Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Gary Stewart

  • Out of Hand [RCA Victor, 1975] A-
  • You're Not the Woman You Used to Be [MCA, 1975] B+
  • Steppin' Out [RCA Victor, 1976] B
  • Your Place or Mine [RCA Victor, 1977] A-
  • Little Junior [RCA Victor, 1978] B
  • Gary [RCA Victor, 1979] C+
  • Cactus and a Rose [RCA Victor, 1980] B-
  • Greatest Hits [RCA Victor, 1981] A
  • Brand New [HighTone, 1988] B
  • Battleground [HighTone, 1990] B+
  • Gary's Greatest [HighTone, 1991] A
  • Best of the HighTone Years [HighTone, 2002] A-
  • Live at Billy Bob's Texas [Smith Music, 2003] **

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Out of Hand [RCA Victor, 1975]
This is the best regular issue country LP I've heard in about five years--which given my tastes may just mean that it's barely a country record at all. The wild urgency of Stewart's voice reminds me of both Hank Williams and Jerry Lee Lewis, communicating an unconstraint that feels genuinely liberating even when Stewart himself sounds miserable. Don't be misled by that mod look: this man has got to be a little crazy. A-

You're Not the Woman You Used to Be [MCA, 1975]
In case it's not clear why rock and rollers are so excited about a new country singer, it's because he really sings rockabilly, which supposedly flourished for a few years in the mid-'50s and then vanished. What I like best about this compilation of flop singles from a few years ago is the way Stewart transforms rockabilly's adolescent phobias about wimmin into unabashed burlesques involving the likes of "Big Bertha" and "The Snuff Queen." B+

Steppin' Out [RCA Victor, 1976]
"Well-produced" for sure, more country and more rock and roll all at the same time. But it sounds as if the craziness has been rationalized right out of him. B

Your Place or Mine [RCA Victor, 1977]
A strong comeback--Stewart's tendency to get mired in mannerism remains, but to hear him spit out "Ten Years of This" ("this" being a marriage) or change Guy Clark's "I'm looking to get silly" to "I'm looking to get sloppy drunk" is to be reminded that Jerry Lee Lewis has always lived off his mannerisms. Undomesticated hard country. A-

Little Junior [RCA Victor, 1978]
This is a likable album because Stewart is a likable artist, secure by now in his good-humored bad-old-boy persona. But only once--on a version of Ry Cooder's "I Got Mine" that ranks with the greatest Jerry Reed novelties--does he give that persona a shot in the arm. B

Gary [RCA Victor, 1979]
The good sound is still there--those Jerry Lee vocals, that spare Nashville backup--but the good songs aren't. Jack Tempchin and Leroy Preston and Bill Payne try their hand, but the best thing here is by Dickey Betts, and Tanya Tucker has just covered it better. C+

Cactus and a Rose [RCA Victor, 1980]
Getting treatment for writer's block, in for commercial retooling, whatever--the man in the black hat has been shuffled off to affably self-aggrandizing Memphis country/soul/rock/biz legend Chips Moman, who put him together with a couple of Allmans and a whole side of Chips Moman songs. The title tune has something to do with a New York penthouse, and what the hell this hard-drinking redneck is doing there nobody can figure out. Overdisc the country-rock is more billy and more swamp and sounds almost like old times on the only Stewart song included, the title of which encapsulates his poetic gifts: "How Could We Come to This After That." How indeed. B-

Greatest Hits [RCA Victor, 1981]
Half of these ten tracks are on Out of Hand or Your Place or Mine, both worth owning, only let's face it--you don't. Sounded pretty good for country music, but since he wasn't Hank Williams, you passed. This was dumb. I'm not gonna claim he's Hank, though he's a damn sight closer than Waylon or Hank Jr., because Hank preceded Jerry Lee Lewis, not to mention Eddie Rabbitt, while Gary lives in a world that includes both--no matter what they think at RCA, he's no stranger to concepts like "rock" and "commercial." Which is not to suggest that boogie or schlock dilutes these vibrato-laden outcries of desperate abandon--they're the pure hard country of a honky-tonk piano man. No matter how justly Jerry Lee suffers, he always seems affronted that this should be happening to him. Though he hasn't thought about going to church two successive Sundays since he was twelve, Gary knows that what the Bible says is true--that sin and hell are the same place. And he lives there. A

Brand New [HighTone, 1988]
Hard living deepens great voices, but it's hell on the smaller ones, and so naturally Stewart compensates by oversinging, burying the songs in a mannered misery and wild-ass desperation that for all you can tell he may actually be feeling. Wordplay's half there at best: "I was born the life of the party/And honey I'm dyin' tryin' to get one started," which is terrific, is preceded by "I was born the son of a honky tonk woman/My daddy was a natural-born gamblin' man," which is terrible. And which provides the song's title. B

Battleground [HighTone, 1990]
As with so many country albums, one's faith fluctuates from listen to listen: the songwriting isn't always absolutely choice, at times the voice lurches back toward the gulps and hollers that swamped his attempted comeback, and his guilt sounds more emotionally whole than his rowdy ways, which is why he's always been a country singer with r&r affinities rather than vice versa. But this is his best in 13 years (just lucky, I guess). His r&r groove is sharp-witted where Steve Earle's is muscle-headed and the average Nashville cat's just mechanical. And whether he's pledging desperate devotion or spitting out the perfect pun-trope "Seeing's believing/So I'll be leaving today," you know damn well it's his fault. Whatever it is. B+

Gary's Greatest [HighTone, 1991]
Because the label has already reissued 1975's Out of Hand, this leans harder on his gradual decline than would seem advisable, and ends up dispelling doubts as a result--he didn't write the 1981 45-only "She's Got a Drinking Problem" ("and it's me"), but it belongs to him anyway. Stewart is obsessed with the fucked-up intersections of booze, sex, and the honest life. He's so far outside Nashville's not inelastic limits that he ended up on a blues indie. And strong song for strong song, he's the equal of any postoutlaw you care to name except maybe John Anderson. So what are you waiting for? A

Best of the HighTone Years [HighTone, 2002]
Few artists in any genre have seemed more tortured, dissolute, or full of beans than our era's greatest honky tonker. Already in his thirties when he put out a passel of striking if loosely principled LPs for RCA between 1975 and 1981, he dried out before re-emerging with the '88-'90-'93 albums HighTone's purists expertly reshuffle. Although the self-written songs here are less succinct than "Drinkin' Thing" ("to keep from thinkin' things") or "She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles)," they do justice to his desperate abandon; delivered in a growlier version of his star-time vibrato, "They ought to make a brand new whiskey/And give it a woman's name/A man needs somethin' to hold on/When her goodbye hits him like a hurricane" captures every aspect of his worldview except the part where he cheats first. Settled in south Florida, Stewart released no more albums until 2003's Live at Billy Bob's Texas, which is currently hard to come by. Last spring his wife died, and last month he shot himself in the neck, so he could die too. At 59, the man who sang "There's nothing cheap about a cheap affair" had been married 43 years. Not only shouldn't he be forgotten, he should be understood. A-

Live at Billy Bob's Texas [Smith Music, 2003]
Starts off young and cocky, ends up sad and drunk ("I See the Want To in Your Eyes," "Drinkin' Thing") **