Back in the '80s, when country music was going through one of its periodic episodes of self-conscious and self-satisfied hokum, there was a billboard on a highway outside of Dallas, advertising one of those urban honky-tonk radio stations. The sign consisted of the station's call letters and a single song title: "She's Actin' Single, I'm Drinking Doubles," and if you didn't know any better, you might think it was a kind of joke. "You know this is schlock," it seemed to say, "and we know this is schlock, but it'll give you something funny to talk about at the office tomorrow morning."
But the song wasn't schlock—it had once been a true hit record—and since the man who sang it shot himself to death last week, now is a good time to stand back and take a look at the terrible fate of country demi-legends. * Ladies and gentleman, raise a glass to Gary Stewart.
S tewart was born in 1945 in Letcher County, Ken., the son of—yes—a coal miner, who moved his family down to the Florida coast when Gary was 12. There he learned to play guitar; at the age of 17, he met and married a woman named Mary Lou Taylor, to whom he stayed married for the rest of his life. He began writing songs for minor country stars, and he was 30 before he had a top 10 album of his own *: The album, called Out of Hand, had "She's Actin' Single" on it, along with a few other hits—"Drinking Thing" was one, and over the following years there were more along the same lines: "Whiskey Trip," "An Empty Glass," and so on. Just about all Stewart's songs were about getting drunk to get over someone, and they were pretty easy to treat as novelty songs, especially if you weren't, yourself, getting drunk to get over someone.
But Stewart didn't sing them as if they were novelty songs; he sang them as if he had reached down his own throat, grabbed hold of his misery, and yanked it out of his chest. He had a high, quavering voice that was part George Jones, part Roy Orbison, and part who knows what—Dion, maybe, or something out of New Orleans. He wasn't kidding, and for a time there, Gary Stewart was as great a singer and songwriter as America had to offer. "I've got this drinking thing," he sang in his shivering, redneck tenor, "to keep from thinking things." Jukebox music doesn't get much better than that.
Well, the time wasn't long: a few years, maybe, in the late '70s, a handful of albums and short string of hits. Stewart didn't really fit in anywhere: He wasn't Southern rock, and he wasn't Nashville country, and honky-tonk is, almost by definition, not the sort of stuff that plays well outside a small club. What's more he was, not surprisingly, a heavy drinker, he could be a difficult man, and in time he disappeared. From there, the story goes downhill. In 1980, Stewart was in a car crash that wrecked his back; in 1988 his son Gary Joseph killed himself with a gun; and last month his wife Mary Lou died after a bout of pneumonia. "Gary couldn't put his pants on without Mary Lou around," a friend of mine who knew him told me. So he shot himself in the neck and died.
Down here in Texas, his suicide didn't make the paper, and the New York Times didn't run an obituary for almost a week—and when it did, the obit was a terse, unsigned thing. But you ought to know about him, you ought to listen to him—he still sounds great—and if you have the time, you might pause to reflect on the ignominies of fame. Gary Stewart, 59: a brief moment of loud and public heartache, a long slow slide into oblivion, bad decisions, bad luck, and a terrible, lonely death. Happy holidays, y'all.
Corrections Dec. 30, 2003: In this article, Jim Lewis originally implied that Gary Stewart wrote "She's Acting Single, I'm Drinking Doubles." In fact, it was written by Wayne Carson; Stewart had recorded a popular version of it. ( Return to corrected item.)