I worked for many years in the restaurant business. Upfront, as the maitre’d, on the floor as a waiter, in the slop as busboy and dishwasher, drawing beers and taking a tough line with drunken patrons and managing the whole shebang. I enjoyed the kitchen the most, though. I loved commanding the grills and deep fryers as if I were a fighter pilot high on grease. Making an omelette, a large stack of pancakes with extra crispy bacon and two poached eggs on wholewheat with no butter come out at the same time, hot and fresh was a role I loved playing. And was pretty good at…but I’m not here to talk about myself but about tonight’s featured superhero star.
But before we segue into a bit about him, it was in those long days in the kitchen that we listened to the local FM station which fed us an unceasing diet of Zepellin, Stones, Steve Miller and The Who. Billy Joel, Elton John, Lynrd Skynrd, Supertramp. You get the picture. About as appetising as the cheese pizzas we put out by the hundreds on a Saturday night. One of our prep cooks was an older but scarily intelligent guy named Marc. He had had a history of mental illness and always complained about the ‘shit’ on the radio as he sliced tray upon tray of tomatoes. “Merle Haggard, Merle Travis, Lefty Frizell,” he’d respond when we asked him what he’d rather listen to.
No wonder he’s mental, I’d think. Poor guy.
“Country music sucks, man,” I’d reply. “How bout some more lettuce, Marc. Chop chop.”
Wherever you are these days Marc, I now unreservedly apologize. I was young. I was a dumbass. I agree 100%, country music is about the coolest music in the history of man and womankind. Not, of course, the music sludge that oozes out of the commercial radio stations and sells bazillions of CDs worth. But honky tonk music as represented by your favourite Merles, Willie, Waylon, Joe Ely, Delbert McClinton and the ambassadorial Gary Stewart.
Birthed in the rowdy Southern bars christened with the same name, Honky Tonk is the single sound most associated with country music. It’s become an enduring staple, the style to which mainstream country inevitably returns time and time again to refresh itself, a source of inspiration and renewal when popular trends begin to take country music away from its roots. The basic honky tonk sound features acoustic and/or electric guitar, fiddle, string bass, and steel guitar (which was imported from Hawaiian music), while the vocals often draw from the so-called “high lonesome” sound of traditional country, sounding either rough and nasal (Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb) or smooth and clear (Lefty Frizzell, George Jones). Like the music, honky tonk lyrics are emotionally simple and direct, often with a plain-spoken vulnerability and a sense of emotional release. Instead of depicting rural life, though, honky tonk’s subject matter was rooted in its immediate surroundings — taverns. Celebrations of romance, parties, and good times were quite common (as were novelty songs), but honky tonk became especially well-known for its fascination with the flip side: heartbreak, infidelity, pain that could only be numbed with alcohol, morning-after remorse, and religious guilt. Although it’s generally thought of as a rural music, honky tonk was actually more the result of rural migration to Southern urban centers, particularly those of Texas. The music initially became popular during World War II, with Ernest Tubb becoming its first star; however, the ’50s proved to be honky tonk’s golden age. Singer and songwriter Hank Williams hit his absolute prime at the dawn of the decade, and Lefty Frizzell forever altered the way country music was sung with his smooth, lengthy melodic phrases and rich, pure tenor. George Jones rose to prominence in the middle of the decade, becoming a near-consensus choice for country’s greatest-ever interpretive singer by adding a startling emotional intensity to Frizzell’s phrasing innovations. Honky tonk slowly declined in popularity as rockabilly and country-pop captured mainstream audiences, but its signature sound informed virtually every reaction against country-pop in the decades to come: Bakersfield country in the ’60s, progressive and outlaw country in the ’70s, and New Traditionalist country in the ’80s and ’90s. (http://www.allmusic.com/style/honky-tonk-ma0000002648)
Gary Stewart lived the life he sang about. Born in Florida he had a small time dream to write a few good country songs, make a bit of beer money and retire from the airplane part factory where he had ‘steady job’. Well, he wrote those songs. As the 1970s broke away from the free-lovin’ hippie 1960s he had a couple champions in the business who believed in him probably more than he did himself. He had a contract and was singing his and others’ songs before the decade had passed too many years. For the rest of the 70’s very few country performers had such a passionate following or string of hits.
Gary was blessed with a creening tenor that vibrated like a loose string on a wah-wah guitar when he hit the emotional high notes of the song. You’ve heard about making the women wet? Gary was a master at doing that. Even men would brace themselves against the bar a bit harder when Gary got going. The honesty, intensity and hilarity were just too much to bear.
The rock’n roll of the 1960s had seeped into Gary’s musical DNA and so when he got to making records (his debut Out of Hand is a classical of honky-tonk country) he avidly sought out the sharp rocking reaches of the music. He had southern rockers play on his records and while his fans loved him madly, the ‘industry’ didn’t quite have the agility to market him. Too rockin’ for the ‘country-folks’ and too ‘square and country for the rockers’. An old story that.
Alt country was not yet a label anyone had thought up. But Gary Stewart is one of the progenitors of a style that would eventually make country cool for the college kids and critics.
His speciality was the drinking song. Songs openly frank about drinking too much and for spurious reasons but always to dull the pain of or celebrate love. He was by no means the only one to sing such songs but his relationship with the material he wrote and sang about was among the most tragic. After riding high through the 1970s, the 80s were his lost decade. Drunk most of the time. His son killed himself with a gun in 1988. Though he sobered up Gary never returned to the inspired heights of his 70’s material. Like his son, he took his own life with a shot to the head ten years ago.
Gary Stewart was the Tzar of the Tavern and entirely unique.
01 Your Place Or Mine
02 Whiskey Trip
03 Brand New Whiskey
04 Out Of Hand
05 Ramblin’ Man
06 In Some Room Above The Street
07 Ten Years Of This
08 Let’s Go Jukin’
09 Little Junior
10 Drinkin’ Thing
11 Flat Natural Born Good-Timin’ Man
12 Stone Wall (Around Your Heart)
13 She’s Got A Drinking Problem
14 Single Again
15 She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)
16 An Empty Glass
18 Back Sliders Wine
19 Everything A Good Little Girl Needs
20 I Ain’t Living Long Like This
22 Lord What A Woman
24 She Sings Amazing Grace