One of country music’s greatest honky-tonk singers was found dead Tuesday (Dec. 16) in Florida. Gary Stewart was an apparent suicide, according to authorities. He was 58 years old.
Stewart was found in his home in Fort Pierce, Fla. Police are investigating cause of death, although an initial police report said the death appeared to be suicide by self-inflicted gunshot wound. Police said his wife of 43 years died last month.
Throughout the 1970s, Stewart was a country hitmaker, both as a songwriter and as an artist with a compelling vibrato voice and a high-energy live show. He was born May 28, 1945 in Letcher County, Ky. After his coal miner father was maimed in a mining accident, the family moved to Fort Pierce, which became Stewart’s base for life. As a teenager, he played both rock and country in bars and was discovered and encouraged by Mel Tillis. Stewart headed for Nashville, where he recorded for the Cory and Kapp labels and wrote songs for the likes of Jim Ed Brown. After a return to Florida, where he honed his fusion of honky-tonk and southern rock, he went back to Nashville and recorded a cover version of “Ramblin’ Man,” the song by his idols the Allman Brothers. It charted only to No. 63 but his followup, the rowdy “Drinkin’ Thing” became a Top 10 hit, and he was on his way.
Stewart’s peak came with his acclaimed 1975 RCA album Out of Hand, which climbed to No. 6 on the Billboard country album chart. That album also yielded the No. 1 hit “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles).”
His work continued to be acclaimed throughout the ’70s, particularly the 1976 album Steppin’ Out and 1977’s Your Place or Mine. 1980’s Cactus and a Rosealso featured southern rockers Bonnie Bramlett, Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts. But Stewart never established a firm audience — he was often labeled as too country for rock audiences and too rock for the country listeners.
He also lived his private life on a grand honky-tonk scale and his heavy drugging and drinking were no secret. For a time, he and songwriter Dean Dillon teamed up to record and perform as rowdy good old boys, but those records did not match his earlier work, either in quality or in sales.
Stewart faded away in Florida, quit recording, went back to playing the bars, and little more was heard from him. Then, he popped up clean and sober in late 1988 on the California label HighTone. He had a new album Brand New that was released on HighTone in early 1989. Three singles from the album charted briefly, but those were to be his last appearances on the charts. He released two more HighTone albums, Battleground in 1990 and I’m a Texan in 1993.
Stewart had canceled his last scheduled concert date — Nov. 29 at Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth — after his wife died. Stewart had released a Live At Billy Bob’s CD earlier this year.