Mike Harmeier, Caitlin Rutherford, Kyle Ponder, Zach Moulton, and the incomparable Omar Oyoque. Mike and the Moonpies as they’re know collectively. Also known as the greatest country music band in the world at the moment.
Gary Stewart. The King of the Honky Tonks. A guy that you could make a strong claim should be considered for the Country Music Hall of Fame. And no matter where he fits in your country music pecking order, if you know Gary Stewart’s body of work, you know him to be one of the most criminally underrated country music performers of all time.
There’s no question how the legacy of Gary Stewart is regarded when it comes to Mike and the Moonpies. When they were coming up in the honky tonks of Austin playing multi-hour sets for two-steppers and crazy Texans, Gary Stewart songs were a strong portion of their repertoire, and a primary influence on their sound. So who better to hand off some previously unheard Gary Stewart material to, and have them do their worst?
The idea looks spectacular on paper, and was signed off on specifically by Gary’s family and executors. But appreciate just what a challenge this particular project presents. Sure, plenty of country performers over the years have put themselves up to the task of recording the material of their heroes. Merle did a double record of Jimmie Rodgers. Waylon cut an album of entirely of Billy Joe Shaver songs. Bobby Bare covered Shel Silverstein. It’s a rite of passage in country. But in these instances, those artists got the pick of the litter from an artist’s entire catalog.
In this situation, Mike and the Moonpies are digging through songs that didn’t make the cut originally. These are the odds and sods—the orphans and abandoned that never made it onto a Gary Stewart record. Lucky for them, and for us, Gary Stewart’s cast offs are still better than many a songwriter’s A-list material.
Similar to Mike and the Moonpies, Gary Stewart understood that a crowded honky tonk could be a hell of a good time, but simultaneously, the loneliest place in the entire Universe. Writing songs that spoke to this dichotomy—often to both sides in the same breath—is the reason he was crowned the King of the Honky Tonks. Stewart also knew that country music is inherently cliche. But instead of either being repulsed by this or perfectly unaware like some songwriters, he embraced it, used it to his advantage, never taking himself too seriously, but always approaching the writing and performing of country music as a serious business, similar to what we’ve seen from the original output from Mike and the Moonpies.
Touch of You – The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart may not have as many hot smokers as some Gary Stewart and Mike and the Moonpies fans want. Both artists are (or were) so spectacular live—bringing an infectious energy and sweaty funkiness to the hot twang of country—that they almost have become victims of their own success, unable to feature as many of their slow songs as they wish, despite the quality of this material holding up to the speedier stuff.
Along with the strength of this unheard material from Gary Stewart, how Mike Harmeier really steps up to sing the hell out of it is a big takeaway of Touch of You. Of course, he will never match what Gary Stewart did, and trying would be foolhardy. But adding just a little bit of that Gary Stewart vibrato to the vocal tracks, along with a major amount of mustard behind the delivery of every single line and phrase makes Touch of You Mike Harmeier’s crowning vocal achievement so far.
You can tell Harmeier and the band took this work very seriously, and felt the weight of being responsible for representing Gary Stewart’s songs on their shoulders. Don’t compare Mike to Gary. That would be unfair. But comparing Mike to Mike, he hit this one out of the park. And no matter anyone’s assessment of this record specifically, covering a bunch of unheard Gary Stewart songs will always be one of the coolest things Mike and the Moonpies ever did on a growing list of cool things and curve balls this honky tonk outfit continues to throw our way.
And as far as the Moonpies go, emulating that sweaty 70’s honky tonk sound is second nature to them. It’s what they do every night and have for years. They fit right into the spirit and groove of these ten tracks and make them their own. Don’t be afraid to name the more upbeat tracks like the opening song “Bottom Of The Pile” or “The Gold Barstool” your favorites. Just make sure you dive head first into the performances and songwriting of the title track, or the final song “Heart A Home.” Touch of You represents all aspects of Gary Stewart’s sounds and songwriting, and they all deserve attention.
And props to producer Adam Odor for pulling this all together, including finalizing many of the songs under quarantine. The production—just like the music and songs—fits the Gary Stewart era. And though some may find elements of the mixing and mastering less than ideal, it works to set the proper mood and time period. And though the band Midland has been made fun of often—and very specifically for being a byproduct of Mike and the Moonpies—Mark Wystrach lending his voice to “Smooth Shot of Whiskey” can only add additional attention to the Moonpies, this project, and Gary Stewart. If there was a second band who you can hear the ghost of Gary Stewart in, it’s probably Midland.
As Mike Harmeier says, “A big part of this is turning people on to Gary who didn’t know Gary before. We wouldn’t be who we are without Gary.” But hopefully Gary helps turn some people onto Mike and the Moonpies too. Because similar to Gary in his time, Mike and the Moonpies are criminally underrated. And as Touch of You – The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart attests, they both deserve a hell of a lot more recognition.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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NOTE: This release is currently only available digitally.