This here’s a quickie. My man M. through the forest sent out a call for some ruminations on the late, great Gary Stewart–Snoc threw him an inspired poem on the subject–so I tossed this off today trying to distract myself from the task at hand. Stay tuned for M.’s essay, which is guaranteed to delight.
Uncle Hammy turned me on to Gary a year or two back, but it was already too late—the man whose voice punched me in the chest had already ridden his keening laments into the inexorable dirt. It’s not exactly healthy fandom, but Gary’s still here with us now, some of us, anyway. It’s mostly white dudes in their thirties who pull up round this particular circle of emptiness—that’s a technical term describing a domestic session of bonded, group-listening catatonia usually following massive alcohol and Class C drug consumption—which speaks to the dumb gender rift of country music fans and late-classic era country music record collectors.
But then there are the folks elsewhere, the fans on YouTube from Gary’s hometown in Jenkins, Kentucky, or the ones who saw him rock some hairball, biker-vest central Florida dive—I picture the kind of spot I’ve visited with a live gator in a cage in the back—who offer a kind of ephemeral interwebbed prayer: “We miss this down around Lake Okeechobee. I will drink a beer in his honor,” writes kwedgworth2000. I will drink another. What do kwedgeworth2000 and I share? Why does the man’s music still appeal now, five years after his suicide?
Maybe it’s the easy economy and the carefully scaled ache of his inimitable practice, something born of years of fame-eluding songwriting and session work (he played piano in Charley Pride’s Pridemen for a solid spell.) The songs themselves are devastating in their melancholy insistence, but honest and humble in scope. There’s that raise-hell-raise-another-bottle-but-don’t-be-ashamed-to-leak-tears quotient, which keeps pace with David Coe’s more tender moments or Johnny Paycheck’s overbrimming darkness. But there’s something far different too, an abiding grace and diffidence in Gary’s lilting delivery and his rather sentimental songwriting and modest arranging strategies.
The goofy wordplay pushes potential hackney and cliché into the realm of punning poetry, by slyly one-upping your best and lamest idea for a parenthetical, instant punch-line country lyric and singing it with a kind of palpably wounded dignity: “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)”; “She’s Got a Drinkin’ Problem (And It’s Me); “I’ve got this drinkin’ thing/ to keep from thinkin’ things.” Gary kept his whole operation within what was becoming an increasingly quaint and fenced-in honky-tonk formula, but he managed to edge Hank and Lefty and Ray Price into a much darker, contemporary discourse that dug deeper and flew higher than your Moe Bandy or George Strait (and that’s no mean feat.)
The songs are perfect, unfussy miniatures, masterpieces that transcend the decadent era of the limping honky-tonk genre. There is a sense, when you listen to Out of Hand, that the recording, through its elegant, workmanlike craftsmanship, taps and tamps down some roiling, heaving hurt. The whiskey flowed in excess, yes, but the booze only coated the sea of black bile like an oil slick. Play on, Little Junior.