NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Gary Stewart: Country’s Little Big Man

The Lure and Romance of Destruction

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

He was just a little slip of a guy. He was so skinny that he could almost, as they used to say about Hank Williams, “change clothes inside a shotgun barrel.” But when Gary Stewart opened his mouth, big things happened. The guy sang big, and he lived big. What a shame he died small.

When I heard that he had fatally shot himself this week, I lit a candle and played a song for one of the most soulful country singers I ever met. His passing struck a personal chord with a lot of people I knew and a lot that I didn’t know. I was surprised and pleased to see an amazing amount of Internet chatter about Stewart and to see the great many heartfelt tributes that people were posting online.

He was simultaneously more country than most country artists of his time and more of a staunch, down-and-dirty Southern rocker than almost all of the Southern rockers. I’m not sure that he ever realized just how good he was. A Gary Stewart performance was an amazing thing. Think of Jerry Lee Lewis boiled down into an even more devilish imp who was not going to let you get away without a Holy Ghost blessing from the fount of rockin’ country.

That show translated especially well in New York City, where I was living when I first saw him perform. His shows were like fevered honky church services. Much of the time, he was a wild man, onstage and off. He scared a lot of people by his intensity. But downtown New York was very receptive to that combustive aura of an artist burning talent at white heat. I didn’t know him well, but he became a friend instantly when I met him at New York’s Lone Star CafĂ©.

I was then in the process of writing a book about Hank Williams, and Stewart was fascinated by the life and the legend of Hank. And he was especially drawn by the strange link he felt with Hank’s self-destructive tendencies, the romance of self-destruction. The moth to the flame syndrome that’s killed creative people from the poet Rimbaud to the actor James Dean to the country star Hank Williams to the rock stars Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin was burning in young Gary Stewart. We talked about the motivation behind Hank’s songs, about his decline, about his burnout. And, of course, about the music.

You owe it to yourself, if you’ve never heard Gary Stewart, to give the man a listen. Such songs as “Out of Hand” and “Your Place or Mine” are pure honky-tonk havens. The title of “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinking Doubles)” is treated like a country joke these days, but that song itself is a primer in lyrics that come straight from the dark night of the soul. Stewart put his heart and soul into his music, but he also bought into the old romantic notion of the outlaw singer as doomed wastrel and he thought that drugs and alcohol were crucial parts of the equation.

I wonder if he died of a broken heart and if that’s what impelled him to turn a pistol on himself. He was haunted by the suicide of his son Gary Joseph, who shot and killed himself in 1988.

Stewart’s career itself had evaporated. Like Hank Williams, he was bothered by chronic back pain. In Stewart’s case, it came from a car wreck. And then his beloved wife of more than four decades, Mary Lou, died. There was just nothing much left for him. I know that same situation had also happened to the only other country star that I personally knew who shot himself. Faron Young simply could not stand the sheer vacuum and banality that his life had become after his career and personal life dried up and he lost his stardust. So he bit the bullet. Early in his career, Young summed up the romantic credo in his first No. 1 song, when he sang “I wanta live fast, love hard, die young — and leave a beautiful memory.”

Stop and consider this: Gary Stewart’s contemporary Billy Joe Shaver lost everything in the past few years. All of his loved ones — his mother, his wife, and his son (who was also his musical partner) — were gone in a short span of time. His career went away. He suffered a massive heart attack. He was knocked down to his knees but he’s gotten up and fought back and actually gone on to create new music. What’s the difference between Gary Stewart and Billy Joe Shaver? Why did one pick up the gun and why did the other go back to pick up the microphone? I don’t know.