Gary Stewart was one of the masters of honky-tonk's double-edged swinging doors. He could raise hell on Saturday night, even though it was just as often hell, not the bartender, he would be paying in the end. His suicide on December 16, less than one month after the death of his wife, Mary Lou, ended the career of a singular country stylist, a complex, essential voice. His sensibility, at once feral and fragile, trashy and tragic, resulted in some spectacularly hard country music -- hard-core, yes, but hardest of all for its psychological and social realism. His best known songs from the '70s -- "Drinkin' Thing," "She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles)," "Out of Hand," "Ten Years of This" and "Single Again" -- were indelible and searing, like an X ray of one man's conscience as he struggled to survive in times of decadence and disillusionment.
Born the son of a coal miner in Lechter County, Kentucky, Stewart spent his youth as a working-class country archetype. After his father moved the family to Fort Pierce, Florida, Gary taught himself to play piano and guitar, formed a band called the Tomcats and dropped out of high school. He worked factory jobs, married at the age of sixteen and eventually made his way to Nashville, hoping to earn a living as a songwriter. With partner Bill Eldridge, he nearly made it, scoring mid-chart hits with established stars like Billy Walker, Nat Stuckey and Cal Smith. A few tiny labels took a chance at recording the wiry, fiery kid from Florida, but throughout the '60s, his own recordings went nowhere. The Nashville grind became as alienating for Stewart as the factory work he had once fled.
By the early '70s he'd lost interest in Nashville's country-pop tendencies and gravitated instead toward the swampy, bluesy sounds of bands such as the Allman Brothers (Dickey Betts and Gregg Allman befriended him). He finally bagged Nashville altogether, returning to Fort Pierce, where he worked the toughest honky-tonks and cut loose weekly shows as hellacious, some would say, as any country rocker since Jerry Lee Lewis.
If Stewart was done with Nashville, Nashville had other plans. Producer Roy Dea had recently joined RCA, and after hearing Stewart's voice on a demo tape of countrified Motown tunes, he coaxed Stewart away from Florida to make what many consider the finest honky-tonk album ever, 1975's Out of Hand.
Rather than focusing on Stewart's own songwriting or picking safe, chart-tested material, Dea chose songs that channeled, rather than tamed, Stewart's wild, southern-rocking charisma. The musicians, including Pete Drake on pedal steel, Jerry Carrigan on drums and Harold Robbins on piano, were definitive country pros. But Dea and Stewart had them pushing the honky-tonk sound -- and all its emotional buttons -- harder than most would have dared in a country climate where the hottest news was Olivia Newton-John and John Denver.
The album opens with "Drinkin' Thing," a stately, slightly ominous but intensely singable portrait of a man who knows the truth but can't bear to face it. Roy Dea pulls out all the stops: electric piano, bass and drum brood as one, and Drake's pedal steel zeros in. "I've got this drinking thing, to keep from thinking things," Stewart wails, but he's still thinking, and not even the band's take-off or the soaring vocals of the Jordanaires can help him avoid the questions: "About where you been, who you been with, and what you done." The unasked questions, though, are the ones that steal through Stewart's voice: Who are you? Who am I?
The album's second side begins where "Drinkin' Thing" leaves off, only now the honky-tonker glimpses the answers through the alcohol blur. Stewart's sole number-one record, "She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles)," only sounds like a joke, and it might have come off that way with any other voice. "I'm not weak I tell myself/I stay because I'm strong," Stewart sings, as though resignation really could be a sign of his masculinity. "The truth is I'm not man enough to stop her doing me wrong." Stewart's phrasing shreds the pathos: He's not yet willing to change -- let alone stop drinking -- but he won't lie anymore, won't close his bloodshot eyes.
Stewart never made another record quite like Out of Hand, but few artists ever have. His voice, defined by an otherworldly yet unaffected vibrato, was a devastating, direct conduit: Emotion shot out like electricity from a snapped power line. And when he wanted to get the joint moving, he sounded so thoroughly alive you'd swear his exhilaration alone could fuel all tomorrow's parties. Lots of country singers have communicated both good times and heartache, but Stewart could take you somewhere darker, deeper, more frightening, the place where you have nothing to lose but a few more dollars on a double bourbon. "Call it what you want to," Stewart sang of that place, "I call it quits."
Quits is how most people saw Stewart's career in the '80s; his contract with RCA expired, his addictions consumed him, and he once again retreated to Florida. But producer Roy Dea wasn't willing to let Stewart fade away, certainly not with a generation of new traditionalists like John Anderson and George Strait scoring with an updated honky-tonk style. Enter HighTone Records, an independent West Coast roots/blues label. In 1988 Larry Sloven, HighTone's president, received a call from Roy Dea. "You don't have to tell me who you are, you're one of my idols," Sloven remembers telling Dea over the phone. Stewart was also one of Sloven's favorite country singers. "What struck me about Gary," Sloven says, "is that although there have been people who combined rock and country music over the years, I think he did it in a way that was totally unique."
Stewart's first release for HighTone, Brand New, was his strongest, toughest recording since Out of Hand. Rather than trying to re-create that record's sound, Dea let Stewart rock freely and fiercely. Allman Brother Warren Haynes threw down biting slide-guitar licks and Stewart attacked songs such as "Murdered by Love" and original compositions such as "Empty Glass" and "Brand New Whiskey," both of which proved that no singer alive could find the truths in drinking songs quite like Stewart.
Two more exceptional albums on HighTone followed, but in the early '90s, Stewart's swampy boogies and whiskey-soaked introspections weren't exactly what an increasingly corporate and conservative country radio had in mind. Although he resurfaced this year with a solid live album recorded in Texas (where he maintained a loyal following), Stewart seemed resigned to his obscurity. Today's new breed of honky-tonkers and southern rockers owe him more than they might guess. And while some might wish to romanticize his demons, his sad decline and his lonely death, his music, in the end, won't permit it. "There's no place for us to hide in the neon world outside," Stewart once sang. His voice reminds us that there's no hiding from the hardest truths.