Monday, February 6, 2012



I became interested in the music of Gary Stewart in a very round about way. A few years ago, I heard Robert Earl Keen play the song Riding My Thumb To Mexico. When I heard the Johnny Rodriguez version on Outlaw Country (see my post from April 18, 2009), I added some of Johnny's music to my iTunes library. On his album Some of Mine, Some of Theirs, there is a cover of Whiskey Trip, which led me to Gary Stewart. Whiskey Trip is one of Gary Stewart's classic drinking songs.

With his unique vibrato tenor, Gary Stewart is consider by many country music fans to be one of the great honky-tonkers of all time. Some have likened him to Jerry Lee Lewis and I can appreciate the comparison. Even Time Magazine once referred to him as the King of the Honky-Tonks.

Originally born in Kentucky, Stewart moved to Florida as a boy and got his start playing in bars and bands there. At the urging of Mel Tillis, who he met in a bar in Okeechobee, Florida, Stewart moved to Nashville in the late 60’s and had some minor success as a songwriter.

Frustrated with songwriting and the ways of Nashville and influenced by a harder rocking crowd, Stewart returned to Florida and continued to develop his unique mix of county and rock and roll. He played piano in Charlie Pride’s band and became friendly with the Allman Brothers. Influenced by the Allmans and their sound, he returned to Nashville in 1973 and recorded a cover version of Ramblin Man. It went to 63 on the country charts.

His next release was Drinkin Thing, which was originally the B-side of his first single, I See The Want In Your Eyes. Re-issued as an A-side in 1974, it did well on the radio and became a top ten country hit. Stewart's unique voice fit the lyrics of this classic jukebox standard.

For Stewart it was the beginning a very successful association with songwriter Wayne Carson. Carson wrote many hits songs including The Letter, which was a number one hit for the Box Tops in 1967, Tulsa for Waylon Jennings and Always on My Mind, which has been covered by Brenda Lee, Elvis and Willie Nelson. Carson wrote several of Stewart's best songs including Drinkin Thing, Ten Years of This, Whiskey Trip and his biggest hit She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles).

 When Stewart’s version of She's Actin’ single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles) went to number one on the country charts in 1975, his place in honky-tonk history was secured. She's Acting Single along with Out of Hand and Drinkin' Thing all ended up on his great album Out of Hand. Many critics consider Out of Hand to be one of the great country albums of all time and I agree. It is one of the best to my ear. An album that combines great songs with Stewart's distinctive voice and interpretation is hard not to like.

In an interesting side note, it turns out that Bob Dylan was also a fan of Stewart’s music. It has been written that during his own time of marital misery, Bob became obsessed with Stewart’s classic ode to a bad marriage: Ten Years of This. He played it repeatedly and said that it put a spell on him. Bob even went to meet Stewart while touring with Tom Petty in Florida. It is a very powerful song and with lyrics like: What ain't dead, by now is dying/What in hell keep us together/for ten years of this? I can see why it grabbed Bob’s mind.

In spite of his unique voice and style, a great live show and many hits, Stewart never found a wider audience. Although he continued to tour with his band The Honky Tonk Liberation Army, as the 70’s ended, he returned to Florida and soon spiraled into a mess of drugs and drink. He believed in the rock and roll lifestyle and he managed to live it to the fullest.

Stewart made a couple of comeback albums and toured in the 80’s, but by that time his best work was clearly behind him. After the death of his wife in late 2003, Gary took his own life.

Although he is clearly under the radar now, Stewart made his contribution to the evolution of country rock and hopefully will get his credit in the future. I have been very excited to get to know his music over the last few years, I think you will be too.

If you don’t have any Gary Stewart on your iPod, I recommend you do something about it. Download the great album Out of Hand or look on Amazon for the Out of Hand/Steppin’ Out compilation. Both are great introductions to Stewart's impressive catalogue.


  1. Dylan mentioned him being in the audience at the Dallas 1986 show. He said one of his songs was a truly great song from the stage, can't remember the song as I write this. I met Gary a couple of times. Nice guy. Great music.

  2. The song was "Ten Years of This."

  3. One last thing. His last studio album "I'm a Texan" was very good and could stand up to his other work.

    1. I figured the song was probably "Ten Years of This". Did he play it? I will check out "I'm a Texas". Thanks

    2. He didn't play it.

  4. wow, this guy is great. i bought gary's live @billy bob's. amazing pedal steel, real honky tonk.

  5. I was a founding member of his road band The Honky Tonk Liberation Army and came up with the name. The band was actually called The Train Robbery, but Gary never liked it. When I coined The HTLA one day he loved it and so it was.....there are a few details in this profile that are wrong. I have seen the same mistakes other places. He did not play with Charlie Pride before signing with RCA. He played with Nat Stuckey before RCA, and replaced Ronnie Milsap in Pride's band after signing with RCA.