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Gary Stewart, 58; Sang Country Tunes Hinting at His Own Demons

Times Staff Writer

Gary Stewart, the country singer whose 1970s hits chronicling an alcohol-drenched honky-tonk life paralleled his own struggles with booze, drugs and depression, has died. He was 58.

A police report said Stewart had been found Dec. 16 in his home in Fort Pierce, Fla. It appeared that he had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Stewart’s wife of more than 40 years, Mary Lou, died a month earlier after a bout with pneumonia.

“He was just lost without her; it broke his heart,” Robert Gallagher, entertainment coordinator at Billy Bob’s Texas, told the Fort Worth Star Telegram recently. The club was where Stewart had recorded his final album, “Live at Billy Bob’s Texas,” released last year.

Another friend of Stewart’s once said he “couldn’t put his pants on without Mary Lou around.” Although their marriage had lasted from the time they wed as teenagers, it was tested by his drug and alcohol use, which spiraled out of control when his hits began to fade in the late 1970s.

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Stewart charted 30 country singles from 1973 to 1989, hitting his commercial peak in the mid-1970s with a string of songs in which alcohol often played a central role: “Drinkin’ Thing,” “Whiskey Trip” and his only No. 1 hit, his 1975 single “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles).”

His high-pitched tenor and distinctive vocal quaver combined for an intense emotionalism -- vulnerability and desperation rolled into one, and ideally suited to the fragile characters who populated his songs.

His driving musical sound, reflecting his early affinity for rock and country, was at odds with the smooth, string-laden sound that typified Nashville records of the early 1970s.

He was often cast as a latter-day champion of the raw honky-tonk sound of such 1940s and ‘50s country performers as Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and Webb Pierce.

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But Stewart once said he loved the blues even more than country and was especially enamored of the Allman Brothers Band, whose members played on some of his recordings.

Stewart was born in Letcher County, Ky., and his father worked for years in the coal mines until he was injured during a cave-in. When Gary was 12, the Stewarts moved to Florida to join other family members. It was there that Stewart started his first band, the Tomcats, and met his first songwriting partner, Bill Eldridge, who also was in the band.

Before launching his own recording career, he and Eldridge moved to Nashville and wrote songs that were recorded by Stonewall Jackson, Cal Smith and Nat Stuckey.

Eldridge was quickly disillusioned and returned to Florida, but Stewart continued, working as a musician in various bands and continuing to write.

A demo tape he made in the early 1970s, with countrified versions of several Motown songs, caught the attention of producer Roy Dea, who signed Stewart to RCA Records shortly after Dea moved to the label and shepherded his recordings through that decade.

Even with a run of three Top 10 country singles in 1974 and 1975, Stewart was generally considered too country for rock audiences and too rock for country audiences. His albums won the admiration of many critics at the time, but the hits soon fell off.

After suffering a back injury in a 1980 car accident, then being dropped by RCA in 1982, his drug and alcohol use intensified. His wife left him for a time, and his son, Gary Joseph, killed himself in 1988, the same year, coincidentally, that Stewart emerged, clean and sober, with his first new album in years.

Although that album was titled “Brand New,” it reunited the singer-songwriter with Dea. It also included several songs he had written with a new songwriting partner: his wife.

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That album, for the small California-based indie label Hightone Records, failed to generate any renewed interest in Stewart from country radio, nor did two follow-ups. But Stewart continued to tour, and remained particularly popular in Texas, prompting the title of his 1993 album “I’m a Texan.” He was slated to perform Nov. 29 at Billy Bob’s Texas, but canceled the date after his wife died the day before Thanksgiving.

He is survived by a daughter, Shannon Stewart of Fort Pierce, and a grandson.

No information about any memorial service was available.


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