Sunday, April 17, 2011

The King of Honky Tonk

If you're a fan of country music (specifically the honky tonk vein) and you're not familiar with the late, great Gary Stewart, you're really missing out - his 70's output has been called "the coolest records to come out of Nashville" by none other than Steve Earle; but if this has piqued your interest, there's a great piece on him written by Jimmy McDonough (Shakey: Neil Young's Biography and The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan )that explains his appeal and tells his life story, which reads like a lonesome country song in itself. Here's an excerpt from LITTLE JUNIOR, KING OF THE HONKY-TONKS: The life and death of Gary Stewart.

The voice just stopped you in your tracks. Hillbilly haywire with a lonesome Kentucky edge that added a little chrome to those Cadillac pipes, it wasted no time in grabbing your soul by the lapel. When you listened to Gary Stewart sing, you kind of held your breath, wondering if he'd get out of the song alive. He'd swoop down on words, elongate syllables and growl around his range, then spit out the chorus. At a time when many roots-conscious rockers were trying to add a little country to their rock 'n' roll, Gary went the other way 'round with a vengeance. "Stewart didn't really fit in anywhere," writes Jim Lewis. "He wasn't Southern rock, and he wasn't Nashville country." Amen to that. Gary Stewart was a weird, frustrating and often thrilling genre unto himself. Live, if Stewart was on his game, look out. A long-haired runt of a guy with only a scary grin breaking the dark shadows beneath his cowboy hat, Stewart rode an audience like bucking a bronco. Suddenly possessed by the spirit, he'd throw the band a curve by ambling over to the piano and, caressing the keys with the crude, rhythmic whimsy of Skip James, lurch into an impromptu version of Merle Haggard's "I Can't Be Myself" with the herky-jerky rhythm of a marionette that had cut its own strings. Many were afraid of Stewart, spooked by his sheer wattage, but in moments like this he looked as fragile and forlorn as an empty champagne glass on a barroom floor. Say the wrong word to Gary and he'd shatter. His was a music of dangerous, wild abandon, and for a few years there in the seventies, Stewart cut a string of ferocious, magnificent recordings, some of them hits: "She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles)." "Drinkin' Thing. " "Out of Hand." "Your Place or Mine." "I Had to Get Drunk Last Night." "Single Again." "Shady Streets." "In Some Room Above the Street." "Stone Wall (Around Your Heart)." Comparisons were frequently made to Jerry Lee Lewis, but to these ears Gary was more of a countrified Roky Erickson: a voice that came screaming from another dimension, and one that contained more than a hint of madness. Perhaps the only singer with phrasing as perverse is Bob Dylan, himself a Stewart fan. While touring with Tom Petty in Florida, Dylan went out of his way to meet him, confessing that he'd played Stewart's ode to marital malaise 'Ten Years of This' over and over, the record casting a spell over him. But then it was easy to be bewitched by Gary. "I'm only goin' through once an' I'm goin' through in style," threatened Stewart in his low-down theme song, 'Little Junior.' Did he ever. Car crashes, drug busts and overdoses, missed gigs, label firings, mental breakdowns, domestic battles--chaos followed him like a puppy on a chain. To rip off a line from Billy Joe Royal, Gary Stewart burned like a rocket. But no longer, because on December 16, 2003 his body was found in his Florida home, dead by his own hand.

Between the late 1980's and mid 1990's,"The King of Honky Tonk" (a title bestowed on him by TIME magazine) recorded a mix of covers with a jazz/blues band based out of Kentucky called Blue Jay and the Hawks. The recordings (and Blue Jay originals w/o Gary) are available to listen to on their website; however for your convenience I've put them together in a single (small) download.

Gary Stewart with Blue Jays & The Hawks

1. Leave the Note (Jay Haskett)

2. Long Black Veil (Dill/Wilkins)

3. No Expectations (Jagger/Richards)

4. Six Days on the Road (Montgomery/Green)

5. Wild Horses (Jagger/Richards)


Enjoy, and do yourself a favor and pick up some Gary Stewart albums, my personal favorite being the combined reissue of his two bestselling LP's, Out of Hand & Your Place or Mine.


  1. More Gary. I fell for his sound after hearing him on an OXFORD AMERICAN comp and have been tracking his stuff ever since. My favorite (so far) is "She's Acting Single and I'm Drinking Doubles", the warble in his voice totally strips the song of any irony and kills ya. Thanks!

  2. Thanks a lot. Gary is one of my favourites.

  3. There is a God. I can't thank you enough, I am obsessed with him. Holler at me if you wanna trade some stuff, I have unreleased stuff too.

  4. hiii ... Nice Post ..

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  5. There's this awesome website that has Music Lyrics You should check it out!

  6. can't study american music and leave off of Gary.
    Damn him and his contrary ways. we love him and miss him and he's gone.