John Stewart, an intense troubadour who helped set the standards for the singer-songwriter movement of the early 1970s with his classic album “California Bloodlines,” died Saturday in his hometown of San Diego after suffering a stroke. He was 68.
Stewart didn’t match that acclaim again, but in the long solo career that followed his seven years with the Kingston Trio, he recorded more than 45 albums, flirted with chart success, pioneered the independent recording and release of records, and remained a hard-touring folk patriarch with a loyal following.
Stewart, who lived in Novato in Northern California, had a concert scheduled at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica on Feb. 2 and was in San Diego to complete work on a new album.
Recorded in Nashville with some of the musicians who worked on Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline,” “California Bloodlines” wasn’t a commercial hit when it came out in 1969, but its folk-country blend and Stewart’s literary use of quintessential American characters and geography have resonated through the decades in the folk genre that has become known as Americana.
“ ‘California Bloodlines’ is a vision of America written after traveling around the country spending my boyhood on racetracks,” Stewart, whose father was a horse trainer, said in a 2003 interview with the San Jose Mercury News. “When I left the Trio, I was reading [Jack] Kerouac and [John] Steinbeck with Andrew Wyeth prints hanging on my wall. All that somehow took me to the songs on that record.”
The album was included in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 200 best albums of all time, and on his 2006 album “West of the West,” contemporary folk mainstay Dave Alvin recorded the title song, with its evocative refrain: “Oh, there’s California bloodlines in my heart/And a California woman in my song/Oh, there’s California bloodlines in my heart/And a California heartbeat in my soul.”
"[Stewart] was probably one of the greatest songwriters around,” Roz Larman, the longtime host of KPFK-FM’s “Folk Scene” radio program, told the Los Angeles Times on Sunday. “He wrote songs about the United States. You could tell he really loved America. . . . He just knew this country real well, and he was just an amazing songwriter.”
Born Sept. 5, 1939, in San Diego, Stewart started performing when he was a teenager in Pomona, and made three albums with the folk group Cumberland Three. He then joined the popular Kingston Trio in 1961 when founding member Dave Guard left the group.
After leaving the trio in 1967, Stewart hit the campaign trail with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, then began his solo career. His biggest song was “Daydream Believer,” a No. 1 hit for the Monkees and also a chart single for Anne Murray. Rosanne Cash later found success with his “Runaway Train.”
The biggest hit Stewart recorded himself was “Gold,” from his 1979 Top 10 album “Bombs Away Dream Babies.” On that project he collaborated with two artists who had studied the Kingston Trio’s music when they were starting out -- Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks.
For the most part, though, he remained a stalwart of the folk circuit. In 2000, he and his former Kingston Trio colleague Nick Reynolds founded the Trio Fantasy Camp in Scottsdale, Ariz., an annual event where fans could perform with the pair.
Stewart is survived by his wife, Buffy Ford Stewart; their son, Luke, and three children from a previous marriage, Mikael, Jeremy and Amy.
Services are pending.