MUSIC / JOHN STEWART : Folksy and Tuneful : The singer is prepared to share samplings from his new ‘Bullets in the Hourglass’ album in a Santa Barbara gig.
Look at that mug. Now, here’s a guy who looks as though he’s seen some stuff. He’s done some stuff, too, like having a musical track record that extends more than 30 years.
John Stewart, folk singer extraordinaire, recorded 13 albums as a member of the Kingston Trio back in those silly ‘60s and has more than 20 albums of his own since then. Stewart will be bringing his extensive repertoire to the Bluebird Cafe in Santa Barbara on Friday night.
Stewart has a new album, “Bullets in the Hourglass,” just out on Shanachie Records, an eclectic label that represents many international acts.
“I don’t know how it’s doing to be honest with you,” Stewart said in a recent phone interview from Colorado. “It’s getting some airplay; it’s coming along. At first, I didn’t really want to do this album, but this company has done more for me than any other. The greatest thing was all the CDs they sent me when I signed.”
Stewart, whose million songs seemingly appear on a thousand labels, has also released several of his most recent efforts on his own label, Homecoming Records.
“I was out there so long without a major label, and I had found an audience,” Stewart said. “I was getting gigs, building a mailing list by having people fill out cards. The big labels wouldn’t do stuff like that. So having my own label was sort of like eliminating the middle man. You don’t make that much money, but it allows you to do your art. I do mail order, sell stuff at gigs. It works.”
Stewart, a Pomona homeboy, saw his first rock concert in 1956--Elvis at the Pan Pacific Auditorium. He was in bands all through high school.
By the late ‘50s, Elvis had a new wardrobe and the Kingston Trio was a super-group. Stewart used to make a point of checking them out whenever they played in the L.A. area. He’d hang around with them after the shows and audition songs for them. Try hanging out with U2 after the show.
Anyway, that was then and this is now, and back then Stewart got lucky. Real lucky.
“Back then, Buddy Holly was dead, Elvis was in the Army and guys like Fabian represented rock ‘n’ roll, but folk music had the attitude,” he said. “I was going to Mt. San Antonio J.C. studying accounting when I got my first royalty check. I got 20 grand for ‘Molly D,’ which was recorded on their ‘Here We Go Again’ album.
“You can probably imagine, it’s 1959, and I’m living at home and I get this check, which was more than my father made in a year. I was always a songwriter, and the Kingston Trio had recorded some more of my songs. In 1961, Dave Guard left because he wanted to do some electric folk rock like the Byrds ended up doing. Anyway, I joined and stayed until 1967.”
In between, the Kingston Trio all wore the same striped shirts, which made wardrobe selection as easy as it is for Fidel Castro. The group played everywhere and got to meet all the rock stars of the ages, including the Beatles, and took a memorable vacation to London.
“We played the opening of the London Hilton in 1962,” Stewart said. “Every nation sent an act. We played four songs and got to stay 10 days for free. The Springfields with Dusty Springfield got some award for best group and the Beatles got an award for best up-and-coming act.
“We ended up playing something like ‘Hard Ain’t It Hard’ during the Boston crab salad. The mayor of San Francisco was passed out in the elevator and the whole thing was like a Fellini movie; no one could believe it, and no one wrote a song about it.”
Few things have changed since then, still no one understands Fellini movies; there’s just more gray hair on the heads of the principals. The Kingston Trio--with two original members--are still on the road, doing more than 200 gigs per year. And folk music, which can be traced from the Byrds to R.E.M. and a zillion other groups, lives long and prospers.
“Folk music never did and never will go away,” Stewart said. “Country music these days is really just folk music. . . . It comes from personal experience, not a book.”
One of Stewart’s most successful songs was a hit for a group that wasn’t even a folk group. The Monkees had a massive hit with “Daydream Believer” in 1967.
“Well, I knew their producer,” the songwriter said. “That’s the way it works. I was at this party and he asks me, ‘Got any songs for the Monkees?’ So I played ‘Daydream Believer’ for him and it went to No. 1 worldwide and sold 40 million copies.”
Like many liberals (are there any conservative folk singers?), Stewart had not voted for a political winner for a long time, at least not until President-elect Bill came along. In 1968, Stewart was a part of the Robert F. Kennedy entourage.
“It was just a whirlwind and the energy was incredible,” Stewart said. “He was a very, very intense guy. He was totally committed to the minorities and the poor--it was not just something to get votes.”
Stewart, a Civil War buff, has been in heaven since moving to Virginia last year. He basically wanted to escape Los Angeles and find a better school for his son, Luke, he said. The Stewarts live in Buckingham County, about 60 miles from Appomattox Court House. In fact, Stewart’s first recordings were as leader of the Cumberland Three, who resurrected Civil War songs.
“Back in 1960, the guy that owned Roulette Records, Morris Levy, wanted us to record Civil War songs, and whatever Morris wanted, Morris got,” Stewart said. “The place where we live now is great; no one locks their doors at night. We’ll probably stay here until Luke goes to college, then maybe move back to California. My mom still lives there. In fact, she’s lived in Ventura for the last 10 years.”
Stewart, who has played (many times) in every state except Alaska, has got the touring scene down to about one week a month.
“I get to do my art and make a living,” he said. “I think my singing is a lot better and my songs have more bite to them and it’s better than working.”
Oh, and lest we forget the important stuff--what a voice!
* WHERE AND WHEN
John Stewart at the Bluebird Cafe, 1221 State St., No. 205, Santa Barbara. Friday at 8:30 p.m. 10 bucks. For information, call 966-7778.