Ain't nothing negotiable about a bullet to the head. In the quiet lost
hours. No one around to save you. Just the silence to hold you, the night to
enfold you, the pain to envelope you -- and to the unknown slip into.
And so it was for Gary Stewart, the roughestneck voiced honky tonker who could tear the lid off a song like barbed wire through soft flesh.. Just rip
it to shreds, leave it quivering on the floor -- no hope for scar tissue, the
raggedy carcass or the ability to put it together again. Because when Gary
Stewart sang a song, he retired the jersey. Ain't no need to even think about… that song was done gone. Long gone. Over and out.
Gary Stewart came back to me during his tenure on Hightone. A big
stalwart of the cracks in the jukeboxes of real four-on-the-floor redneck bars -- my initial exposure being west of Military Trail in mid-Palm Beach County ("not west of Military Trail," the upstanding denizens of society and retirement would recoil) -- where people came to "f#%* or fight," and the didn't much care which. They played the hits in those bars, for certain, and Gary Stewart, who was high flying rocket fuel in an already supercharged, overheated environment was aghost of a time threaded with danger, life on the edge and a thrill that came from kicking out the lights with abandon.
Gary Stewart was dangerous. Electric. Thrilling. Impossible. Ragged. Raw.
Jagged. Beyond control. Beyond belief. Beyond the limit. And those songs,
those brutal songs about breaking points and breaking through, high dramas in honky tonks -- "Drinkin' Thing," "Brand New Whiskey," "Out of Hand," "Back Sliders Wine" and the seminal "She's Acting Single, I'm Drinking Doubles." His West was somehow wilder -- and we yearned to hit that horizon hard, certain that the other side would free us from the limitations of real life.
But beyond the 9-to-5, the convention of conventional wisdom, the
bow-and-genuflect of it all, the glistening eyes, beady and tight searching for some gut-truth that lies beyond articulation, known -- not uttered -- from the
inside out. Funny how that works: wild-eyed boys punching and kicking and drinking and loving their way through without much more thought to it than what's on the jukebox.
And in that brutal simplicity, Gary Stewart forged his kingdom.
And in that brutal reality, Gary Stewart put a gun to his neck -- and
pulled the trigger.
Probably no one can sing that flat-out open without something driving
from the inside out. And Gary Stewart hit it hard -- pushing the pedal through
the floor, taking the roof off with one free swing. But in that hardness came a
release unlike any other -- an unattainable recoil that left you on the floor,
utterly spent, relaxed, satisfied.
When Ronnie Dunn -- a seek and destroy singer if ever there was one --
heard the news, awake too early in the City of Angels, it hit him in a place few can reach: the eye of the same fire that consumes him.
"Gary was the most authentic 'hard core' honky tonk singer, next to Hank
Williams, that I've ever heard.," came the e-mail at an hour no
self-respecting barroom refugee should be responding at. "The first time I heard him was on the juke box was in a beer joint in Glenpool, Okla. Singing 'She's Acting Single, I'm Drinkin' Doubles' in the late 70's. He stopped me cold in my tracks -- and I understood right then that a man could tear the heart right out of a song."
Dunn, of course, made his name in the juke joints, dance halls and honky
tonks around Tulsa, Oklahoma's very vibrant music scene. Steeped in the blood of neon lights and cheap beer, he knew about these sorts of places... and that behind-chicken-wire authenticity helped infuse Brooks & Dunn's muscular brand of honky tonk with the real life drama that made them as one critic wrote "the heart of Saturday night."
The heart of Saturday night remains the Holy Grail of working stiffs,
trying to stretch the paycheck 7 days and the hours long enough to get it all
done. There's no Valhalla or Canyon Ranch for these people, just drowning your sorrows, howling at the moon, finding some lightning bolt or thunder roll of human connection -- because that jolt of right now is about all that can be
Gary Stewart not only knew that, he was defined by that. A man who
teetered on the brink of reality, rushing from things that haunted and hunted him which most mortals would never understand, it made him wail like a tortured soul in Dante's Inferno or "the Damned Souls" in Michelangelo's Altar of the Sistine Chapel.
His was the abyss of want, the vortex of the intersection between lust
and hurl oneself dead at it, the charge of right now and the voltage that was
combustion contained in flesh. An athletic vocalist whose voice carried
emotional current like electricity through water, step back or get fried when he set down on a song.
And that was the dang deal, too. Even through some fairly straight-up
mid-70s countrypolitan "outlaw" production -- with its lush choruses and neatly margined out charts -- Gary Stewart took the corner on two wheels, hair and shirt tail flying, a cloud of dust swallowing that shrinking dot that was once the man with the voice that was kerosene and a spark.
But that's the thing about men who live beyond the outlaw pale… They're
consumed by things we cannot see, cannot know, cannot understand. The demons that chase them ignite that shaky emotional overload quiver that makes you stop what you're doing and listen to every quaver in their voice as if it was the tarot to tell all about betrayal, lusts for all things toxic, a need beyond reason.
What makes the art compelling is what makes the life a ruggedly rocky
road. Gary Stewart, who had his 6-1-5 shot when the outlaws were runnin' the show, Billy Joe Shaver looked like a contender, Guy Clark was a poet with a shot and Steve Earle was a wet-behind-the-ears-kid hanging on the fringe like some dog sniffing scraps and mercy from the older, wiser artists.
Those demons, though, were harsh mistresses. The bottle and the shadows of whatever inhabited his mind like a clanking chain-dragging ghost of what shoulda been. The ill-fated, worse-fitting life that is surrender to the game that almost destroyed what little sanity the white knuckled songwriter
In the late 80s, there was an album on Hightone. It was my salad days,
but a highwater time for a kind of country that had no place on the
assembly line. Straight-up, non-negotiable, undeniable, unwieldy in the way real life can be -- and unburnished the way living and basic metals oxidize as they exist.
In a world where Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam and kd
lang co-existed with new traditionalists who were polishing up the classic sounds like Ricky Skaggs, Randy Travis, George Strait, even pre-tv Reba McEntire, there was a congruence for artists like mystic singer/seer Jimmie Dale Gilmore, beat songwriter Butch Hancock, high pressure country/rocker Joe Ely and even crow-on-a-wire, pages-torn-from-a-diary songstress Lucinda Williams. In that arc, Gary Stewart was a phoenix rising from the ashes of his promise on the wings of a reborn appreciation of country-on-the-edge.
Though in Stewart's case, country-on-the-ledge might've been closer.
Especially in light of the news… News that left me still. Sitting at the keyboard, head bowed, eyes closed, wondering where that sort of turpentined veracity might be found in the future. Because that sort of kicking at the emotional stall now is translated as sloppiness passing as passion. It ain't even close.
Back when Brand New Whiskey arrived, it was my first real time exposure
-- a lost icon resurfacing or banking after an extended beyond the radar
cruise. And out on that porch jutting out from that glorified two room apartment on Duane Street -- the second steepest incline in Los Angeles -- looking over the reservoir known as Silver Lake with even that water stiller than a mirror, nothing moving under the weight of the Santa Ana heat, the raw edge of Stewart's voice rolled out that sliding glass door and down the cracked concrete with a vengeance.
To the neighbors, no doubt, this was the abode of some displaced Okie
white trash amongst the Bohemians and the last Mexicans who didn't know
gentrification was fixing to rid the neighborhood of them soon enough. In that
suspended stifling environment, Gary Stewart was a breath of even hotter air,
challenging the low pressure cell with an explosive charge.
There was a freedom to blasting "Brand New Whiskey" that told the
neighbors "have at it" or "pound sand." Someone listening to anything this unbridled was best not messed with… and it was true. Because if you could lock and load on something this unselfconsciously real, how can you be shamed, marginalized, locked down, pack-mentalitied or cornered into submission?
Rather than raising a middle digit in what was quickly becoming the
epicenter of cool, all you had to do was the set a real hillbilly singer set on
emotional consumption on stun and watch the people shudder. Who knew Gary Stewart was just another name for insurrection?
If freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose as the seer
Kristofferson proclaimed, then suicide is just another name for an angel releasing himself from the mortal coil of torture and anguish.
It's been a hard year or so for heroes. Even worse for legends. In
country alone, there was June Carter Cash and Waylon Jennings, Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash. Seems like every time I turned around, another voice was gone, another light extinguished, another curtain drawn or chapter closed. Warren Zevon for sure… and and and. And then. And yet. And uhm….
As my little car-radio quality speakers whirl out the gently strolling
"Your Place or Mine," Stewart's voice tickles the rafters, drops down and
wiggles like too much girl in too little dress and then rolls across a verse that
teases the melody with a languishing attenuation of just the right words. And
for all the opening up that is his signature, all the catches and rolls, it is
the direct need that he sinks into that transforms one more hillbilly song of
take-it-on-home connection into a sacrament of flesh and fulfillment.
Flesh and fulfillment. Pretty basic stuff, really, but the stuff that --
unlike sanitized for your protection male singers who're clean as a Marines
barrack -- makes the world go 'round. And dead or alive, this is music that
shall go 'round and 'round and 'round. For Gary Stewart brokered something far more plugged in than two-dimensional Hallmark card realities…
When he was sweet, "Cactus and A Rose," "Are We Dreaming The Same Dream," even the cheatin' proposition "I See The Want To In Your Eyes" that was far-flung as anything Elvis ever tackled, Gary Stewart showed that it's the wildest boys who are tenderest. In that release, there's a capitulation that's about wanting to, not being trapped into it.
Just like living. Gary Stewart ultimately refused to be trapped…
His way may make no sense to the rest of us… We will never know what
drove him to do what he did… What existed beneath the surface, what voices might've taken over his head… But what we know about why doesn't matter. That he's gone, but that he left us with so much genuine article is more than plenty. To miss that in the name of what happened, to miss that high wire voice that took the truth and wrung it dry, is to get upside down in how it really is.
For Gary Stewart, what could be greater treason?
Ain't nothing negotiable about a bullet to the head. In the quiet lost