Gary Stewart (famous country music singer, song
writer and musician) b 28
Mar 1944 Jenkins, Letcher Co KY, d 16 Dec 2003 Fort Pierce FL; of suicide by gunshot to the neck,
distraught over the loss of his wife; s/o
George Robert Stewart
and Georgia Niece. Gary Stewart m. about 1962 to Mary Lou Taylor b about 1940 (4
years older than Gary) d 26 Nov 2003 of pneumonia.
Stewart never stopped caring about Mary Lou. And
she never stopped caring about him. Together, they were Cisco and Pancho, their
chosen respective pet names, taken from the
old Western series. “I feel that God has put me here for Gary, just as he’s here
for me,” Mary Lou told the Village Voice. “So I’ll never be without him — ‘til
death. An’ then somewhere in time I’ll find him.” And that’s just what’s
happened. As Shannon puts her mother and father’s affairs in order, she’s
decided to move back to the family house - a three-bedroom, single-story
residence with a patch of green for a front yard. here’s plenty of work to be
done: painting, remodeling, the general process of starting anew.
Shannon says she will not properly grieve for her
parents until the job is completed.
She’s already finished one bedroom, converting it into a shrine to Gary and Mary
The space is filled with bits and pieces of two lives lived to the fullest -
Elvis collectibles, Indian artifacts, old straw hats, a state proclamation
declaring Gary an “Honorary Texan,” even a painting of a sensuous, scantily clad
Mary Lou. Shannon points to a marble urn behind a glass-enclosed case. It’s the
couple’s ashes. “Gary and Lou are mixed together right there,” she says.
Children of Gary Stewart and Mary Lou Taylor;
I. Gary Joseph Stewart b about 1963 d 1988 (Gary
Joseph Stewart committed suicide at the age of 25 in 1988. He suffered from
depression and was convinced he was dying of an incurable disease, so he decided
to end his life on his own. “My dad just shut down,” says Shannon, describing
the aftermath of her brother’s death).
II. Shannon Stewart (female). Child of Shannon
1. Joseph b 1989 (Shannon
gave birth to a son, Joseph, named after her brother, in 1989. Stewart and Mary
Lou took easily to their role as doting grandparents. And by the time Joseph was
4, he was jamming with grandpa — Joseph on drums, Stewart on guitar).
Little Junior, King of
the Honky Tonks
The Life and Death
of Gary Stewart
By Jimmy McDonough
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.
She's Acting Single
by Gary Stewart
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.
A Slideshow of Gary Stewart
as He Sings "I See the Want To"
"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
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
For the next forty-three years they ****** (explative removed for #adult
content), 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.