Gary Stewart: Gary Stewart Live at Billy Bob

C. Michael Bailey By

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In 2003, when Live at Billy Bob’s Texas was released, I can say without qualification (beyond Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Jones, and Dwight Yoakam) that "country music" is populated by a group of anemic, rock-a-billy-wannabe punks.

There... I said it! (Perhaps not the greatest music criticism, but certainly the most honest.)

A son of Florida’s blue-collar class, Stewart avoided a lifetime of factory work by presenting songs he'd written to soon-to-be RCA country label leader Jerry Bradley. Mr. Stewart who was composing with Bill Eldridge didn't want anything other than to be a desired Nashville songwriter. However, after a bit of success, and through Bradley's continued encouragement, Stewart took advantage of the opportunity to record on his own.

With his huge, vibrato-laden tenor voice (which sounds a bit like Jerry Lee Lewis, and beats the shit out of Dwight Yoakam's), Mr. Stewart, with Wayne Carson, released 1975's Out of Hand, surely a pinnacle of roadhouse records. Fueled by the hit "She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles)," Stewart gained a certain country music notoriety.

But Stewart never cowed to the traditional Nashville establishment and, as a result, suffered from it. When a major theme in country music is the conflict between Saturday night and Sunday morning, Gary Stewart was all about Saturday Night, and unapologetically so. The Id of "Flat Natural Born Good Timin’ Man" perfectly captures the swaggering country hubris Stewart exposed on "Little Junior" and "Your Place of Mine." Stewart explores a second theme in the perfect, pathetic cuckolds in "She’s Actin’ Single," "Whiskey Trip," and "Drinkin’ Thing." Thirdly, he captures the forbidden love in "I see The Want In Your Eyes," "Out of Hand," and the lost love in "Ten Years of This," Quits," and "Single Again."

Live at Billy Bob’s Texas was an early 2003 addition to the successful Live at Billy Bob’s Texas series, which also includes live recordings by Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel, Merle Haggard, and David Allen Cole. This was Stewart’s first live recording and in spite of the perfect performance was 20 years too late. The 1980s were not kind to the hard-living Stewart, who had faded from the scene. He bobbed to the surface with a couple of forgettable recordings, but did not fully emerge until after he cleaned up and released Brand New in 1988. By the early ‘90s Stewart retired to Florida, quit recording and was content to play local roadhouses.

Live at Billy Bob’s Texas serves as a superb retrospective of Honky Tonker’s life. Stewart’s band, not identified on the recording is tight and sparkling. Stewart’s vocals are more understated than in his heyday, but his spirit is anything but understated. While still full of fire, his hurtful songs—"Ten Years of This," "Quits," and "Single Again" are heartbreaking. More heartbreaking than this was Stewart’s death at his own hand a month following the death of his wife of 40-plus years in November 2003.

I might suggest the Koch re-re-release of the twofer Out of Hand/Your Place or Mine (Koch, 2001) if one wants to here the prime Gary Stewart, who when these records were made, certainly had the finest tenor voice in all of country music, before of since. But don’t think for a minute that I discount Gary Stewart Live at Billy Bob’s Texas. This disc finds the roadhouse animal in his element, seething and dangerous as ever.

For more information, please see The Smith Music Group .

Track Listing: Little Junior; Flat Natural Born Good Timin

Personnel: Gary Stewart

Title: Gary Stewart Live at Billy Bob | Year Released: 2004


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