AIN’T LIVIN’ LONG LIKE THIS
THE LIFE (AND DEATH) OF GARY STEWART
By Bob Mehr
Reading time 41 Minutes
In Part One of our three-part extravaganza on the late, great honky-tonk singer GARY STEWART, acclaimed author BOB MEHR lays out his wild, raging life!
When the news broke, just before Christmas 2003
When the news broke, just before Christmas 2003, the calls came pouring into Gary Stewart’s hometown of Fort Pierce, Florida from all over the country. Heavy voices on the line – from Tennessee and Texas, from California and New York – all wanting to know if it was true what they’d heard. Stewart’s best friend Tommy Schwartz confirmed the worst. “Yes,” he told them solemnly, “The King of the Honky-Tonks is dead.”
For a time back in the 1970s, Gary Stewart had been a big country music star – no less than Time magazine had crowned him with his regal sobriquet. His reign had been colorful – filled with drug busts, label dust ups, and indelible songs – but relatively short-lived. Five years of hits, a precipitous fall, and then… nothing. He was gone from the public spotlight for years, sometimes decades, at a time. By the early-‘00s, Stewart, only in his late 50s, had long been in a state of semi-retirement. He was still making music on the fringes, playing occasional shows in Texas where he remained a beloved figure. But he was about as far as you could get from relevant.
And yet, the response to his death wasn’t one for a forgotten singer or faded name; rather it was though a colossus had passed. "Gary was the most authentic hardcore honky-tonk singer, next to Hank Williams, that I've ever heard," noted Ronnie Dunn, of Brooks & Dunn. Fellow country star Rodney Crowell did him one better: "I used to call Gary 'Hank,'" he said.
Others pointed to the coruscating power that seemed to emanate from his very being. “The electricity around Gary Stewart was so powerful that it was hard to stand next to him," said singer/guitarist Marty Stuart, who spent much of his life standing next to American music giants like Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash.
Whether you were country or rock royalty – Bob Dylan was another avowed fan – there was something about Stewart that got under your skin and shot straight to your heart. What he possessed trumped record sales or chart placements or cultural currency.
That the outpouring outstripped his fame, was no surprise. In life, as in death, Gary Stewart touched people. It was the mordant honesty of his lyrics, the untrammeled power of his voice, even the tragic circumstance of his demise, that moved them.
Less than a month after his wife Mary Lou, his love of 40-plus years, had died, Stewart had taken his own life, so he could join her in the hereafter. Those who knew him best would tell you it wasn’t the bullet that felled him, it was a broken heart.
Gary Stewart had written the final verse to the ballad of his life.
Gary Stewart’s daughter Shannon still lives in the old family home in Fort Pierce, a little palm tree dotted corner cottage, that everyone calls Stewart Manor.
“This house is one I was born and raised in, and that and mom and dad passed in. It’s more like a Gary and Mary Lou Stewart shrine,” she admits. “No matter how hard I tried to make it my own, it’s nothing but Gary and Mary Lou. They’re still here, y’ know – I believe that.”
Growing up Stewart was not the normal upbringing for Shannon and her older brother Gary Joseph. “I don’t know if you ever watched The Osbornes,” she says laughing. “Mom and dad used to watch that show and they loved it. That’s what our house was like.”
“There were people in and out all the time, jam sessions constantly. I’d walk in from school and there’d be 10 or 15 people hanging out, playing in the living room that dad had set up like a rehearsal space. I remember Dad tapping away, tapping his foot on the floor to the music all day and night,” says Shannon. “I’d say ‘Dad, it’s two in the morning! I gotta get up and go to school.’ He was like ‘Honey, I’m not gonna quit playing music. Why don’t you quit school and I’ll buy you a car.’ That was our life.”
Family and music were forever intertwined for Gary Stewart. The son of a coal miner, Stewart was born May 28, 1944, in Letcher County, Kentucky. The oldest of nine children – all with a first name beginning with "G” – the family moved to Florida in 1958. “Everyone in the family was talented in some kind of way,” said Shannon. “His brother Gerald was a drummer. But Dad was the one that really took off with music.”
For Stewart there were two great loves in life: music and Mary Lou. They’d met at a hamburger stand in 1960. “My Dad was only 16 and she was 20,” says Shannon. “My Mom had the cool car and all the cool records – she was the bad girl with the good music and the wheels. And my dad just took to her, they fell in love, and that was it.” The couple married a year later.
A regular life was never in the cards for Gary Stewart. He’d mowed lawns to buy his first guitar as a little kid, and aside from a brief stint in a local airplane factory, Stewart never worked another straight job again. He started performing professionally with a rockabilly group called The Tom Cats when he was 17, and cut his first song “I Love You Truly” when he was 19.
“Somewhere around the spring of 1966 is when I met Gary,” says his friend, bandmate and Fort Pierce native Tommy Schwartz. “I’d heard of him already, ‘cause we knew there was this guy cross town who’d actually made a record. Anybody who made a record, you wanted to see and meet them.”
“We’d hang out at his house and talk all kinds of shit. He had a personality that showed a lot different when he was younger. He’d just keep you laughing all day.” Recently Schwartz discovered a reel-to-reel tape of an old local radio broadcast that captured the younger Stewart in his early form. “He really was so funny, he could’ve been a comedian almost. That’s how I remember Gary from when we met.”
Between gigs at Fort Pierce clubs like The Wagon Wheel and Good Time Charlie’s, Stewart would drive north with his writing partner, a Fort Pierce cop named Bill Eldridge, and hustle songs up in Nashville. Soon their material was getting cut by the likes of Cal Smith, Stonewall Jackson, and Billy Walker.
While Stewart wrote in a deep country vein, his musical tastes knew no boundaries. “First night I ever played with Gary we played just about everything,” says Tommy Schwartz. “We played James Brown ‘I Feel Good,’ ‘Knock on Wood,’ Motown things, rock and roll, you name it. Gary was very versatile. He was into all kinds of music.”
“He had a very large record collection, something like 4000 records,” adds Shannon. “As kids, we would clean the house to his music – anything from Little Feat to Judy Collins to the blues, he had a wide variety.”
In 1969, country singer Nat Stuckey scored a top five hit with Stewart and Eldridge’s “Sweet Thang and Cisco.” The success of the song prompted the Stewarts to move to Nashville. Over the next couple years, Gary kept writing – at one point he had four cuts in the top ten – and released a series of solo singles for the Kapp and Decca labels. But he grew restless with Music City’s assembly line approach to making records.
A turning point for Stewart and came in 1971, when he caught the Allman Brothers playing Centennial Park on a Sunday afternoon. “Soon as Gary heard the Allman Brothers he didn’t want nothing to do with Nashville,” says Schwartz. “He said ‘I’m going home and I’m going to do that.’ He loved the Allmans. I think he loved the freedom they had to play any kind of music they wanted. That’s what Gary wanted, so he came back to Fort Pierce.”
The impact of the Allmans
The impact of the Allmans, his time working in the trenches in Nashville, and the years sharpening his instincts in the honky-tonks of Fort Pierce had primed Stewart for his big breakthrough. In 1973, he landed a solo deal with RCA, thanks to newly hired staff producer Roy Dea. Dea would become Stewart’s champion, co-conspirator and musical emancipator; together they would create a series of classic singles (starting with “Drinkin’ Thing”) and albums (beginning with the 1975 masterpiece Out of Hand) that would define Stewart’s singular aesthetic. Much of the power of the songs came from Stewart’s trembling vibrato and vaulting vocals, which sounded unlike anything that had come before in country.
“I think Roy Dea brought that out in him,” says Tommy Schwartz. “All these older demos and records he made before, his voice is good and he sings good, but something happened when he got with Roy. Whether it was how Roy produced him, or pushed him, but it seemed like it just became more. Roy Dea and Gary Stewart were this perfect combination.”
For Schwartz, Stewart’s success always seemed an inevitability. “The day I met Gary Stewart I knew he’d be a star,” he says. “I left to go to the Air Force in January 1971. I was stationed in California listening to country radio and I knew one day I’d hear Gary on there. I got discharged around when the Out of Hand album came out and wasn’t long after that that ‘She’s Acting Single’ hit, and sure enough, Gary was all over the radio.”
In the summer of 1975, Stewart’s “She Acting Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)” rose to number one on the country charts. It had taken him a decade of writing, gigging, and searching to find his sound and his moment, but he’d finally made it.
Gary Stewart had become the proverbial ten-year overnight sensation, but success didn’t seem to suit him.
“After Gary got on RCA and started having hits is when he became more reserved on stage. It almost seemed like he pulled back,” says Schwartz. “I think he hated playing big concert things. He hated having that focus on him. He really preferred being a back-row picker. He said as much. He’d rather have been playing little honky-tonks and joints where he could turn loose and have more fun. He preferred that atmosphere.”
“It’s true, he was very uncomfortable with the kind of attention that comes with being famous or being a star,” agrees Stewart’s daughter Shannon. “I think that’s why he was so much more comfortable in Fort Pierce than in Nashville. He felt like he could be himself here, where people knew him, didn’t bother him or expect anything from him.”
Now that he was a hitmaking artist, Stewart felt he had some security, and could push his music in manifold different directions. RCA, however, was resistant: they wanted more of the same from Stewart. “Nashville put reins on him,” says Shannon Stewart. “And he didn’t know how to get free of that or play the game so that he could have his freedom. He said his trouble with the label was politics, more or less. I remember him telling me that: ‘It’s all politics, honey.’”
Of course, Stewart wasn’t making things easy on himself. He’d long had a penchant for speed, before developing an insatiable appetite for cocaine, and then – following a car accident and a series of botched surgeries – found himself addicted to painkillers. Problems with the law – including a drug bust at his home in Florida – added to the general feeling that Stewart was a very risky commodity. To the buttoned-down minds at RCA, Stewart had become confounding artistically and personally, and their support of his music wavered.
From 1973 to 1978 every Stewart single had charted in the country Top 40, a dozen hits – of varying degrees – in a row. But that run ended with 1978’s “Stone Wall (Around You Heart).” After RCA let Roy Dea go, Stewart’s subsequent LP, 1980’s A Cactus and a Rose – an ill-advised and costly pairing with strong-willed producer Chips Moman – found the singer falling further out of favor with radio and his label.
Following the failure of A Cactus and Rose, RCA tried a different tack, teaming Stewart up with fellow singer-songwriter Dean Dillon (who would go onto become a hit writer for some of country’s biggest stars) for a pair of duet albums. The project – likely designed to ape the success of Columbia combo Moe Bandy and Joe Stampley – did little to revive his career fortunes.
Stewart’s time in the Nashville big leagues ended abruptly in 1983 when RCA dropped him from the label.
The mid-‘80s marked the start of a personal and professional nadir for Stewart. He was dealing with trouble from the IRS, battling his chronic pain from the car accident with too many pills, and running down his reputation on the road with erratic performances. “After that, there was a long time he hardly even played, almost two years where he didn’t tour – he’d barely get out of bed,” recalls Tommy Schwartz.
Stewart’s “lost years” were not totally lost, however. Although he was off the road and out of the spotlight, he continued to write songs, often with his wife Mary Lou, and record with Schwartz.
“I had a little studio in my house and that’s when we did a ton of demos,” says Schwartz. “I’d get him to come over here and work, just trying to inspire him. Sometimes he’d call in the middle of the night: ‘Tommy, I need to get this song down before I lose it.’ So I’d go cross town and pick his ass up and crank up the studio and record ‘til the sun come up. I was just hoping there would be some spark that would come back to him. I was trying to keep things going, I didn’t want him to stop.”
Everything came to a halt after Stewart suffered a devasting personal blow in 1988, when his son, Gary Joseph Stewart, committed suicide. The younger Stewart had been battling depression and various demons – and was apparently convinced that he was dying of some incurable disease – when he took his own life.
“When we lost my brother, it was bad. It was really bad,” says Shannon Stewart. “My Dad lost all grasp of reality. Him and my Mom had moved out of their house and went and bought a mobile home in Fort Pierce and just hid. He kinda disappeared.”
It was around this time that Village Voice writer Jimmy McDonough came down to Fort Pierce looking for Stewart, trying to find out what had happened to him, why he’d seemingly fallen from the face of the earth. The resulting 8000-word piece found McDonough plunging himself into Stewart’s strange world – hanging in the honky-tonks with him, staying up all night in his trailer, and chronicling the myriad highs and lows of his personal life, particularly the Stewarts’ combustible but committed marriage.
“There’s a nerve-wracking psychic bond that exists between Gary and Mary Lou,” wrote McDonough, “one moment they seem like strangers who can barely stand each other, the next minute they’re teenaged lovebirds at the drive-in, Jimmy Reed blasting on the radio.”
After a couple years away, Stewart made a cautious return to the stage. Some booking agents in Texas had lined up a few shows, promising good money. “Came the day he was supposed to leave, and I get a call saying Gary ain’t going,” recalls Schwartz. “He was scared to go. He was honestly scared to go face an audience again. Somehow, we got him on the plane. Three days later I go to pick him up, and he’d got out there and had a ball. First thing off the airplane, he’s showing me got two pockets full of money. He was top of the world again.”
Stewart’s “world tours” of Texas – long weekenders playing giant honky-tonks across the Lone Star state for cash – sustained Stewart financially for the rest of his life.
“I remember he would go out on the road, and my Mom would go grocery shopping and have all the stuff he liked waiting for him when he got back,” says Shannon Stewart. “Then the shuttle company would bring him home from the shows and my mom would be out there with a .38 ‘cause he’d come back with all this money in his pockets. She’d be standing at the door waiting for him, wanting to be sure he got in the house OK. I mean, they were simple people. He didn’t try to live outside his means. He just enjoyed being able to go and play and perform. He loved it.”
Between his return to the road and McDonough’s Village Voice article, Stewart enjoyed a small resurgence. He would sign a record deal with California roots label HighTone, releasing his first album in five years, Brand New, in 1989.
His career momentum was accompanied by a sense of family renewal as well. In 1989, Shannon gave birth to a son, Joseph, named after her late brother. “When I had my son, that helped my mom and dad a lot. They pretty much took my son as their own,” says Shannon, laughing. “I would come pick him up and my Dad would have him on the drums at two years old. Just playing drums with Paw-Paw. That helped, it really helped bring them out of the funk, for sure.”
Stewart recorded a couple more albums for HighTone and continued his Texas touring, and over the next decade comfortably took on the mantle of middle age. Once described as “a closet intellectual,” Stewart would spend his downtime reading, consuming massive biographies and volumes of history. He also took up woodworking, hand crafting beautiful picture frames, and filling them with images of his beloved Mary Lou.
“He was happy again,” says Shannon. “He had a good foundation – because he was so in love with my mother, he was so in love with his family. He was precious, absolutely precious. And the older he got, the more precious he got.”
By 2003, there was a sense that Stewart might be due for a real career comeback
By 2003, there was a sense that Stewart might be due for a real career comeback. He released his first album in a decade, a concert set documenting one of his Texas gigs, Live at Billy Bob’s. And there was talk of a collaboration with reigning Nashville king Toby Keith.
Then, the unexpected happened. “The way I was raised, we were an open house, we didn’t keep anything from each other,” says Shannon Stewart. “And my parents always told me, if one of them goes, the other one is going to follow. They drilled that in my head. But we always thought it was going to be my dad to go first, because of the lifestyle he had. Nobody ever expected Mom to pass away before him.”
Mary Lou Stewart had long suffered from lupus, and that fall she been nursing a case of pneumonia. Still, there was nothing to indicate her situation was life-threatening. But on Nov. 21, 2003 she went to bed and died in her sleep.
It felt to Shannon that she’d lost both her parents that night. “I can remember so perfectly me and my Dad sitting the back room, while they were taking her out. I asked him, ‘What are we gonna do?’ What are you gonna do?’ And he just looked at me and said: ‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’ I knew it was only a matter of time from that point.”
“When she died, of course, Gary was depressed. I talked him into going to the doctor and getting on Zoloft,” says Tommy Schwartz. “Most of the time if I wasn’t at work, I was with him then. His phone was ringing like crazy, people wanting to call and offer condolences. But he wouldn’t answer. So, we just unplugged the house phone. But his grandson had a computer phone line. I told Gary – I have this number and Shannon has this number, so if it rings, it’s gonna be one of us, and you need to answer. He was good about answering those couple weeks.”
Looking back now, Schwartz concedes that Stewart had already made up his mind about his fate and decided to put up a good front. Stewart made plans with friends and family for the future, and even talked about getting surgery to finally fix his lingering back issues. Shannon – fearing the worst after her mother’s death – had initially confiscated all his guns. But eventually he convinced her to give them back, that he needed to protect “my casa,” as he put it.
A couple weeks after Mary Lou’s passing, Schwartz was hanging out with Stewart, keeping him company. “I was over there one Saturday night watching TV. Gary says ‘Do you want to drink a beer? I thought he meant go to the store and pick something up. Next thing I know he’s getting all dressed and done up. Combing his hair, got his ostrich coat on, all fancied up. I wasn’t dressed to go anywhere, but I was so happy just get him out of the house.”
They went to a place called Pineapple Joe’s north of Fort Pierce. There was a band of local boys Stewart and Schwartz knew playing that night. They found a couple spots at the bar. “I had 90 bucks on me and we drank 90 dollars’ worth of beer,” recalls Schwartz. Sometime during in the evening, Schwartz got a call from Shannon. She was shocked and happy to hear that her father had left the house, and soon joined them at the bar.
By the time the band’s set was nearing its end, “One of the guys says, ‘We got Gary Stewart out there, maybe he’ll get up here and do a couple,’” recalls Schwartz. “The whole place starts screaming of course.” Schwartz grabbed a bass and Stewart strapped on a guitar and led them through a couple Jimmy Reed numbers. “We did about three or four songs,” says Schwartz, “And then we did ‘An Empty Glass.’”
There’s a grainy VHS recording of the Pineapple Joe’s set floating around on YouTube. Although the picture is dark and the sound is poor, you can still discern the power of Stewart’s performance, as he delivers what would become his honky-tonk valediction.
An empty glass, that last cigarette
It's closing time, and I'm drunk again
But somehow I'll make it home, and cry myself to sleep
Yeah, that's how my day ends, every night for me
“When you watch the video, you see there’s a girl sitting at a table in front, and that’s Shannon watching her Dad,” says Schwartz, his voice breaking. “It’s a very sad thing for me to talk about. It was the last time he touched a guitar.”
Ten days later, the family found Stewart’s body at his home. He’d taken his own life, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
More than 15 years after Gary Stewart’s passing his family and friends still struggle as to how to keep his legacy going.
Stewart didn’t live long enough for the late-career rediscovery and reappraisal that so many veteran artists benefit from these days. In 2019, one of the big music industry buzzwords is “Americana” – a roots music movement built around a fluidity of genre, where county and soul and R&B and rock meld together. It’s the vision Gary Stewart tried to bring to his music 40 years ago. Yet Stewart’s name – unlike so many those of his outlaw and cosmic county contemporaries from the ‘70s – is rarely mentioned in Nashville, or anywhere in the music business, these days.
There have been some small attempts to dig into Stewart’s catalog, including a couple recent archival releases from the Nashville label Delmore Recordings documenting his pre-RCA work. Beyond the music that’s been heard, there’s much more that remains unreleased.
Tommy Schwartz, who serves as guardian of Stewart’s musical estate, estimates he had more than 100 original songs and demos by Stewart. There’s been talk of younger groups, like Texas country up-and-comers Midland, recording his songs. “There’s a lot of young musicians that worship Gary Stewart,” says Schwartz. “I sent Midland a CD full of songs and they’ve talked about cutting them.”
For those who know and were touched by the music of Gary Stewart, their fandom remains profound. “There are so many artists that were so famous at some point in their lives, that don’t have a following now,” says Schwartz. “They might have had giant hits, but nobody cares about ‘em anymore. People who are Gary Stewart fans, it’s something else, it’s a deeper thing.”
They’ve stopped holding it now, but in the decade after his death, the family would put on a Gary Stewart memorial event in Fort Pierce each year. On those days, Shannon Stewart would hear and feel the outpouring from fans.
“People would come up and say your Dad’s music helped me through my divorce, through the death of a loved one. Your Dad helped me through this and that,” says Shannon. “Honestly, I don’t think he knew how much his music really moved people. Even now, I swear I sit in the car by myself and lay my seat back and put his music on let him take me away. He had something special that got to your soul.”
These days, Stewart Manor is lot quieter, says Shannon. “You know, there used to be music in this house every night. Right now, the walls in here are crying for a jam session, this house is crying out for someone to play. I just wish I could hear Dad, hear that foot tapping again.”
Gary Stewart: Produced by Tommy Schwartz
GARY STEWART: PRODUCED BY TOMMY SCHWARTZ
For more than thirty years Tommy Schwartz was a trusted friend, bandmate and musical collaborator to the king of the honky-tonks, Gary Stewart. A multi-instrumentalist and owner of a home studio in Fort Pierce, Schwartz crucially helped keep Stewart’s music going during his low period in the mid-1980s, when the singer was mired in depression and creative stasis.
Schwartz modest recording setup – dubbed the Easy People Studio, after one of Stewart’s songs – would become a safe haven. “At the time, Dad wasn’t playing out,” recalled Stewart’s daughter, Shannon. “It was a dark time, and he was hardly leaving the house then. But he was always writing. He never stopped doing that. That’s when Tommy and Dad kind of barricaded themselves in the studio and came up with all those songs.”
ByNWR is proud to present a collection of these previously unheard Stewart demos, recorded and produced by Schwartz.
“Most of the high points were things where we were jamming and I’d just turn the recorder on,” says Schwartz. “Gary would start playing – playing piano or guitar – and things would come out those moments that, to me, were magical. We’d never heard this damn song but we fell in behind him. We weren’t even in the same room, we all had headphones on. But we were like one organism following Gary.”
Over the years Schwartz recorded dozens and dozens of demos with Stewart. Oftentimes, Stewart would call up late at night and ask Schwartz to fire up the studio, and come pick him up because he had a new idea he urgently needed to get down on tape.
These spare, often embryonic versions of the songs find Stewart at his purest, working with Schwartz or a small combo. “A lot of our demos were Gary and I with a drum machine, ‘Let’s Go Jukin’, for one,” says Schwartz. “Or sometimes, it’d be Gary and I with a guy named Howard ‘Bingo’ Folcarelli on drums [Bingo was in two bands with Stewart, Phoenix and the Honky-Tonk Liberation Army, aka Train Robbery] . You’ll hear Gary say in the middle of the song ‘I'm Guilty’: ‘We're going to the bridge, Bingo’ – he was referring to Howard there. We did a cover of ‘Dark End of the Street’ the same way, with the three of us. Then Gary went back and added a little guitar to after the basic track.”
As a writer, Stewart was a sponge, soaking up everything around him. He could key on a thought or a phrase or some bit of passing conversation and instantly turn it into a song. “I'm Guilty” was one of those, a track Stewart originally wrote for Hubert Thomas, a local steel player and owner of the Wagon Wheel nightclub. “He told Gary one time, ‘I've been accused of liking a pretty girl and I'm guilty,’" says Schwartz. “That’s where the song came from.”
“Help Me Find My Heart a Home” was another tune that drew its inspiration from a bit of conversation between Stewart and his daughter Shannon. “I think she was feeling sad one night and asked Gary why she couldn't find her heart a home,” recalls Schwartz. “Gary could take little things like that and turn them into a whole song in no time.”
Among the tracks presented here is the original version of Stewart’s late-period classic, “Rainin’, Rainin’, Rainin’” which was released on his 1989 HighTone album Brand New.
“I think the idea for the song had been in Gary's head for a while,” says Schwartz. “But this particular night, my wife Lee walked in the studio and told us it was raining real hard outside and that we might need to unplug the studio gear so it didn't get hit by lightning. She said ‘It’s rainin’, rainin’, rainin’.’ That’s when the song started taking shape.”
“After about an hour the song was written and the demo was made. They loved the demo at HighTone Records and wanted to use it as a base for the [album version] since the feel was there. But that old Yamaha CP70 [piano] on there was a bit out of tune and they finally decided they needed to redo the whole thing. But you can hear the feeling Gary has on the original,” says Schwartz. “That’s why I like some of these old demos – you can really hear the feeling Gary brings to everything.”
Bob Mehr is the author of the New York Times bestseller Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee.
Additional credits on the Tommy Schwartz recordings: Jimmy Smith plays guitar on two of the recordings, Ed Lewis plays drums on "Rainin', Rainin', Rainin', and Howard Folcarelli played drums on the rest excluding "Let's Go Jukin'."
Lost in the Devil’s Triangle
Gary Stewart: Lost in the Devil’s Triangle
By Mike Gerbhardt
In August of 1977, I recorded a very popular local band called Aberdeen Rockfish Railroad (ARR) who had previously opened for Gary Stewart and then went on to back him up on his road tours. ARR’s leader, Donnie Coleman, was also a close personal friend of Gary. I believe that Gary served as Donnie’s best man at his wedding.
As a wedding gift, Gary gave Donnie a song he wrote called “Hollywood,” which Gary’s producer Roy Dea wasn’t interested in using because he thought it sounded too much like the Eagles. Donnie brought his band into my studio to cut the demo of “Hollywood.”
Several months later, Donnie played our recording for Gary, which had a much different arrangement than Gary’s original version. Donnie brought Gary to my studio for me to make him a cassette copy. That was the first time I met Gary.
In March of 1981, I heard our arrangement of “Hollywood” on the radio, this time performed by Alabama, who had covered the song. Later, it made it onto their all-time bestselling multi-platinum Feels So Right album.
In the Fall of 1977, a group of my musician friends and studio members formed a band called Fly By Night, and eventually Gerald Stewart, Gary’s younger brother, became our drummer. From that point forward, Gary would frequently crash our gigs any time we played at any of his old haunts, such as the Lamp Post, Lenny’s Lounge, The Fort Pierce Hotel and Frankie n’ Johnny’s. One time he even showed up with his buddy, Gregg Allman.
Sometime around the spring of 1978, Gerald brought Gary into my studio in order to get a quick acoustic and vocal demo of a song he needed to get to Roy Dea to meet an album deadline.
That song was named “Lost In The Devil’s Triangle.” The song held great interest for all of us locals who have known people who have gone missing there, either by boat or plane.
Gary turned the title into a metaphor for a broken-down love triangle, conjuring up that haunting- lyric-and-melody combination for which he is famous. It is quintessential Gary Stewart.
As it turned out, either the song was submitted too late or was just not a fit for the album they were working on at that time.
Since then, all my searches have never revealed any public or private reproduction of this song or my recording.
Recently, I played it for both Gary’s daughter Shannon, and longtime Stewart band member Bruce Hunter. Neither of them remember hearing this song. This leads me to believe that this is probably the only recording of Gary’s song, and especially the only version performed by him.
It was produced by me – Mike Gerbhardt, Vero Beach, Florida.
Note: all photos are from the collections of Shannon Stewart Ashburn and Tommy Schwartz – or by way of Gary himself long ago – and they came to us uncredited. Please contact byNWR if you are the photographer and either want credit or if you don’t want it used.