20 Years Ago: The Tragic Death of Gary Stewart

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Of all the country music greats of the past, of all the performers who for whatever reason suffered from their careers or legacies sliding criminally under the radar, there is perhaps no artist, no performer in the history of country music whose impact, influence, appeal, and footprint so far outpaced the recognition he received in life and death than Gary Stewart.

“The King of Honky Tonk” as he’s known by some may have not had a string of #1 hit songs or albums, may never have become a household name beyond diehard country music fans, and may never grace the walls of the Country Music Hall of Fame. But when you talk about a guy that influenced his peers and gained their mad respect, Gary Stewart is right up there with anyone. And despite never becoming a country superstar, the cult following for Stewart’s music is strong.

Gary Stewart’s early life played out like a country song. Named after the famous actor Gary Cooper, he was born in the tiny town of Jenkins, Kentucky right in the heart of coal country. His dad was a coal miner who was injured in an accident when the mine he was working in caved in on him. It was 1959 and Stewart was 12 years old at the time. With his dad injured, the family moved to Fort Pierce, Florida to be closer to relatives.

Soon Stewart started picking guitar and singing, and formed a band called The Tomcats with a Fort Pierce police officer and musical veteran named Bill Eldridge. They would tour around the region and write songs together. Around that time is when Gary met the love of his life, Mary Lou Taylor. She was three years Stewart’s senior, but at the ripe age of 17, he knew he’d met the love of his life, and asked her to marry him. Gary would spend three weeks shy of the rest of his life with Mary Lou.

Gary and Mary Lou were inseparable. A friend once said of Gary Stewart that he couldn’t put his pants on without Mary Lou. Their marriage would be tested for a spell as drugs and alcohol got the best of Gary, but they always came back together. Despite so many of Gary Stewart’s signature songs being about breakups and broken hearts—including his sole #1 hit called “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)”—it was the love of Mary Lou that set the foundation for all of Gary Stewart’s success.

Gary Stewart’s unique vibrato-like high tenor didn’t hurt his prospects either, and helped set him apart from other singers, especially in the way he wielded his voice to covey emotion on a superior level. Stewart also knew how to write a song. In fact it was songwriting that officially got Stewart into the country music business.

Gary Stewart was playing a show at a club called the Wagon Wheel in Okeechobee, Florida, when Mel Tillis heard him and took a shine to his songs. Tillis told Stewart that he should move to Nashville and start pitching his songs on Music Row. When Mel Tillis struggled through his stutter to convey you some sage advice, you listened.

So with his songwriting buddy Bill Eldridge and Mary Lou not far behind, Gary Stewart moved to Music City where he recorded a few songs for a small label called Cory in 1964. Before leaving Florida, Stewart had co-written a song with Eldridge called “Poor Red Georgia Dirt.” Country singer and Grand Ole Opry star Stonewall Jackson had a hit with it in 1965, and Stewart’s songwriting career was off to the races.

Gary Stewart and Bill Eldridge were inseparable in those early days in Nashville. The duo wrote over 50 published songs together. To make ends meet, they worked day jobs for a spell at Owen Bradley’s Bradley’s Barn Studios, setting up equipment, fetching coffee, and doing other odd tasks. This gave the pair access to performers to pitch their songs to.

Also during this time, Gary Stewart and Bill Eldridge discovered that no one had ever claimed the copyright to the legendary singalong “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” and decided to take credit for it. It’s unclear if they ever were able to collect any royalties on it though.

Gary Stewart ended up writing multiple tracks for Billy Walker and Cal Smith, along with songs for Jim Ed Brown, Peggy Little, Roy Drusky, Johnny Russell, Ernest Tubb, and others. Stewart did whatever else he could do to get his foot in the door in country music as well. But it was very difficult, and resulted in more failure than success. Bill Eldridge eventually had enough of the Music Row way of life and headed back to Florida.

Gary Stewart kept cranking out songs and tried to hold out for as long as he could. Though it’s sometimes overlooked by country historians and even Gary Stewart fans, he also played piano in Charley Pride’s band, and he can be heard on Pride’s double album called In Person recorded in Fort Worth, Texas, and released in 1969. But similar to Bill Eldridge, Gary Stewart eventually became disillusioned with trying to “make it” in country music as well, and headed back to Florida for a spell. But he would be there long.

One of the keys to Gary Stewart’s musical magic was the multiple influences he brought to country. Being from Florida, Southern rock was a major influence on him, especially The Allman Brothers. And strangely, it was a dalliance with soul music that ultimately helped launch Stewart’s career as a singer and performer. In 1970, Motown Records was looking for singers to perform country versions of Motown hits such as “Baby I Need Your Loving” and “I Can’t Help Myself.” Gary Stewart was paid $30 a piece to sing demos of the songs, but the opportunity would pay off even more handsomely in the future.

A handful of the Motown demos and other Stewart recordings ended up in the hands of producer Roy Dea. He convinced Jerry Bradley—son of Owen Bradley who owned Bradley’s Barn Studio where Stewart had worked previously—that he would be a good fit for RCA Records. Jerry Bradley agreed, and they got to work on Gary Stewart’s RCA Records debut called Out of Hand, produced by Roy Dea. Released in 1975, the album would go on to become Stewart’s signature work.

Gary Stewart had done plenty of recording previously for Kapp Records and then Decca, but nothing really came of it. MCA would re-release an album of Stewart’s material from the Kapp Records era, scoring a Top #15 hit from the song “You’re Not The Woman You Used To Be” in 1975, but it was because of the success of the Out of Hand album that anyone was paying attention.

Gary Stewart only wrote a couple of the songs on the album Out of Hand. It was Wayne Carson who wrote the #1 song “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles),” as well as a few of the other album’s signature songs. But what took the country music world by storm was the voice of Gary Stewart, as well as the honky tonk style, which shook up the Countrypolitan sound happening in Nashville at the time. Stewart also landed a #4 hit with the title track, and a Top 10 with the song “Drinkin’ Thing.”

It was the Out of Time album that had Time Magazine declaring Gary Stewart the “Current King of Honky Tonk.” Legendary country music historian Bill C. Malone went on to declare Out of Hand “one of the greatest honky tonk country albums ever recorded.” The continued appeal for the album verifies all of these proclamations nearly 50 years later, with modern bands like Midland and Mike and the Moonpies carrying the sound forged in those studio sessions into the present tense.

Through all of the ups and downs of Gary Stewart’s musical career, Mary Lou had remained his rock, always believing in him, attempting to nudge him forward and nag him when necessary, and pump him up when that was needed as well. Mary Lou also co-wrote the final song on the Out of Hand album with Gary called “Williamson County.”

Mary Lou and Gary Stewart (via JAC – Find a Grave)

Gary Stewart now had a career as a country music performer, and would go on to record seven more albums for RCA. Though he would never achieve Top 10 success again, he remained a solid and steady performer with a strong fan base, especially among his fellow musicians. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell stepped up to work with Stewart on his 1977 album Your Place or Mine. In a 1978 interview with Playboy, Bob Dylan praised Gary Stewart by name. He especially loved the song “Ten Years of This” about a troubled marriage. But even though love gone bad was Gary’s greatest material, it was his love life with Mary Lou that remained steady.

In 1980, Gary Stewart got to live out his dreams through the album Cactus and a Rose. A more Southern rock affair, he co-wrote songs with Allman Brother members Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts who both also played on the record. Fans loved it, but it underscored an issue with Gary’s career, and one of the reasons his work was going overlooked. Gary Stewart had become too rock for country, and too country for rock. RCA didn’t really know what to do with him.

Another issue that emerged was Gary’s use of drugs and alcohol. Similar to one of his honky tonk heroes, Hank Williams, Gary Stewart suffered from back problems after a 1980 automobile accident. In the early ’80s, Gary Stewart was paired up with emerging songwriter Dean Dillon for a couple of duet albums, Brotherly Love from 1982, and Those Were The Days from 1983. This bolstered the careers of both men to some extent, but ultimately it was not enough. Stewart was let go after fulfilling an 8-album contract with RCA.

This led to a very dark time in both Gary Stewart’s life and career. Drug use and alcoholism led to major troubles in his marriage with Mary Lou. Attendance numbers at his live shows started trailing off significantly. Gary Stewart returned to Florida, but still couldn’t find his footing in life. It all reached a tragic crescendo when Stewart’s son and namesake, Gary Joseph Stewart, committed suicide. He shot himself in 1988 at the age of 25, devastating Gary and Mary Lou, and leaving the couple’s daughter Shannon as their only surviving child. It also foreshadowed a concern for suicide that ended up running in the family.

The death of Gary Stewart’s son came at a time that he was trying to work himself out of a five year malaise. That same year, Gary had gotten sober, and started writing again. Now signed to HighTone Records, Stewart released the appropriately-titled album Brand New. Gary Stewart wrote eight of the album’s ten tracks. He’d 100% reconciled with Mary Lou who co-wrote five of the songs with Gary. Stewart also reunited with producer Roy Dea from his Out of Time sessions and the songs took a distinctly honky tonk style to them once again.

Gary Stewart’s career found second life on HighTone heading into the ’90s, with many folks still digging his ’70s output that withstood the test of time better than most. For the next 10 years, Gary Stewart would mostly focus on touring, and also garnered a strong following in Texas. Fellow Floridian Tom Petty had been turned onto Stewart’s music by Bob Dylan when the two legends had toured together, and Petty went out of his way to meet Stewart while touring through Florida.

In 2003, Stewart released Live at Billy’ Bob’s Texas—one of the more legendary releases in the series. It was a guy once dubbed as the “King of Honky Tonk” performing in the largest honky tonk in the world. This made Stewart synonymous with Billy Bob’s for a spell, and vice versa.

But that same year in November, Mary Lou came down with a very bad case of pneumonia. Heading into the Thanksgiving Day holiday, Mary Lou Stewart went to bed on November 26th, and never woke up. Officially, she passed away from a heart attack in her sleep while recovering from the pneumonia. She was 63 years old. Gary Stewart was beyond devastated. Gary and Mary Lou had been together since 1962— or over four decades at that point—and since Gary was 17 years old. He only knew life through Mary Lou.

Gary was scheduled to appear at Billy Bob’s three days later, but he didn’t make it. On December 16th, 2003, the boyfriend of Stewart’s daughter Shannon, along with Stewart’s close personal friend Bill Hardman, visited Gary’s home in Fort Pierce, Florida to check on him. They found Gary Stewart dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the neck. He was 59 years old.

Gary Stewart’s life began like a tragic country song. And in many respects, it ended like a tragic country song with Gary Stewart feeling like he could not go on without the love of Mary Lou that had sustained him throughout life. The story of Gary Stewart is a tragic, yet powerful and moving love story. Some also surmise that it didn’t help that similar to other country music performers who took their own lives such as Faron Young and Tom T. Hall, Gary Stewart might have felt somewhat abandoned by country music at large.

But the legacy of Gary Stewart’s music has continued to enjoy respect and appreciation from a strong base of loyal fans, as well as enduring influence over his fellow musicians. In 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Austin, TX-based honky tonk band Mike and the Moonpies was put in touch with Gary Stewart’s daughter Shannon to flesh out a unique project.

Since the band offered some of the best interpretations of Gary Stewart songs and cited him as a primary influence, Shannon felt they would be the perfect candidate to flesh out Gary Stewart songs that he’d penned before his passing, but he never had the opportunity to record.

The project came to be called Touch of You – The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart. At first the band thought they would just do one or two of the songs, but it ended up becoming an entire project with 10 songs out of the 20 total that had gone unrecorded. It’s not uncommon to hear new country bands that sound older name Gary Stewart as a primary influence.

As classic country music from the past continues to find renewed favor with older fans and newer fans alike, people are discovering or rediscovering the magic of Gary Stewart and albums such as Out of Hand and Brand New. Gary Stewart and his life partner / co-writer Mary Lou may have left this world tragically, but they left behind a treasure trove of music.

Gary Stewart and Mary Lou were both cremated. Their ashes remain together in the custody of their daughter Shannon.

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Los Angeles Times – Gary Stewart, 58; Sang Country Tunes Hinting at His Own Demons

Everybody Wiki: Billy Eldridge

Find A Grave: Mary Lou Taylor


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