Illustration by Chase Collins

November 4, 2009

Out of hand

A search for Gary Stewart and the origins of country music

Marlow Johnson spoke in an Appalachian drawl that was high lonesome and, to the untrained ear, nearly unintelligible. The first time I talked to him was on the fourth attempt I’d made to contact Johnson, the cousin of Kentucky country music legend Gary Stewart. Johnson lives in Virgie, Ky., right outside Whitesburg. Virgie is within miles of Jenkins, Stewart’s hometown.

I asked Johnson if he could show me Stewart’s place of birth and perhaps some of the honky-tonk tomcat’s old stomping grounds. Johnson readily agreed, promising unforgettable stories and, of course, people.

This was my first step in chasing Stewart’s ghost, and with it, an understanding of country music and its relation to Kentucky. I’ve always believed the Bluegrass State produced more talented musicians than Tennessee, home of Music City. There is a reason rural Kentucky is a breeding ground for some of the most foundational folk and country music that has existed. I wanted to find it.

As I drove east toward the Appalachian mountains and Hazard — where I would be staying for the weekend with my aunt Suzie, an eccentric widow who lives literally on a mountaintop, cherishing and spoiling any and all visitors — I listened to nothing but Kentucky-born country music. I got stuck on the Folkways Records collection of Buell Kazee songs.

Kazee, perhaps one of the most successful folk musicians of the 1920s and ’30s, was born at the foot of Burton Fork, Ky., a mountain in Magoffin County. He was playing banjo at 5 years old. He was also a self-appointed historian of Kentucky folk music and a graduate of Georgetown College, where he studied English, Latin and Greek. Many of his songs dealt with religious subject matter. But many also delved into the hard lives and heartache of the working poor, one of my favorites of which is “A Short Life of Trouble,” a song Gary Stewart could have easily and honestly covered.

Were hardship and heartache requisite in writing country music, specifically the kind that would be heralded and imitated for generations?

Both Stewart and Kazee came from hollers, places without running water or electricity, with outhouses smelling up the backyard. Both were plagued by poverty and depression. And both were forgotten by country music historians, by and large. When even avid fans think of folk music, they think of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. When they think of honky-tonk, Lefty Frizzel and his predecessor, Merle Haggard, usually come to mind. I have rarely heard anyone namedrop Stewart or Kazee when discussing seminal figures in folk and country.

I suppose part of chasing Stewart’s ghost involved resurrecting it, even if it meant just for readers in Kentucky.

 

Route 805, the road that led to Marlow Johnson’s home, curved through and around majestic mountains, the light orange, almost-gold leaves of autumn falling effortlessly. A few of the trees were skeletal, void of foliage, complementing some of the less scenic homes, the rusted trailers and shacks that seemed to jut out of the mountainside like malignant growths.

It turned out the people who lived in such places were Gary Stewart’s people.

I passed through Jenkins. As Johnson would later tell me, it is a town so small, “If it had a McDonalds, there’d only be one arch.” Jenkins has a Hardees, an IGA and a garage. It is the kind of town Richard Hugo describes in his poem, “Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg”:

 

The principal supporting business now

is rage. Hatred of the various grays

the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,

The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls

who leave each year for Butte. One good

restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out…

 

About 10 miles later I reached Virgie, a town that made Jenkins look metropolitan. I turned off the main road and soon was nervously navigating a one-lane blacktop road, honking my horn at each of the many curves.

Johnson’s house turned out to be a trailer. Or rather, as I was to discover within seconds of shaking the man’s hand, he chose to live in the trailer because he liked living the way he’d been raised. The man practically owns the holler: two houses, a trailer and the Food Mart just outside Virgie proper.

Inside Johnson’s trailer was an amalgam of arts and crafts, cardboard robots made out of Mountain Dew cases, tin airplanes hanging from the paneled ceiling, fashioned from Sprite and 7-Up cans. He let me play his guitar and even allowed me a try at the lap steel he’d ordered from Nashville. It was painted yellow and kept in pristine condition, almost as if it’d never been touched.

Johnson himself is a spitting image of Levon Helm, The Band’s drummer and singer/songwriter: gaunt and shovel-jawed, close-cropped white hair and a thinly trimmed beard. He wore jeans and a denim jacket. His teeth were stained black and brown from chewing tobacco and smoking his pipe. The man smiled more than anyone I’d ever met and treated me like kin for the duration of my visit. He even invited me to stay and play music with him and his family; too bad Stewart couldn’t join in the weekend ritual anymore.

“If it wasn’t for Pike County and Kentucky, there wouldn’t be no Nashville,” Johnson said. He proceeded to rattle off a list of Kentucky-born country singers and songwriters that would stupefy most Kentuckians.

Loretta Lynn. Dwight Yoakam. Crystal Gale. Keith Whitley. Red Foley. Bill Monroe. The Everly Brothers. The Judds.

It was a point we would come back to often in our discussion of country music, Kentucky and Stewart, who sadly slipped through the cracks of country music history.

“At one time all he had was a broke down truck and coup of chickens to his name,” Johnson said of his cousin. “Next thing you know he’s singing on TV and making hits.”

This man weighed less than 100 lbs. when he died. He lived in a trailer in Fort Pierce, Fla., with the windows spray-painted black, cooking pure methamphetamine, mourning the death of his wife of 43 years. His son had taken his own life 15 years earlier. He suffered unceasing back pains, the result of a car accident in the 1980s. Although undiagnosed, he was likely clinically depressed. He was convinced that he was dying of an unnamed, incurable illness.

Gary Stewart was one of the best country singers I’ve ever heard. He was too rock for country and too country for rock, some claimed. I thought he had enough of both that he could’ve shown up any act that preceded or followed him.

Like so many of the legends, Stewart’s music was heavily informed by the cyclical tragedy that was his life. He did not lead what anyone would call a charmed childhood or adolescence. One would think things would have gotten easier upon discovering fame and fortune, but this was not the case.

From poverty to addiction, from a coalmine to a trailer park, the hard drinking and heartbreak so specifically ingrained in the lower classes of rural America is audible in Stewart’s lilting vibrato, which ranges in a matter of seconds from broken and frail to boisterous and rollicking. When he sings, The only thing I’m running from is the alimony man, he means it. He means it for the divorcee who couldn’t hold his marriage together for the same reason he can’t pay alimony, chronic unemployment fueled by and continuing to fuel prodigious imbibing.

I’m getting by in these hard times, living from drink to drink, Stewart continues in “Single Again.”

“He liked that moonshine,” Johnson said of his cousin. “Notice how all his songs got something to do with drinking.”

Stewart’s writing also reflected the concerns of the working poor, from losing a spouse to someone with more money to being constitutionally unable to quit drinking because it was the only tried and true form of relief from the mental and physical strain of poverty. While the themes of his songs were nothing new, his lyrics were some of the most original to come out of the 1970s: Now he’s got you and I’ve got two divorce lawyers on my back. Few singers had the intestinal fortitude to probe subjects or deliver lines with such snide honesty. It could’ve been a pedestrian, but the way Stewart delivers it, his voice barely above a whisper, you can feel the pain of the alimony absconder.

Stewart, while writer and singer of a parade of hits in the 1970s, continued to live a life of poverty, squandering his royalties on drugs and alcohol, and plummeting into a catatonic depression in the 1980s. In a way, he is one of the only genuine articles in country music for the subject matter of his songs: Hardship and addiction were always so tragically an integral part of his existence.

His father was a coal miner and Stewart had eight brothers and sisters. There was often no escape from the winter winds of Kentucky that cut through tattered coat sleeves like a freshly sharpened scalpel.

As so often happens with the disenfranchised, religion was a staple in Stewart’s life early on. The Calvinism of Appalachia was a key element of Stewart’s songwriting, and with it the dread of being damned to an eternity of torture and heartache. It’s almost as if religion here is a self-fulfilling prophecy, that certain elements of the mountain culture in which men like Stewart were raised emphasize a kind of eschatological fatalism. Stewart lived life as if he knew without equivocation that he was going straight to hell. Why not make the ride comfortable?

“Stewart’s religion is a dark, brooding Calvinism formed by his Appalachian childhood,” writes country music biographer Ron Rash. “These songs are morality plays about longing for the bliss of heaven while too often falling toward hell.”

There is an unmistakable sense of impending doom in the gutbucket lyricism of songs like “Drinkin’ Thing” and “Whiskey Trip.” In these tunes, the narrator has no choice: He has to drink. I’ve got this drinkin’ thing to keep from thinking things. Then he tells us, It’s a lonely thing, but it’s the only thing.

Perhaps some of the best lines in country music speak of a damnation disguised as grace. The same thing that gets him through the hard times will slowly kill him. Again, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy: His life is hell because of his drinking. He drinks because he believes hell awaits him. And every poor decision he makes, every “sin,” is a direct result of this belief.

Stewart left Jenkins with his family when he was 12 years old, migrating to the Florida coast. His father had been badly injured on the job. Back then, if you couldn’t work in the mines and didn’t own a business, there wasn’t much of a place for you in southeastern Kentucky.

Stewart grew up poor and fast. His first guitar was handed to him when he was 14, and by the end of that same year he had mastered the instrument, as well as the piano. It was also the year he began performing live.

During the day, Stewart worked in an airplane factory. At night he sweated on stage, playing for drunken crowds of fishermen and fellow factory workers. He began touring while still in his teens, dropping out of high school once he realized that live shows paid in heraldry and hard liquor, something a scholastic environment couldn’t provide as profusely.

Stewart’s early career consisted of constant touring with pick-up bands, dabbling in rock and country. While playing in a honky-tonk called The Wagon Wheel in Okeechobee, Fla., Stewart was introduced to Mel Tillis, a Florida native who, although he began in the 1950s, rose to fame as a country star in the 1970s, producing a long list of top-10 hits. Tillis was so impressed with the young troubadour that he encouraged him to take his songs to Nashville and shop them, advice that would change the course of Stewart’s career.

In Nashville in 1954, Stewart was discovered by the Cory label, for which he recorded a handful of songs, the bulk of which he co-wrote with Bill Eldridge, a policeman.

Stewart signed to the Kapp label in 1968 and had several unsuccessful recordings. But songwriting successes followed, with Stewart penning hits for artists like Billy Walker, Cal Smith and Nat Stuckey. He also played piano for Charlie Pride for a while, and can be heard tickling the keys on Pride’s live double album In Person. Despite his marginal success, Stewart soon became disenchanted with Music City and returned to Florida and the coastal honky-tonks where he’d earned his stripes.

Stewart had a run of bad luck upon his return to Fort Pierce. He was dropped from Kapp and then from Decca. But Pride, still a friend, helped get some demo tapes (that included countrified Motown tunes) into the hands of producer Roy Dea, who convinced RCA Records to sign the songwriter.

In 1973, Stewart returned to Nashville and recorded a cover version of “Ramblin’ Man” by the Allman Brothers, personal friends of his. The song reached No. 63 on the Billboard chart. However, the following year’s “Drinkin’ Thing” became a top-10 country hit. Stewart’s album Out of Hand was released in early 1975. The title cut from the album became a No. 4 country hit and was followed by a No. 1, “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles).”

Out of Hand became one of the most critically acclaimed country records of the 1970s. Rolling Stone wrote: “With practitioners like Stewart around, honky-tonk — and rockabilly — may not be dead yet.” Country music critic and historian Bill Malone lauded Out of Hand as “one of the greatest honky-tonk country albums ever recorded.”

Stewart’s 1977 nod to marital misery, “Ten Years of This,” from the album Your Place or Mine, is one of Bob Dylan’s favorite songs. Stewart wrote a lot about marriage. He was 17 when he married Mary Lou Taylor, a woman three years his senior. She would remain his wife until she died of pneumonia, reportedly drug related. Their relationship was a mutually abusive whirlwind fueled by drinking and drugging, but she never left him. She once said, in an interview with The Village Voice, “I feel that God has put me here for Gary, just as he’s here for me. So I’ll never be without him — ’til death. An’ then somewhere in time I’ll find him.”

Throughout the late 1970s, Stewart continued to garner critical acclaim and maintained a loyal fan base. He could never, however, reach an audience as large as he deserved. His alcoholism and drug addiction kept him relatively silent in the 1980s.

His cousin spoke on this briefly, saying, “When Gary’d come visit, Momma would say, ‘I love to see him coming, but I don’t love to see him coming like that.’” According to Johnson, Stewart was inebriated most of the time, his long curly hair and western suit bedraggled.

It didn’t make things easier that his son, Gary Joseph Stewart, committed suicide late in the decade, a loss Stewart would never get over, and one that further fueled his demons and addictions.

In 1988, after being dropped once again, the High Tone label signed Stewart. He recorded three albums over the next five years. He continued to produce fan favorites, but still failed in reaching a wider audience. During this especially dark period of the singer’s life, Dylan, while touring with Tom Petty in Florida, drove to Fort Pierce, to Stewart’s cavernous trailer, to meet the honky-tonk tomcat. He confessed that he’d played Stewart’s “Ten Years of This” countless times, and that the song had cast a spell over him.

In 2003, Stewart released Live at Billy Bob’s Texas. It was his first live album, his first recording in 10 years, and the last record he would release. While his band runs blitzkrieg through the songs, Stewart’s voice is that of a broken man, frail and haunted. The young, high-lonesome sound he was once known for is gone. By then Stewart was broken, shattered by loss that had plagued the Stewarts and the Johnsons for generations, throughout which suicide and alcoholism had been family staples. That’s what Marlow Johnson told me as he stared at his heavily stained carpet, speaking of his cousin’s death.

In 2003, the day before Thanksgiving, pneumonia took Stewart’s wife, his rock of ages. Stewart became extremely depressed, and his drug intake, specifically methamphetamine, grew exponentially, as did his drinking. Less than two months later, on Dec. 16, his daughter’s boyfriend and Stewart’s close friend Bill Hardman came to check on Stewart in his trailer. They found him dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the neck.

From “Whiskey Trip” to his only No. 1 hit, “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinking Doubles),” Stewart never hid his only safe haven from the demons that sang their songs within his soul. Like so many great Southern writers, his work echoes the loneliness of a small town where the only respite from hard living is a barroom and a cheap guitar.

Before heading back to my aunt’s house, Johnson took me in his Chevy pickup to Stewart’s birthplace. He drank a beer as he drove, asking politely my permission. I would’ve had one with him if I didn’t fear the same disease that took Stewart, depression and alcoholism forming an unholy hybrid that consumes entire families. We turned onto a narrower dirt road, parking behind a coal truck. We got out of the Chevy, turning up the lapels of our matching denim jackets, blowing steam into the brisk October winds that seem to grow colder every year. The tarpaper shack where Stewart was born had long ago been torn down, in its place heavy brush. Above it were the scars of strip mining.

“I’m afraid they’re gonna try to clear us out of here,” Johnson said as he took a pull from his Milwaukee’s Best and stared down the mountain where his cousin had come into the world. “I’m afraid they gonna keep on down the mountain until there ain’t nothing left.”

It was a wonderful view.