By 1983, crazed country iconoclast Gary Stewart had finally slipped one toke over the line. The days when he'd peppered the C&W charts with classic cuts like "Drinkin' Thing" and "She's Acting Single (I'm Drinking Doubles)" were roughly ten years and 10,000 Quaaludes in the past. His long, rocky relationship with RCA and label executive Jerry Bradley (son of pioneer producer Owen) had ended with a quick visit from a junior studio "suit."
"I was ready for him," Stewart says during a telephone interview/event with the mercurial singer-guitarist from his Fort Pierce, Florida, home. "I was watchin' a movie on TV, and the guy from RCA comes to the door. He looked nervous, like I was gonna go off and become crazy or somethin'."
Stewart has a rough, mountain-high, Southern-twanged voice that alters in tone and cadence like that of a crafty quarterback. "But I knew it was coming. So, he told me. I thanked him. He left. And I went back to my movie."
Currently, things are bright and shiny for the favorite son of Lester County, Kentucky. Stewart's ready to begin work in earnest on his fifth album for Oakland, California, indie Hightone Records. Last year's reissue of his first RCA record, Out of Hand, was preceded by Brand New (1989) and Battleground (1990), both fine efforts. Stewart is touring sporadically in support of Gary's Greatest, a compilation of his best-known work which samples heavily from his RCA tenure.
His sound is a uniquely rendered style of country flavored by rock, blues and a liberal dose of his own mountain muse. His influences-the Allman Brothers, Jimmy Reed, Fats Domino, Don GibsonÏinform his soaring vibrato and urgent guitar work.
This night, Stewart is particularly pleased. He thinks there's a chance he could do some of his new albumÏdue, perhaps, in the springÏat a studio in Fort Pierce, his home since 1958.
"I might be able to do the whole album right here!" he exults, adding one of his frequent, often unintelligible, asides. "Or cut three songs or something. You see, then I can put more time in them. Make it more me." There is a long pause. He might very well be pulling from the bottle of Special Reserve Crown Royal which he happily admits is "aiding some" in his impromptu celebration.
"One thing's for sure," he drawls. "I ain't gonna record a song just because I wrote it. I ain't gonna cheat 'em."
He agrees it's been a long time since he was in such high spirits. "For a spell, I wasn't sure I was gonna find it again." It has been, indeed, a strange trip.
Stewart's mother named him after her favorite celluloid star, Gary Cooper. Stewart was one of nine kids with names beginning with the letter "G." His father ("A real mountain man," Stewart says) worked the mines and raised fighting cocks. After his father injured his hip in a mine accident, Gary and the rest of the Stewart clan headed south to Florida, joining kin who had moved there earlier.
Stewart taught himself to play the guitar and piano and, in the tenth grade, founded his first band, the Tomcats. He later dropped out of school to play in a local honky-tonk. He was 16 when he married his girlfriend Lou, who was 20.
For a while, Lou hopped tables at a local tavern, and Stewart worked at a factory. He quit to play bass for the Imps, a rock band passing through Fort Pierce. After his first road haul, Stewart returned home and began a stint at the Wagon Wheel, a popular country bar in nearby Okeechobee.
"I was always lucky, always in the right place at the right time. I was lucky to get Lou. And there in Okeechobee, in walks Mel Tillis. He took me aside and said, `You're good, son. But the key to getting there is writing.'"
Gary Stewart took Tillis' advice. He and a fellow ex-Tomcats member named Bill Eldridge wrote some songs and made frequent forays to Nashville to hawk them. Eventually, they met up with Jerry Bradley, who had a publishing company, Forest Hills Music. After several fits and starts, the pair found its music being performed by such stars of the day as Billy Walker, Nat Stuckey and Cal Smith.
After a year and a half, however, Stewart, Lou and their two kids, Joey and Shannon, suddenly up and returned to Florida. Nashville had been a success, and they were happy, but in 1971, Stewart saw Southern-rock rajahs the Allman Brothers in concert. The experience set fresh fire to Stewart's long-simmering notion about how music should be done. All bets were off.
Producer Roy Dea (pronounced "day") listened to some of Stewart's country-flavored Motown tunes. Later, Dea was to say that Stewart reminded him of Elvis Presley and Hank Williams-of their gumption and brilliance. Not long afterward, Jerry Bradley, who had joined RCA, hired Dea as a producer. The turbulent Stewart-RCA marriage was soon consummated with a No. 1 single, "Drinkin' Thing."
"She's Acting Single (I'm Drinking Doubles)" and "Out of Hand" followed. In 1975, RCA issued Stewart's first album, Out of Hand, to which the country-music public responded enthusiastically.
But Nashville wasn't a good match for the high-strung, peripatetic performer, who would use the entire stage during a show. It was nothing to see the skinny, black-haired singer pickin' and kickin' while flat on his back-even in the studio.
"I'm wild. But I'm not as wild as they say I am. Well, maybe I am, but it's not my fault." The words shoot forth in high-pitched volleys. "See, I've played all kinds of music-even pop. My preference is the blues. But I got a hit on a drinkin' song and got pigeonholed. I could see something else, but RCA couldn't, and that made me as wild as anything else."
His 1975 hit "Flat Natural Born Good-Timin' Man" was a fiery, chicken-fried mover that featured frenetic slide-guitar work by Stewart. Roy Dea pushed the single as a crossover to rock, but Jerry Bradley and RCA wanted another "Drinkin' Thing." This was the focal point of the friction that permeated the Stewart-RCA union throughout. But Gary Stewart rejects any criticism of Bradley.
"Hey," he half-whispers, "if Jerry Bradley didn't like me, I'd never have lasted as long as I did. Jerry was for me. Roy Dea was for me. Maybe I wasn't for me."
Stewart wore his black hair longÏto the distress of the RCA honchos-and wore jeans to meetings. He took a Stetson, cut away most of the brim, blocked it into a rough fedora and called it "his Chicago cowboy hat." His appearance, and complaints that post-"Drinkin' Thing" efforts lacked the enunciation that was expected of the label's singers, annoyed Bradley and RCA.
Yet, based on his successes to that point, Stewart was a country star. Through his late-Seventies anthem, the slyly autobiographical, blues-hued "Little Junior," he maintained a steady, if leveled-off, national country acceptance.
In the Southwest, however, he developed and continues to enjoy radical Grateful Dead/Bruce Springsteen-type adulation, with an especially fervent following among Native Americans. Honky-tonks and ice houses are routinely packed to witness Stewart's trembling, airborne vocals, slide-guitar prowess and real-thang stage conniptions.
Prodigious amounts of drugs-Stewart says he favored cocaine, Quaaludes and "organics"-helped fuel his on-the-edge lifestyle. He loved performing and would give career-best shows to crowds of 20 in backwoods bars.
A 1980 drug arrest (all charges were eventually dropped) and increasingly frequent spats with Lou signaled that tough times were ahead. A car accident in May 1980 resulted in a broken leg for Stewart and the beginning of a long string of bad fortune.
"The damned doctor set the damn thing about 60 degrees out of whack," he remembers. "It didn't heal right, so the new doctor had to saw the damn thing in half and reset it." It took two years and two operations to get it right, but the pain has never really left. "Now my one leg is a half-inch shorter than the other, and it always hurts like hell." Stewart sought to stem the pain with still more Quaaludes and other painkillers. A near-decadelong depression set in.
"Man, I couldn't work, I couldn't travel. I was getting mental, you know." Stewart is speaking earnestly, his Deep South tenor punctuated by soft comments lost forever to Ma Bell, and small squalls of laughter and oaths whose origins will never be known.
"Lou and I gave Joey the house, and we moved into a trailer on the property. The house was too big to handle; I was always hurtin' and down." Brief sorties on the road-like a memorable visit to Austin City Limits in 1976-often ended prematurely when Stewart's voice would give out. A pair of duet albums with country star Dean Dillon were dismal failures. It's not a time the normally silver-lining-in-every-cloud singer recalls fondly.
"We was reachin' up for something while going under," he says softly. That's when RCA let him go.
"I lost my health, my son [Joey committed suicide in 1988 at age 25], I had that damn car wreck, my back was in ungodly pain-still is, sometimes." He pauses. "Everybody wants to talk about the drugs. Well, hell, I was never much of a drinker. Despite what you hear, I was never on anything onstage. That's just me out there. Well, maybe I was high twice. Once with too much beer in Houston and there was another time with tequila. Man, I shivered for three days. But drugs didn't get me down. I could always lay them aside. I just used them as long as I thought I was having a good time."
For the next couple of years, Stewart stayed pretty much ensconced in the darkened bedroom of his trailer, his depression plumbing its depths and the telephone almost always off the hook. He subsisted almost entirely on candy, cola and Quaaludes. He'd venture out to play now and again, but he didn't record.
A number of small-to-middlin' things have contributed to Gary Stewart's recovery and revival. Age is the primary factor. He's given up the drugs, as well, although he still sips some. Old buddy Roy Dea is producing him again at Hightone, and Lou's still around.
"I love that little Gemini shit," she laughed during an earlier telephone conversation. "We're veterans now." They dote on their two-and-a-half-year-old grandson, Joseph, named after their late son. Lou says Gary took Joey's death "real rough," and little Joseph is helping to ease the hurt.
Gary also garnered a sweetheart of a deal with an adoring and indulgent Hightone. Basically, he doesn't have to tour or do interviews-things that traditionally increase record sales.
"A big label will want a lot of road work," Stewart giddily explains, "and they have a right to it. But with my leg and back, I can't do that. Hightone said, `Gary, we'll take you even if you don't want to go on the road at all.' I said, ~`Okay.'"
Stewart laughs and pauses; the faint sound of glass clinking can be heard. "And, man, I don't want to sound like a wise-ass, but they don't make me do interviews, either. Of course, I still go on the road-about four, five days a month-and do interviews, a couple a year maybe, but only when I want."
Stewart lets out a small whoop and drops the receiver. He returns in seconds, apologizes and explains, "I had to do a little dance, man! The pressure's off!"
He spends most of his free time now finding ways to stay near Fort Pierce. He admits that advancing years, nagging infirmities and the demands of grandpadom are the primary reasons for his slow-lane lifestyle.
"If I was young, I'd probably do it again," the toned-down Hightone singer admits. "I loved going out after shows and partyin', and I made a lot of friends during those days. Now I still have a few beers during the show, but I head straight for the hotel room afterward."
Gary Stewart fanatics needn't fret: He's still the wild man who loves performing, and he still eats up the stage when doing so. He's writing more, too-often in collaboration with Lou-but the melodies and lyrics don't come as easily as in the old days when he was doing all the drugs.
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"If you don't do cocaine or bennies," he rues, "the songs don't come so fast."
Still, he's eager to show off his new wares. He sings a few bars from several new tunes that are so new, he frequently drops the telephone to pace. This, he explains, helps him recall the words. ÔRussian Roulette" and "Jesse James" are lyric-rich ballads that send Stewart's voice racing up and down his register, the controlled vibrato in his mountain tenor wrapping around the lyrics like fuzz on a pipe cleaner.
He's most proud of "Draggin' Leather (Off My Cowboy Boots)," a sure-fire addition to his upcoming album. He sings several verses of the bluesy tune, putting every bit as much of his soul into this concert as for the packed houses he usually faces.
Done, he unleashes a healthy holler and sets down the receiver. The steady hoofing of a spur-of-the-moment mountain jig can be heard, along with the gentle tinkle of glass as he sips from the Special Reserve Crown Royal. He picks up the telephone again, charged up.
"I'm gonna put some fire in them songs," he half-shouts. "I don't just want to do ten songs, I want to do them right! And near my home!" There is the familiar pregnant pause. Then, in the coolest, most serene tone of the evening, he says, "You know, you're listening to one happy man, dammit. I'm the luckiest man in the world.