When Life Imitates Country Music

CIRCA 1970: Photo of Gary Stewart Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

David Ramsey‘s essay in the fall issue of Oxford American is partly about honky-tonk singer Gary Stewart; partly about the loss of his wife’s father, Mr. Chuck; and entirely about the power of music to bridge cultural divides, to console, to memorialize, to provoke. As an essay, it’s thoroughly lovely, and thoroughly satisfying.

If you’re not familiar with Gary Stewart, it’s probably because he’s been dead since 2003, and had a patchy career for almost 20 years before that. He sang about hard living, and his life imitated his art:

Then, like a country song, all manner of things went wrong. Stewart had designs on a more anarchic Southern rock sound, and stodgy RCA didn’t quite know what to do with him (the head honchos kept complaining that he wasn’t enunciating). His consumption of uppers, Quaaludes, and prescription painkillers became even more prodigious, and bleaker. He was hospitalized for overdoses at least three times. After a few ill-conceived duds in the early 1980s, RCA dropped him in 1983.

By 1987, according to the writer Jimmy McDonough, who tracked him down and wrote the definitive profile of Stewart for the Village Voice, the singer was holed up in a small trailer with the windows painted black, rarely leaving unless it was to score drugs. “When not comatose, Stewart was living on 19-cent two-liter bottles of Dr. Chek Cola, ‘Ree-see’ Peanut Butter Cups, and amphetamine,” McDonough later recounted. Stewart agreed to be interviewed only if McDonough brought him an obscure 45 by Wild Bill Emerson. The demand was intended to be a wild goose chase, but McDonough managed to find it, earning an audience.

“I stay away when I can’t do anybody any good,” Stewart told McDonough. Then he threw a knife into the wall.

Read the essay