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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."

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Larry Crowley