Monday, October 12, 2009
The King Of The Honky Tonks: Gary's Greatest
On my journey through my country music collection these past few weeks, I soaked myself in Merle, Buck Owens, Porter Wagoner, Ferlin Husky and many others. Then I found my copy of "Gary's Greatest", a compilation of the one-time "King Of The Honky Tonks", Gary Stewart. I first found out about Gary Stewart when I worked at a record store in the late seventies. RCA was trying to market him with their "Outlaw Country" artists, like Waylon and Willie, and Tompall Glaser and what not. Only thing is, Gary was TOO outlaw for those people. And he rocked a little too hard, even for "outlaw" country. His music was single minded, and used the country cliches "Drinkin", "Cheating On" and "Being Cheated On" and "Gettin' Some" exclusively. Not many other subjects in a Gary Stewart song. Listen to Gary sing, and he'll convince you that he lived these songs, even the ones he didn't write. He had this unnatural vibrato, it sounds like someone with the shakes crossed with an ornery goat of some kind, and I mean that in the best possible sense. Gary will come to the end of a line and all that's left is that voice shaking out the last syllables. THAT my friends, is a country voice. Looking at the cover shot of this album, he looks kind of like the comedian Steven Wright, if Steven Wright looked like he might be drunk enough to punch you. Looking at various shots of him on the web, he was a handsome guy, but there was always something a little off.
Gary never had the fame he should have, although he had some country hits. He had a problem with speed and pills, and lived for a long time in a trailer painted jet black out in the woods. He'd get it together from time to time, but when the woman he'd been married to for nearly 40 years passed away, Gary was lost. All those songs about cheating, drinking, and living that life, but he couldn't function without her. So he cancelled the few gigs he had lined up, sat in an easy chair in his living room, and shot himself to death. Luckily for us, there's this CD. Let me walk you through it:
1. Your Place or Mine
The subtext of this song is...there is no subtext. He's at a bar, the woman he's trying to bed is nearly comatose ("your head's on my shoulder") and he himself is "feelin' fine". The bartender asks if he wants another round, but Gary thinks the time is right to ask the eternal, titular question. This collection starts off relatively tame, with only a passing "drinkin'" reference.
2. Whiskey Trip
Now we're talkin. Still only the "drinkin" card is played, but the booze soaks the song. Whiskey in the title and in every verse. In this one, Gary's missing his woman, who is apparently no longer in the picture. Where's Gary? Three guesses, but here's a hint: They sell Whiskey. Every time he takes a sip, he is transported to tropical climes with the woman. So he keeps sippin.
3. Brand New Whiskey
Gary adds the cheatin piece to the drinkin card. He's been dumped, "done dirty" by the woman he loves. He proposes that there ought to be a brand new whiskey available to him, and begins to list what properties it should contain. Great hook: "They oughtta make a brand new whiskey, and give it a WOMAN'S name..." He sings "woman" with a kind of angry snarl and hurtin' whimper that sells it completely. Brooks & Dunn covered this, but that one is one hundred percent ersatz. This is the deal, and a great one.
4. Out of Hand
Drinking is only implied in this, as Gary admits to being "a hard-livin' kind of man." This one is all about cheating. He's at a bar chatting up a woman he deems "my kind of woman." And as opposed to being "done wrong", Gary's "doin' wrong". He's cheating on the little woman at home, but he swears this is the first time he's done it. He also points out that he was really only flirting, and never intended it to "get so out of hand". But it does, and he feels bad about it, but not bad enough to not do it. Why? Because, as a hard living kind of man, he "needs more to keep (him) going than this gold wedding band..."
5. Ramblin' Man
This is a cover of the great Allman Brothers song. You know the one, "Lord I was born a ramblin' man..." This is the only song on the collection that doesn't reference any of the Big Vices, but still an admirable choice. If you need vicarious thrills, the narrator's father is murdered, and is apparently fond of casual sex. He warns the woman that he's bound to leave at a moment's notice, as he is a ramblin' man. And he also lets her know that he's looking forward to getting some from the bayou women who find him charming.
6. In Some Room Above the Street
He didn't write this one either, but it's a cheating song of the first order. Gary, married, is meeting his lover "In Some Room Above The Street". She's married too. He complains that it's wrong, and he compares them to common thieves and beggars on the street. Can't quit though. It feels "too sweet". The ante is upped in the final moments, when Gary suggests that if her husband should desire sex, go ahead and do it, but be sure to think of Gary whilst in the midst. Classic.
7. Ten Years of This
Bob Dylan allegedly loved this song so much he listened to it over and over again, moved to a trance-like state. (side note--it's not obvious to me that he's come out of it) Jackpot, content wise. Singing about a marriage that's gone bad---she's out cheating he thinks, and he's "sitting here stoned". He sings about it being good he's not sure she's cheating, because if it is confirmed, he's liable "to start talking with my fists."
And a great hook---after noting that "what ain't dead by now is dying", he wonders "What in hell kept us together for ten years of this..." I'm with Dylan. Great freakin' song.
8. Let's Go Jukin'
This cookin little number is Gary asking "good-lookin'" to accompany him out Jookin'. He knows a dive (no, really?) where they can "party" and dance. "Drink it up, baby let the good times roll!" She's a gamer too, tight dress and slathered in perfume. Excellent roadhouse piano solo as well.
9. Little Junior
Like his Daddy, in this song, Gary is 'no count'. (Of no account). A chip off the old block, he finds pleasure wherever he goes. Amongst his cravings listed within the lyrics of this song are "Tall naked women, diamonds, cars, old-age whiskey and all night bars..." He advises the local citizenry to "keep their daughters in the yard", as he has been to jail, is out on bail, and really doesn't care what kind of trouble he gets into. Also, "strange things happen when he's around." Why would he behave this way? Simply: "I'm only goin' through once, and I'm going through in style.."
10. Drinkin' Thing
Gary has "this drinkin' thing". Why? Well, his (younger) woman is carrying on. Gary thinks of asking her to tell him the truth about what she's been up to, but figures she'll probably tell him if he asks. So, he drinks.
11. Flat Natural Born Good-Timin' Man
Wherein Gary dons his Two-Tones, and heads down to Whiskey Row for some serious drinking with the free-wheelin' goodlookin' high heeled honies that are sure nuff a friend of a Flat Natural Born Good Timin' Man.
12. Stone Wall (Around Your Heart)
Here Gary covers a song by the fantastic Louvin Brothers. Someone once loved him, and now treats him like a stranger on the street. We'll take the drinking as a given.
13. She's Got a Drinking Problem
Gary tells us about a fashionable woman, with a taste for foreign cars. She eschews the bars, as she is too high class for that. But alas, she has a drinkin' problem. Guess who that is. "She's got a drinkin' problem, and it's me!" Despite his alcoholism, she sticks with him. "The one mistake she ever made comes home to her each night." At least he's faithful.
14. Single Again
Gary's Single Again. Why? His hot mama has taken up with a stranger new in town, with a black moustache and a red Cadillac. He's screwed. "Now he's got you, and I got two...divorce lawyers on my back..." Running to escape "the alimony man", Gary drifts from bar to bar, but runs into friends who remind him of her. So he's single again, and "livin from drink to drink."
15. She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles)
Gary notices other men flirting with his woman, and notices her flirting back. "Acting single" as it were. So, "While she pours herself on some stranger, he pours himself a drink somewhere." This song is great, full of self-loathing and the realization that he's "not man enough to stop her from doin' him wrong". So, his heart is breaking, like the tiny bubbles. She's actin' single, he's drinkin' doubles.
16. Empty Glass (That's the Way the Day Ends)
This is actually a very nice ballad. The sweetest ballad you've ever heard where the singer admits to being "drunk again" in the first verse. He misses his lady so much. Every night he's in some bar, "pouring whiskey on a heart that's on fire..." It's fine that he rhymes "bar" with "fire". or "Fahr". Makes me love him even more. When I feel wronged in love, this is a song I often linger long over, with my own empty glass in front of me.
This is a great break-up song to close out the collection. An epitaph of a failing marriage, it goes:
"What do we call it now, it's not a marriage anymore.
Call it new and different, it's not like it was before
Out of all the words to choose from, there's only one that fits
Call it what you want to, I just call it 'Quits'."
Everyone who likes hardcore country music needs some Gary Stewart in their collection. This one, unfortunately, is out of print so you'll need to check used bins. Or, you can approximate it by purchasing the in-print "Essential Gary Stewart" which has most of the same tracks.