|Tom Hull's Old Rock Critic Writings|
Gary Stewart Kicks the Shit Off Your Shoes
Gary Stewart is one country singer worth keeping an eye on. He burst onto the scene last year with a string of hit singles and two fine albums. He's also pricked the interest of a handful of rock critics, to the point that Rolling Stone selected him for their nebulous but impressive sounding "Picked to Click for the Bicentennial."
I'm not sure how Rolling Stone meant that -- coselection with Toots and the Maytals and jazzman Anthony Braxton may just signify that Stone is plain bored with rock nowadays -- but it would come down either to Stewart emerging as a pop star or a significaant audience developing that would be broad reaching enough to support and integrate the very diverse sort of artists Rolling Stone named.
For Stewart's music to become popular outside the country circuit would indeed be remarkable; his music ain't rockabilly -- the smoothness and bite of Stewart's singing bears more likeness to Marvin Gaye than rockabilly's terse blues-roots -- nor is it anything else that might mame it more palatable to country-loathing rock fans. Stewart is hardcore country -- take it or leave it. But he is also a gifted songwriter and damn near the best singer to come out of the deep south since Elvis Presley.
Moreover, Stewart embodies a sort of sensibility I find admirable: good timey yet serious, a respect for his songs, his audience an dhis elders while not fearing to add his own good sense. He is a rockribbed country singer, and though most of my allegiances lie elsewhere, he sounds good; last year's brace of albums, along with a new one just out, have given me as much pleasures as anything I've run across lately. And that from someone who a couple years ago hated country music with a passion.
The first of these albums cam eout early last year. On RCA, it was titled Out of Mind, after one of the album's three hit singles. It was short, unattractively pakcaged, with just two songs penned by Stewart. But the record inside was consistently excellent, with none of the songs coming anywhere close to filler. Hot on its tails came a second album which MCA threw together, rounding up a slew of old, unsuccessful singles. The title cut, "You're Not the Woman You Used to Be," was pretty well done in by a chronic case of strings, but nothing else on the album was to be scoffed at. The songs were wild and wooly; one had the singer attacked by "Big Bertha, the Truck Driving Queen" and another, the only tune of the ten not written by Stewart and Bill Eldridge, ought to warm the cockles of many an aging Lou Reed fan. Title? "Caffein, Nicotine, Benzedrine."
Those albums established Stewart as a force to be reckoned with, a singer and perhaps a writer of considerable potential. The new RCA album, Steppin' Out, underlines that potential and takes a couple sizeable strides toward realizing it. It is a somewhat strange album, not so easy to get into, with gnashing styles and awkward flows. There are no singles on the order of "Out of Hand" or "She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles)," but the songs are solid and the best of them are unmatched by anything I know if in the annals of country music: an easy swinging, steel-laden tune called "Hank Western" that inside three minutes tells the story of a first person country singer, his music, his audience, particularly his women, his strengths and weaknesses, and balances the whole thing off into a complex, considered state of the calling. And then there's a backwoods redneck special called "easy People" that matches some of the rawest music around with amazingly sharp images: "See them roosters running 'round the yard?/ We put 'em on the table every Sunday/ Then we give grace to God."
Top that off with an inspired rendition of the Lefty Frizzell classic, "If You've Got the Money (I've Got the Time)," and a few other super performances -- only a lengthy run on Charlie Daniels' "Trudy" strikes me as superfluous, like the only reason they did it was because Daniels wanted to sit in on the session -- and you get one of the finest country albums in ages. Fuck, you got one of the very finest albums of any sort likely to be laid on the public this year.
Stewart's smart, and I like that. Like any country boy with a story to tell, he bends the truth a bit, but he's also prudent enough that the whole thing begins to bend back in shape, each song adding to his sensibility; that's what I think good art should do. But he's also a flat natural born good-timin' singer, and that's why he's great.
This was retyped from a lightly edited manuscript. I think this piece was written with the Voice in mind, but wasn't published. The date is probably late 1976.
As now seems obvious from the piece, what I knew about country music back in 1976 didn't amount to much. Which isn't to say that I had no roots nor feel for it -- my mom loved country gospel, and I had seen more Porter Wagoner than most folks can imagine. But when I flagged Gary Stewart as "damn near the best singer to come out of the deep south since Elvis Presley," I doubt that I even considered George Jones or Willie Nelson (who I might exclude on technicalities, but the same technicalities would have killed me on Otis Redding and Al Green and many others).
Still, the point the review floundered on was whether Steppin' Out was actually any good. The record got panned by almost everyone. (I asked Ed Ward to read the piece, and he wrote back: "I read it. I agree with Bob [Christgau]'s assessment of the album. It's downright tame, and that stupid Charlie Daniels cut, catchy as it is, is nothing but a tepid rewrite of "Sweet Tater & Cisco." Stewart isn't playing piano, even, and I sure wish he'd remember that he's one of the best, now that the Killer's a basket case.") My recollection is that it is looser and funkier than Out of Hand, but the latter is such a thorough immersion in honky tonk bathos that is really is a classic, and because it came out in one chunk really is one of the few truly great country albums ever. 25+ years later, Out of Hand stands out in Stewart's catalog much like Total Destruction to Your Mind stands out for Jerry Williams (Swamp Dogg), which makes me suspect that Steppin' Out was inevitably occluded by its predecessor's shadow. So my theory now is that my ignorance of the honky tonk matrix let me see some virtue in Steppin' Out that more knowledgeable reviewers weren't interested in. I mean, at the time what I saw was three pretty good albums that were very different things: one set of r&b-influenced novelties, one set of neoclassic honky tonk anthems, and one set of countryrock fusion.