Legendary honky tonk hero Gary Stewart was destined to enter hillbilly heaven in a blaze of glory.

Stewart's mother named him after High Noon star Gary Cooper and he spent much of his career emulating the character of the movie star.

The hell raising bar room king lived on the edge in kicker bars and dance halls where he and his fans drowned their sorrows in song.

Gary, the singer with the unique vibrato, lived fast and died hard but his demise was more than life imitating art or history repeating.

Stewart, 58, reportedly shot himself at his home in Fort Pierce, Florida, on December 16.
It was just a month after Mary Lou - his wife and songwriting partner of 43 years - died of pneumonia.

And 15 years after the suicide of one of his sons, Gary Joseph aged just 25, when he shot and killed himself in 1988.

The life and times of Stewart were fertile fodder for a Hollywood movie or telemovie.

Stewart was just 17 when he eloped and wed Mary Lou, four years his senior, one weekend when his parents were out of town.


Stewart, one of nine children, was born in Letcher County, Kentucky, but moved to Florida when he was 12 after his coalminer father was maimed in a mining cave in accident.

The singer, like mentor Hank Williams, suffered a chronic back injury that he tried to quell with booze and cocaine benders.

It was the substance abuse - not the substance of his songs that have survived the true test of time and taste - that derailed his career.

When a Columbian cocaine plane was shot down or dumped its cargo over Florida it was peers like Amazing Rhythm Aces bassist Stick Davis who quipped Stewart was the culprit.

But it wasn't always that way for the singer whose honky tonk hedonism was the opiate for generations of roots country fans.


As 14 he graduated from a school country group to join rockabilly band The Tomcats in both rock and country bars.

It was there, while working in an aircraft factory, he was discovered and encouraged by fellow Floridian Mel Tillis.

Stewart headed for Nashville in 1964 where he recorded for the indie Cory label and hit the road with the Amps rock band.

The singer soon became a prolific writer with former Fort Pierce cop Bill Eldridge but their first cover Charlotte, North Carolina, failed to chart for Jimmy Griggs.

Stewart, one time keyboard player for Charley Pride and Stuckey, also released singles in 1968 for Kapp and Decca but they bombed.

His tune Here Comes That Feeling on Kapp failed before Cal Smith tickled charts with Stewart songs You Can't Housebreak A Tomcat and It Takes All Night Long.


Stewart and Eldridge scored their first hit in 1965 with Stonewall Jackson's cut of Red Georgia Dirt reaching #44.

Stuckey later hit #8 in 1969 after changing the name of Sweet Tater And Cisco to Sweet Tango And Cisco.

Billy Walker also reached #5 in 1970 with the duo's songs When A Woman Loves A Man (The Way I Love You) and She Goes Walking Through My Mind.

More than 50 other covers soon followed by artists diverse as Jim Ed Brown, Nat Stuckey, Cal Smith, Warner Mack, Del Reeves, Hank Snow, Johnny Paycheck, Kenny Price, Jack Green, Johnny Russell and Ernest Tubb.

After a return to Florida, where he honed his fusion of honky-tonk and southern rock, he went back to Nashville.

In 1971 Stewart released She's The Next Big Thing for Decca and recorded other songs, produced by Walter Haynes, Owen and Jerry Bradley, but he was dumped from the label.
Meanwhile his demos of Motown songs landed in the lap of producer Roy Dea who lured Gary to RCA.


"I've got this drinkin' thing/ to keep from thinkin' things/ about where you've been/ who you've been with/ what you've done." - Wayne Carson.

Stewart debuted on RCA in 1973 with Wayne Carson's aching I See The Want To In Your Eyes with Drinkin Thing as the B-side.

It did nothing for Stewart but the late Conway Twitty heard it on radio in Oklahoma and cut it as a #1 single that year.

Stewart then released a cover of Ramblin' Man, a song by his idols the Allman Brothers.
It peaked at #63 in 1973 and his follow-up, Drinkin' Thing, became a #10 hit in 1974 and a highlight of his debut RCA solo disc Out Of Hand in 1975.

By then in true Music Row style MCA, which took over Decca, released the early singles and other songs on another 1975 album, You're Not The Woman You Used To Be.
And, with the same irony, Jerry Bradley then RCA Vice President, wrote the liner notes for Out Of Hand.

While Stewart awaited royalties from his writing he worked as a cleaner and tape machine operator at RCA.

He didn't have to wait long - he and Eldridge had written most of the refried MCA disc - such tunes as Snuff Queen, Sweet Tater And Cisco and Big Bertha The Truck Driving Queen. Williamson County, one of the first songs written with Mary Lou - and a co-write with Stuckey on Draggin' Shackles - also graced Out Of Hand.


"She's acting single, I'm drinking doubles/ I hide my pain, I drown my troubles/ my heart is breaking, like the tiny bubbles/ she's acting single, I'm drinking doubles." - Wayne Carson.

There were inspired cuts of Wayne Carson hit She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles,) I See The Want To In Your Eyes and Drinkin' Thing and Michael Murphy's Back Sliders Wine.
She's Actin' Single hit #1 and shot Out of Hand, to # 6 on Billboard country album chart.
The title track, penned by the late Tom Jans and Jeff Barry, was originally cut by Mentor Williams - brother of Paul - and writer of Dobie Gray hit Drift Away.

It became Stewart's second #10 hit.


"The band just stopped playing/ they're sweeping the floor/ the bartender's asking, "Who wants one more?"/ and your head's on my shoulder/ and lord, I'm feeling fine!/ where are we going, honey?/ your place or mine?" - Carol Anderson-Rory Bourke-Mary Beth Anderson.
The hits also flowed when Stewart chanced his arm by playing slide guitar on 1976 album Steppin' Out.

The singer was a multi-instrumentalist - playing lead guitar, slide and piano - in dynamic stage shows with all the energy and fervour of kindred spirits Jerry Lee Lewis, Joe Ely and Hank Williams Jr at their peak.

Stewart wrote four tunes - Flat Natural Born Good Timin' Man which hit #20 in 1975.
The other originals were Easy People, Hank Western and Lord What A Woman with the Danny O'Keefe song Quits a sweet surprise when it reached #26 in 1977.

"Call it separation, independence/ divorce, if that word fits/ call it what you want to/ I just call it quits/ we've come down to the place, where love barely fits/ call it what you want to I call it quits." - Danny O'Keefe.

Carson's Oh Sweet Temptation peaked in the 20's but was surpassed by Sterling Whipple song In Some Room Above The Street at #15.

Stewart and Carson co-wrote Ten Years Of This - it reached #11 for the 1977 disc Your Place or Mine.

The title track - a sibling one night stand song of the Whipple tune - also hovered around #10 but the album tracks also impacted with his fanatical audiences.


"He's got a black moustache, and a red Cadillac/ now he's got you and I've got two Divorce lawyers on my back/ single again! Born to lose, dying to win/ only thing I'm running from
is the alimony man, because I'm single again." - Gary Stewart

Your Place Or Mine included tunes such as Broken Hearted People (Take Me To A Barroom) and the wry Pretend I Never Happened by Texans Guy Clark and Willie Nelson.
Another Texan Rodney Crowell landed three songs Leah, I Had To Get Drunk Last Night and I Ain't Living Long Like This on a disc graced by the harmonies of Crowell, Emmylou Harris and the late Nicolette Larson.

Stewart penned Single Again, which peaked at #36, and raunchy title track of 1978 album, Little Junior.

The disc included drinking duo Tex-Mex flavoured Whiskey Trip at #16 and Tequila After Midnight and a visual pair - Carson tune If My Eyes See You and Toy Caldwell's Can't You See.

But only two Stewart originals Everything A Good Girl Needs and One More appeared on his self-titled 1979 disc that had a bluesy edge with Dickey Betts-Billy Ray Reynolds tune Shady Streets and Leon Payne's Lost Highway.

1980's Cactus and a Rose also featured southern rockers Bonnie Bramlett, Gregg Allman and Betts.

The Eddie Kilroy produced She's Got A Drinking Problem (And It's Me) peaked at #36 in 1981 but Gary had problems beyond his drinking and drugging.

He was often labelled too country for rock audiences and too rock for the country listeners.


"There's a hundred dollar bill on the table to get me through tonight/ got a blue jeaned honky tonk queen to hold me tight/ tonight I'll be honky tonk crazy/ let the whiskey whisk you out of my mind." - Honky Tonk Crazy - Dean Dillon-Frank Dycus.

Two years later RCA threw Gary and kindred spirit Dean Dillon at the wall with two duet discs.

Stewart had split with Dea and was produced by Blake Mevis, Chips Moman and Kilroy.
Brotherly Love - released in 1982 before the duo could finish duets on some songs - won airplay and sold them to a younger audience.

Cold Turkey - penned by outlaw gospel singer Gary S Paxton and wife Ruby - Body Shop, Firewater Friends, Honky Tonk Crazy, Suburban Life and the title track were salient slabs of joy.

When the sequel Those Were The Days was released in 1983 the duo had more time to spend on writing and singing.

Misfits, Hard Time For Lovers, Losers And Lovers, Living On The Ragged Edge and the title track connected.

Although Stewart's back injury flared through inappropriate medication their original tune Smokin' In The Rockies also launched the career of Sawyer Brown in a talent quest.


Sadly, poor sales and Stewart's health reduced touring and the duo split despite a lucrative writing and loving stint with Texan temptress Tanya Tucker

Their triumph was the co-wrote on Leave Them Boys Alone on the 1983 Hank Williams Jr album Strong Stuff and Shady Street for a Tucker album.

Williams' version featured a guest spot from Country Music Hall of Famer Ernest Tubb.
And in 1981 he earned healthy royalties for his tune Hollywood - an evocative, exploited starlet song cut by super group Alabama on their album Feels So Right.

Despite a spate of covers Stewart wasted away in Florida, quit recording and went back to playing the bars and toured hotspots such as Texas to sing for his supper.

He also recorded singles for indie label Red Ash from 1984, battled the IRS but retained his creativity by returning to writing with his wife.

Stewart later tempered touring with a newfound sobriety and was revived by Californian label Hightone in 1988 and reunited with Dea.


"There's nothing cheap about a cheap affair/ it's a high price ticket one way to nowhere/ with no return back from here to there/ there's nothing cheap about a cheap affair." - Gary & Mary Lou Stewart.

His new album Brand New, first of his discs to feature Warren Haynes on slide guitar, was released in early 1989 and three singles hit charts.

Gary wrote eight of the tunes - including four with Mary Lou - a couple with Dillon and one with Tucker.

Ironically, the marital coupling on the title track produced Stewart's biggest hit - a latter day smash by superstar duo Brooks & Dunn on 1998 disc If You See Her.

The Stewarts also penned Lucretia and Ramona - two of many songs featuring a woman's name in the title but the latter written about his guitar.

The album charted briefly, but those were to be his last appearances on the charts.
Stewart returned with Battleground in 1990 - it featured a three-way co-write with Carson and Mary Lou on cheating classic, There's Nothing Cheap About A Cheap Affair.
Other Stewart songs included Delia and Hey Leona and a Betts collaboration on Let's Go Jukin'.


The final Hightone studio disc, I'm a Texan in 1993, featured only one Stewart song It's True but lived up to its satiric title.

Songs such as Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor, Draggin' Leather, Make It A Double, Two More Fools and Stomping Grounds were vintage Stewart.

And a fitting finale to his studio work which was celebrated on the 17 track 1991 Hightone compilation, Gary's Greatest, and 20 tune 1997 RCA compilation The Essential.

Hightone released the 13 song Best Of The Hightone Years in 2002 and also re-released Out Of Hand.

Ironically, his final release was a live disc cut last year at the world famous Billy Bob's honky tonk in Fort Worth that was famous for its live bull riding arena and 42 separate bars for its huge crowds.

Stewart had cancelled his last scheduled concert date - November 29 at Billy Bob's - after Mary Lou died.


Acclaimed Nashville author Chet Flippo - a long time fan of Stewart from his writing days in New York - drew a salient contrast with the fate of kindred spirit Texan Billy Joe Shaver who was inspired by a long suffering but loyal wife Brenda.

Flippo personalised his obituary on the American CMT site with an accompanying news story.

Flippo wrote -
"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."


You're Not The Woman You Used To Be (MCA) - 1975
Out Of Hand (RCA) - 1975
Steppin' Out (RCA) - 1976
Your Place Or Mine (RCA) - 1977
Little Junior (RCA) - 1978
Gary (RCA) - 1979
Cactus And A Rose (RCA) - 1980
Brand New (Hightone) - 1988
Battleground (Hightone) - 1990
I'm A Texan (Hightone) - 1992
Live At Billy Bob's - 2003.


Brotherly Love (RCA) - 1982
Those Were The Days (RCA) - 1983


Gary's Greatest (Hightone) - 1991
The Essential (RCA) - 1997
Best Of The Hightone Years - 2002

top / back to diary