Red eyed and dry mouthed, I grope my way between the front seats towards the stereo. Fingers fumbling through the black digital front, and last night’s last played song magically starts. To the sound of Howard Crockett’s Last Will and Testimony (of a Drinkin’ Man), I push the driver side door open to let some fresh air in. It doesn’t take long before the urge to move on brings temptation to my temporary home, but first a little clean up of the worst remains from last night.
I pick up the half empty beer cans and beer bottles someone managed to dump in and outside my truck only to discover about fifteen of my CD’s laying scattered about, without covers, all over the beer drenched front seats. My music on the brink of destruction. Beer is too cheap in this state if you ask me.
People tend to get in a pretty good mood after some set-ups of bourbon and a generous number of quarters dropped trough the slot of a jukebox, and yesterday painted no different sort of a picture. The story of this tavern begins, as most stories about rural bars in Texas, with a country store turn honky-tonk and over time becoming the stop-over for locals to recuperate from the cold hard facts of life. This is where to go when you can’t be bothered to wait any longer, where your idleness will be rewarded, where beer is cheap and the jukebox fuels your dreams.
I don’t know about his own favorite, but Kentucky born as he was, corn feels like an obvious choice of condiments and with titles like Hey, Bottle of Whiskey, Whiskey Trip and Brand New Whiskey, he made himself the obvious choice on the box. I’m talking about Gary Stewart, the best of all to ever interpret life viewed through amber gold.
But it’s not the titles of his songs that make him the great choice at a honky-tonk. Texans tend to embrace wild life stories and Gary’s probably to be seen as one of the most extreme. Starting off like a rocket, he showed the world what he was made of and he was never ashamed. His songs disseminates the tone so many men seek while listening to country music – confirmation of ones self pity and approval of the destructive lifestyle you’re living. Gary took it a step further and often revealed him self as weak. Here in his number one country chart hit She’s Acting Single ( I’m Drinking Doubles) from his first real album Out of Hand from 1975.
I’m not weak , I tell myself
I stay because I’m strong
The truth is, I’m not man enough
To stop her from doing me wrong
She’s acting single
I’m drinking doubles
I hide my pain
I drown my troubles
I found my first Gary Stewart album somewhere in the late 90’s. After a long tireless fumbling through dusty old beer bottle bins marked “Country”, I picked up an album from 1973 titled You’re Not the Woman You Used to Be – still one of my life’s best record findings – introducing me to the skewed world of Gary Stewart. The album, a collection of singles released through MCA Nashville, may be a little more polished than later works but already contained beautifully clear references to a lifestyle not so polished. He drank and drugged, beat up and threatened people, sometimes with guns (even pulled a gun on his own mother), and made himself an unwanted person except for those who could see through a desperate mans illusions.
Beyond his guitar playing, already way off the country path with a manic expressive aggressiveness and southern twang all built in to one, the industry also had to deal with his singing style. His vibrato, expressing hurt and desperation fueled by a gut full of whisky, veins full of amphetamines, and a head full of rage, topped by living the life he sang about, didn’t make the music easy on the mind and Music Row thought this to be a problem.
And so it goes. Gary lived only a few years after I found out about his music. After his wife’s death in 2003, he decided to end his life with a bullet by his own hand. Totally unaware of this tragic story, I kept collecting his more increasingly freaked out releases on RCA until I came to a dead end. They dropped Gary in 1983 and he moved to Hightone Records where he managed to deliver three full lenght albums, the last one being I’m A Texan, released 1993. All the song writing from the Hightone years is true Gary Stewart country, but not really up to the class of what he put out at RCA.
From here on he seemed to pick up on playing at the honky-tonks – at his happiest in the darkest and most honest of them all. Touring Texas and Oklahoma in the 80’s and 90’s gave him means to make a living while Music Row turned their back on him, still happily cashing in on sales from his old hits and the few songs he occasionally managed to deliver. I read in a obituary over Gary’s life by Jimmy McDonough. “Mention a no-name club in some Texas twilight zone, though, and Gary’s eyes grew big. Get him into some backwoods shithole and he’d really fly.” He belonged here.
My own sense of belonging, sweeping through an intoxicated self, was at an encounter with a jukebox where I for the first time experienced Gary Stewart and Hank Williams sharing needle. Never before had I understood how vital a jukebox can be and I still remember the first song I bestowed a quarter. After a long frantically back and forth study of the track list, with tidbits from George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Bob Wills and Bobby Bare, suddenly there in front of me laid the opportunity to play the right song at the right time and seconds before I returned to my glass at the bar, the song had already bid tomorrow an excuse for tonight.
When I first looked into your eyes
the story of my life flew by
and every page was written in your hand
From I love you to Baby it’s the end
I had to get drunk last night
Last night at the tavern – guess I played virtually all the songs from Gary’s transplants into the machinery – still gives me the feel good remembrance of a great night at a honky-tonk, no matter how sincere of a hangover I carry today. Howard Crockett tells me there’s nothing to worry about, the party will carry on.
So just lay my body on the bar of your honky-tonk downtown
Tell all the boys the drinks are on me and Billy Bob, you drink mine
But let there be no crying no just let that ol ‘ jukebox moan
And when they walk by let’ em shake my cold hands that’ll make ’em feel right at home
The van is cleaned up and with quarters for another jukebox and with gas in the tank I’m eager to move on. There’s more bottles of whiskey to be enjoyed and more songs to hear and of all the things I love, one of them lies empty and abandoned in the back of a van in Comal county and the other in an urn together with his beloved life partner somewhere in Florida – both well indulged.