The late Gary Stewart was one of country music’s most majestic honky tonk artists. This reissue combines two of his greatest records, originally recorded in 1979 (Gary) and 1980 (Cactus and a Rose). This collection will be a revelation for those who have never heard Stewart before and a reminder to old fans of just how damn wonderful he was. Stewart’s way too good to be forgotten.
Stewart sang with the stateliness of a drunk at the bar just one shot short of getting sloppy. He can be imposing one minute and heroic the next. He used the vibrato in his voice to simultaneously reveal his vulnerability and strength. As a result, whether Stewart crooned about his dying mother’s vision of God or his willingness to spend all of his money on a good time at the bar, the effect is chillingly real. Whatever he sang about comes off as emotionally and intensely authentic.
Although the two original albums were only a year apart, they had different producers and accompanists and hence have distinct vibes. Both are awesome. One could flip a coin to decide which is best. (Gary) is rowdier when it’s wild and gentler when peaceful. Cactus and a Rose has a warmer and steadier ambiance, although to call Stewart mellow would be misleading. Even when Stewart sang about people holding hands in a circle and watching the sunset (“Okeechobee Purple”), he praised this Kumbaya moment loudly and with a pirate’s growl.
Gary was Stewart’s sixth full-length album and released after he already had big hits in the mid-‘70s with songs like “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)”, but it did not sell well and reached only number 45 on Billboard’s US Country chart. Cactus and a Rose fared even worse and peaked at number 49. Neither album yielded a Top 40 single. His raw country sound was out of vogue during the Urban Cowboy era. But listening to Gary today reveals how timeless the music is. It may not have been hip then, but Stewart’s ability to passionately deliver lines about being poor one day but striving for “shiny shoes and shady streets” or longing for love that has “walked away” because of his bad judgment still powerfully reverberate. The album’s standout track, “One More”, compellingly closes the disc as he confesses his sins of excess and unsparingly judges himself in a strong and soulful voice while Country Music Hall of Famer Hargus “Pig” Robbins plunks down on the piano keys. This is the type of bar ballad that could be played in church.
While Gary solidly fits in with the tradition of the classic country sounds of Merle Haggard and George Jones, Cactus and a Rose has more of a blues rock feel, no doubt due to the contributions of Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts, Bonnie Bramlett, and others. Stewart keeps things moving even when he realizes love doesn’t solve all of his problems on such tracks as “(We Made It as Lovers) We Just Couldn’t Make It as Friends”, “How Could We Come to This After That”, and the title track itself. He’s still honky tonkin’, but he’s lived through enough morning-afters to understand there are worse feelings than hangovers. He still parties, but his world-weary voice squeezes out the complex emotions that make a person keep making the same mistakes over and over again.
Stewart’s career continued after these discs, and while drugs and alcohol slowed down his production, he gave them up in the late eighties to perform and record again to critical acclaim. You can look up the rest of the story. It’s too maudlin to restate here other than to say the incidents only increase one’s appreciation of how intensely Stewart felt things. The twofer reissue here does a public service by making Stewart’s music available again.
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