seemed a bit shaky and somewhat fragile at first, picked up a cheap guitar with a bum string that he’d brought along for the ride, then stood in the corner with his back to us and started doing fragments of songs. This was the way it always was: Gary eyed my recorder as a challenge, and he was intent on delivering something for posterity.
Let the song selection be a surprise. I’ve omitted the first number, just as Gary asked me to at the time (you can hear his request at the start of the recording). Also present: my ex (and byNWR contributor) Carole Nicksin and Gary’s wife Mary Lou.
LIVE IN GARY’S TRAILER WITH DONNIE COLEMAN
There were nights at Gary’s trailer when friends would come by and pick – that is, if Stewart happened to be in the mood to even see other humans. Here is his great pal Donnie Coleman (who’d been in Stewart’s backing band, Rockfish Railroad) sitting around singing some numbers with him.
Also present is notorious filmmaker/photographer Larry Clark, whom I had talked into taking the pictures for my Voice article. (Clark got very impatient with Gary’s reclusive ways: “Let’s just barge in the bedroom, throw the covers off him and take the pictures!!”) Fort Pierce didn’t know what to make of Larry and his pristine white muscle t-shirts.
As with the last tape, I don’t want to list the songs – it’s too much fun not knowing what comes next. Listen to talk of Elvis on the ’68 special. When I mentioned how great it must’ve been to be Elvis at that very moment – to not only be ‘back,’ but blasting through the stratosphere like a rocket – Gary didn’t miss a beat. “Man, it’s a great feelin’, bein’ out there. The best feelin’ in the world. Better than any damn pain pill.”
Where else are you going to hear Larry Clark prompt Gary Stewart on the words to “Tryin’ to Get to You”?
LAST DAY ACOUSTIC
As my first visit to Gary’s trailer came to a close in 1987, he whipped out an acoustic, stood in front of the recorder and ripped through some numbers he knew I was partial to. A little before this he’d thrown a knife at my head – a bread knife, which was more comical than threatening. So maybe this was his way of apologizing, haha.
“Williamson County” came first, then “I’ve Just Seen the Rock of Ages,” a spartan gospel number written by John Preston and best known via Ralph Stanley’s version (Gary recorded it on his 1979 album Gary.)
“Sitting on Top of a Silver Cloud” is a haunted love song for Lou that had been written in a cemetery, and (to my knowledge) Gary never recorded it. “I went to a graveyard in Reedsville, Texas,” Gary told me. “My brother was with me. Way back in these bunch of bushes was this old-timey flat grave marker about six feet long. My brother took his handkerchief and cleaned off the slab. On there it said, ‘Remember me as you pass by/As you are now, so once was I/As I am now so you will be/Prepare for death and follow me.’ That just kind of intrigued me. Somewhere down the line I put it in as the second verse of ‘Silver Cloud.’”
“There Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down” was originally recorded in 1953 by Brother Claude Ely, The Gospel Ranger, a gold-toothed traveling preacher. King Records recorded this smoking locomotive of a song live within a courthouse in Letcher County, Kentucky, the very place where Gary was born. Stewart had loved the 45 growing up and decided to unleash it on me this particular day.
IN THE PINES
While I was hanging around Gary he was obsessing over two songs – the old Lead Belly ballad “In the Pines” and the Chuck Willis number “It’s Too Late.” I heard him do both countless times.
Out of the blue years later he mailed me a cheap, taped-over cassette, and on it was this recording he’d made of himself doing “In the Pines.”
Just Gary alone with the tape recorder. Again. Long live Little Junior. How I miss him.
byNWR dedicates our Stewart Special to Gary’s daughter, Shannon Stewart Ashburn.