Perfect Sound Forever

The life and death of Gary Stewart

By Jimmy McDonough (copyright 2004)

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.

Stewart was born on May 28, 1945, in Letcher County, Kentucky. Named after Gary Cooper, he was one of nine kids, all of whose names began with 'G.' The Stewarts were an ornery bunch—his mom Georgia not only packed heat, she carried a rock-in-a-sock for backup. "Don't be sorry, be prepared—for anything," she happily told me. Father George was a coal miner with a sideline selling birds for cockfights. Following his injury in the mines, the family packed up and moved to Fort Pierce, Florida. Stewart would find Nashville colder than a hooker's heart, and he'd always retreat to this somewhat nefarious coastal town.

His first group was a rockabilly band called The Tomcats, and crude tapes from 1960 show the Stewart swagger firmly in place. It was around this time that Gary met Mary Lou. She was twenty, he was sixteen--scandalous to say the least. Raven-haired Mary Lou was a piece of work, a wild woman who, like Gary, loved Jimmy Reed and visiting graveyards. For the next forty-three years they fucked, fought and finished each other's sentences. Lou was priceless company. If you showed any interest, she'd happily show you her boob job and often boasted of packing Gary's rubbers for the road. Gary and Lou were inseparable, sometimes intolerable, and often inexplicable.

Stewart kicked around the edges of Nashville, cutting a handful of memorable singles for Decca/Kapp while co-writing with fellow Floridian Bill Eldridge minor hits for the likes of Nat Stuckey, Jack Greene, Billy Walker and Hank Snow. The real catalyst for Stewart's success was producer Roy Dea, the man who captured the hard-country side of Gary's sound the best. "You get hooked on Stewart," he said. "He's like a damn drug." Dea was a sort of father figure to Gary, and Stewart, a born delinquent, tried in vain to be a good son. The producer got him signed to RCA, although then-A&R man Jerry Bradley wouldn't seal the deal until Gary agreed to cut his hair.

The wildest young man in country on the world's squarest label made for a less than happy marriage. His 1975 smash debut Out of Hand remains Stewart's most consistent (if most orthodox) album, spawning three top ten country hits, but with the next year's Steppin' Out came friction with RCA. The first single was "Flat Natural Born Good-Timin' Man," a crazy self-penned rocker featuring his snarly vocals as well as his slide guitar. It didn't go higher than twenty on the charts, and Jerry Bradley actually felt Gary's ever-weirder vocalizations were to blame. "Losin' his enunciation, that was the beginning of his problems," complained the executive.

"I've got this drinkin' thing," wails Stewart on that first unforgettable hit, and this is exactly what his music is about: total surrender, whether to a vice, woman, nightmare or desire. To dwell in that zone shreds even the best of them after awhile. Gary was brazen about his love of drugs. The time he jumped into an RCA dumpster looking for some accidentally discarded coke certainly set Nashville a-twitter. I have the original manuscript for 1978's "Little Junior," scribbled on a page from a prescription pad. A 1980 car accident demolished Stewart's back, beginning a lifelong romance with painkillers that often left his voice foggy and earthbound.

"Fort Pierce is known for its drugs, the best of everything came to my door," he boasted. Everybody but the mailman got sucked into trying to help Gary kick the many monkeys on his back, but within no time at all he'd somehow manage to con you into filling a narcotics prescription. I once inadvertently accompanied Gary on a midnight score. As he slipped inside the honky-tonk upon our return, the driver of the car—who'd bought the ever-broke Stewart the stuff—had the nerve to mutter, "If Gary could get off that shit, he'd be bigger than Hank Williams."

Annoyed by success, particularly the touring that came with it, Stewart was loathe to venture beyond his Florida sanctuary. It became difficult to corral him into the studio. He broke free from Roy Dea to make 1980's Cactus and A Rose with Memphis big-shot Chips Moman, but Moman's layered, precise production fit Gary about as well as a poodle cut on a punk rocker. Members of the Allman Brothers clan--whom Stewart idolized--sat in for the recording, adding generic superstar smudges to an expensive flop. Gary cut a string of live demos at the time with his road band that just burned, but by the time nine months of sessions had ended, the album had been overdubbed into cold storage.

The ultimate expression of Stewart's weird wanderlust, the barren, brief and blood-curdling demo of 'Harlan County Highway' (written by Gary, although Dickie Betts added a final verse to the 'official' recording) is the resigned cry of a man who's glimpsed a voodoo doll stuck full of pins and bearing his name. "Temptation lurks on every corner/Seven corners every mile," he moans, heading for a destination within the same infernal zip code as that cold, dark end of the road where Jerry Lee once threatened to meet us. Gary's got a gold-plated invite to hell and just can't help but RSVP. The joyous hedonism of "Your Place or Mine" led here? "What started out as heaven/Got lost along the way."

With Cactus and a Rose, Stewart had blown his one chance to rock, and now RCA really turned the screws. Jerry Bradley sentenced Gary to a couple of duet albums with Dean Dillon, maybe the label's dumbest idea ever outside of Having Fun With Elvis Onstage. Wimpy, inane songs like "Brotherly Love" and "Smokin' in the Rockies" provoked nothing outside of painful cringes. The man who'd touched the hem of the garment and thrown the Ali punches was now reduced to the role of honky-tonk bozo. In 1983, RCA dropped Stewart by way of a phone call, and his meager income came only from sporadic gigs at Texas beer halls and Oklahoma Indian reservations. If he had regrets, Gary didn't share them. "Stardom was no goal, nothin' I ever chased," he told me.

People tried to coax Stewart into playing New York City or Los Angeles many times, but Gary preferred to stay home, lie on the couch and watch Charles Bronson as Wild Bill Hickock on the hunt for The White Buffalo (Stewart must've seen the movie a thousand times, as he knew every line of dialogue in the damned thing). Mention a no-name club in some Texas twilight zone, though, and Gary's eyes grew big. "Get him into some backwoods shithole and he'd really fly," said his soundman Steve Kiriton. "Stewart was just one of those downward mobility guys."

Death was no stranger to Gary Stewart. People seemed to drop like flies around the guy. Lou once invited me to peruse a few pages of her diary, and the doom and destruction chronicled within was worthy of a war correspondent. Gary was known to freak out whenever Floyd Cramer's "Last Date" came on the radio; it was the favorite number of a musician pal who'd blown himself away. Sister Grizelda killed herself in the mid-seventies (Gary recorded Willie Nelson's "I Still Can't Believe You're Gone" in her honor, never singing the song again) and his own son Joey shot himself dead at age 25 in 1988.

The grim reaper looms large in Stewart's music as well. "I Love You Truly," his very first 1964 single for Cory Records, is a teen-death number, and on that initial RCA album you'll find the haunting "Williamson County." The first song he'd co-written with Lou, it's a gruesome murder ballad about a man who finds his wife with another man and kills her: "Down to the river, where I put her under." Another perversity in a life full of them, the released version is fluff compared to a chilling demo Gary cut on his own. A long weird howl from the deepest darkest Kentucky holler, Nashville certainly wasn't ready for this, and who knows if anybody is now.

Want to hear a man sing his own epitaph? Seek out "Honky-Tonk Man," the 1981 B-side of one of Stewart's last RCA singles. Barely clinging to a woozy melody he bought off some picker for a bottle of wine, Stewart spits out the words like he's singing from the dark end of a mile-long bar, lost on a ten-year drunk. Even the great Roy Dea—who produced the record--couldn't stomach Gary's extreme vocal. Stewart drags the song through the mud of his life, staining the words with bitterness, self-loathing and a few drops of romance. This is honky-tonk star as sideshow freak, the sound of a man opening his own ribcage to show you his bloody, still beating heart. Nobody paid the least bit of attention to it.

Too idiosyncratic for Music City USA, much of Stewart's best music remains unheard. "Hollywood," "Play It, Boys," "Fourth of July," the filthy "Bedtime Stories" ("I'm gonna love you four ways, baby/Deep an' long an' hard an' wide"), the scary "East Virginia Blues." Other masterpieces are scattered in the dust, as Gary left recordings everywhere. Undoubtedly some genius will round them up on CD and in death, Gary will get the kind of accolades he never quite received while alive. I'm certain he'd get a kick out of such bitter irony.

An obscure 45 by Wild Bill Emerson led me to Gary Stewart's door. I wanted to write about Stewart, find out why he'd fallen off the face of the earth. Eventually I finagled the number for his Fort Pierce mobile home from a friend who, like everybody else, warned me to steer clear. On the phone, Gary was polite but noncommittal, although after much badgering he offered a deal: if I could find him this particular single by Wild Bill, he'd talk. A record hound himself, he thought he'd brushed me off with an impossible task, but to his shock the single was found, and thus it was time to hold Gary to his end of the deal.

Arriving in Fort Pierce in August, 1987, I was cautioned by one of his cohorts to expect a "honky-tonk Dracula." That's a little upscale—Gary was more Count Yorga material. The windows of his gloomy trailer were painted black and, when not comatose, Stewart was living on 19-cent two-liter bottles of Dr. Chek Cola, "Ree-see" Peanut Butter Cups, and amphetamine. There was an uneasy vibe festering within that long aluminum box—sort of like being trapped in an abandoned wax museum, only every once in a blue moon the waxworks moved. Later I'd hear spooky tales of black magic and possessed pet cats whose heads whipped around a la Exorcist-era Linda Blair.

Sometimes it took days for Gary to crawl out from his bedroom crypt, and I grew very weary of revisiting White Buffalo. I'd talked photographer (later filmmaker) Larry Clark into documenting the story, and at one point he too was parked in the darkness waiting for Gary to emerge. Pissed off, Clark wanted to barge into the bedroom, throw back the covers and snap a picture of Stewart in all his bed-sore glory. Gary eventually slithered out of his hole, but for drugs, not company. Speed--Gary loved the stuff. How a jitterbug as hot-wired as Stewart could crave more (and more) juice was mystifying.

Getting the story took an eternity. Stewart stalled, sulked, cursed and screamed, but in the end he delivered the goods, boy. Unlike many a sissy control-freak celebrity, Gary was a true open book, unapologetic and proud of the life he lived. Once the story appeared in the Village Voice, he squeezed me for all the unflattering anecdotes I'd left out, chuckling over every rude detail.

Gary could be more laughs than a Devo video. We shared some obscure joke concerning Mike Love and forever after, a phone message or a package from an 'M. Love' meant that Stewart had come a-knocking. He was unbelievably generous, giving away tons of records, jewelry or anything else a guest coveted for half a second. Beware if you had a book or record Gary wanted, though, because he was bound to sweet-talk it away. He seemed to stumble around in a drugged haze, but beneath ever-present shades lurked a cagey bastard who didn't miss a trick.

Here's the one tale Stewart asked me to hold back until after his final exit: Lou and Gary were deep in debt to his mother and unable to pay, so they were going to hand over the house. Lou kept putting it off and Georgia was giving her hell. Finally an exasperated Gary strolled into his mother's living room and asked, "Momma, who are your favorite people in the world?" Georgia thought it over, then named an aunt and uncle back in Kentucky. Pulling out a gun, Gary said, "Well, Momma, don't you ever say anything bad to Lou again or I'm gonna go up there with this gun and kill 'em BOTH." Then he turned and walked out of the house.

"See, that's the perfect Gary Stewart story," said an anonymous friend. "He has not jeopardized himself, because he ain't threatened his momma. He's just gonna kill somebody else."

Directly after the Voice article appeared Gary began recording for Hightone Records. There were high hopes for a comeback, but the label opted for $1.98 recreations of his RCA past, with Roy Dea even dragging Gary back into the very studio of the label that had dumped him. The end result was, for the most part, dull, lifeless music. Gary contributed to his own downfall at every turn, blowing off sessions, failing to finish material. Too bad nobody ever rounded up a bunch of his favorite musicians, locked them in his trailer and left the 'record' button on for a week or two, because I know he still had it in him. Believe me, Gary had made way better recordings in shitty Fort Pierce home studios alone with a cheap drum machine, not to mention with an acoustic guitar before my own tape recorder, like one crazy night when I ran into him and Lou in Memphis in October, 1988.

Earlier in the day, the pair had been in some hellacious battle which had resulted in Gary somehow pulling the key out of the ignition while Lou was hurtling down the freeway into Memphis. We took the Graceland tour (Stewart was an Elvis freak), convening afterwards in some cheap motel room. With his broken glasses and missing tooth, Gary looked like he'd been living in a chicken coop. There'd been a suicide attempt a month before, Stewart washing down some two hundred pills with shots of whiskey. Things were just revving up with his new label and he seemed ambivalent about reacquainting himself with the world.

I had a recorder with me and, as always, asked him to lay down a few numbers for the time capsule. Sometimes he didn't, sometimes he did. This night, despite his jittery condition, Gary rose to the occasion. Staring suspiciously at the tape recorder not unlike the way Mickey Mantle must've eyed the pitcher's ball, Stewart picked up his acoustic and turned away from me, facing the wall. Visibly trembling, he ripped through a single verse of one oldie after another. "Honky-Tonk Hardwood Floor" led to "Long Black Veil" and "All Shook Up," not to mention "I Fought the Law." Gary seemed to gather strength with each number, slowly winning a battle with some invisible adversary. By the wee hours of the morning he looked more wrung-out than a locker room hand towel.

After three albums, Hightone dropped Gary. As usual, he'd been his uncontrollable, undependable and uncommercial self. Stewart went back to playing Texas honky-tonks and living on his couch. He'd sucker some rabid fan couple into taking care of him on the road, burn them out, then latch onto another pair. 2003 saw the release of a live album that Stewart had bungled badly and seemed ashamed of. Life for Gary Stewart had settled into a routine of cancelled shows, a sea of pain pills and the occasional heart attack.

Through the years we stayed in touch. Sooner or later I'd get a midnight Mike Love phone call. "Heyyy, bud, lemme play you a song," he'd say in that instantly recognizable, somewhat demented whisper. Gary talked so softly, like he was letting you and only you in on the world's biggest secret. I never could resist.

In December, 2003, I picked up the phone and there was that unmistakable drawl. And just what was Mike Love up to these days? "We lost Lou," he muttered, barely able to spit out the words. This was shocking news. A few weeks before, Mary Lou—recovering from another bout with pneumonia--had suffered a fatal heart attack in her sleep. Nobody ever thought Lou would exit first, and Stewart had to be lost without his one tether to reality. He couldn't remember his home phone number and struggled to retrieve his own address off an envelope. I feared Gary was a goner, but he assured me otherwise. "Don't worry, bud, I'll be fine." We talked awhile, rehashed old times, made plans to see each other soon. I had no idea he was calling to say goodbye.

Following Lou's death on November 21, Shannon Stewart kept watch over her father, as did Gary's friends. After a dinner with Shannon during which he seemed in good spirits, he returned home, hung out with a pal for awhile, then called it a night. Everybody thought he was coping okay, but Stewart had managed to pull the wool over their eyes once more. Alone there in the house, Gary turned a gun on himself and pulled the trigger, blasting himself right into the past tense. Shannon found her father, as she had Lou, leaving her the only member of his immediate family left alive. Gary was fifty-eight years old. He left no note. And I thought Count Yorga would somehow live forever.

Days earlier, as that last call between us had ended, I'd offered some feel-good cliche about how great the bond was between he and Lou, how he'd see her again on the other side. In a low voice Gary replied, "And as I cross that last river, I'll moan her name with my dying breath." I have no doubt he did.

A sad ballad inspired by an epitaph Gary had found in some Atlanta cemetery, "Silver Cloud" is sung from the point of view of a deceased lover telling his mate she'll meet him in the afterlife, "sittin' on top of a silver cloud." The grim conviction with which Gary belts out this unreleased song makes you wonder if he knew how it would end right from the get-go. It was Lou's favorite. "I'll never be without him-'til death," she had said of her husband back in 1988. "And then somewhere in time I'll find him, cause that's how much I love him."

It's a losing battle to try to sum up a character like Gary in a few neat paragraphs. "I'm a complicated person," admitted the man known to wear three pairs of sunglasses at a time while on the road. Yeah, at his worst he was a mean, insufferable wretch, but let me say this: his fire inspired. "If you don't gamble, you can't win," he sang on a bittersweet 1984 single, "Life's a Game." Gary bet the house even when he had to borrow change for a phone call. That was the Stewart way, and you just wanted to jump off the cliff with him. One scribe has written that Stewart died "small" due to the miserable nature of his death. What a bunch of malarkey. As Gary screamed at me in the trailer one sweltering afternoon, "Don't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes!" Of course, he then threw a knife at my head.

"King of the honky tonks," said Shannon of her father a few days after his demise, her weary voice betraying a bit of that old Stewart-clan defiance. No way was Gary ever going to refrain, repent or renounce his demons, let alone "mature" or even grow up. Listen to his music, it's all there—the good, bad and ugly. No point in candy-coating it, making it pretty. Gary was a hellion, the living, glowing embodiment of a certain spirit: honky-tonk, rock 'n' roll, whatever. It's that wind Nolan Strong and the Diablos sing of. Here one minute, gone the next. You just can't expect it to last.

There was this scratchy old King gospel 45 from 1954 that Gary cherished, Kentucky-based Brother Claude Ely, a gold-toothed Pentecostal evangelist, singing "There Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down." Stewart use to belt this number out in a manner that would give pause to even the most fervent Holiness snake-handler. In my mind, I keep seeing him singing that cockamamie song. One day he tore through it on the acoustic and then hissed, "I can do ANYTHANG! Even crawl out of the damn GRAVE if I want to!" These days I wish the boast was true.

In the wee, wee hours a few nights back, alone in the darkness, I let Gary's music wash over me once more. Putting on what Stewart regarded as one of his greatest performances, the bluegrass-tinged "Pretend I Never Happened," his stratospheric voice filled the air, a delirious shotgun blast to the ears. "Just pretend I never happened/And erase me from your mind," he sang. And as a lone salty tear rolled down my cheek in the late, great Mr. Stewart's honor, I had to laugh. Because for those of us in his wake, this just wasn't an option.

You left your mark, Little Junior. May you finally find the peace that so eluded you in this life.

photo: Dennis Clark

Jimmy McDonough is the author of Shakey: Neil Young's Biography and The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan.

Charlie Beesley and John Kopf contributed to this story.

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