Oxford American Events

Honky-Tonk Man

By  |  September 5, 2017
“Dip,” by Heather Oelklaus, from the series O.P.P. “Dip,” by Heather Oelklaus, from the series O.P.P.

We both loved Gary Stewart, and we both loved Grace


 

My wife Grace’s father was a big man. He wasn’t much more than six feet tall, but I think folks thought of him as taller because he carried himself large. He tried being a hippie once, he said, but couldn’t abide the non-violence (too many people needed to get their asses kicked). At the first job he ever had, on a ranch, he got a business card with his official title: COWBOY. He kept that card. He wore a cowboy hat and cowboy boots. He had the best hunting dogs in Levy County. For a while he ran a sawmill. For a while he was a watermelon farmer, then a beekeeper, then he raised buffalo on the family farm. That’s just a small sampling. His name was John. He went by Chuck. 

He lived in North Central Florida all of his life. He knew the fishing holes in the Rainbow River, knew how to track a hog, knew how to clean and cook a squirrel. Straight out of high school he married his sweetheart, Grace’s mother. He was young, too young, and no stranger to trouble. One day, when Grace was an infant, her mother had enough. She walked down to the juke joint and found the gal he had been fooling around with, socked her in the face. That was the end of that marriage. 

When I started dating Grace, her father pulled her aside: “Why don’t you date an ol’ boy who hunts so we’ll have something to talk about?” I was a city boy, half-Jewish, liberal. And a writer, of all things. Strike four. Grace, who went off to college a devout Southern Baptist dreaming of being a missionary, had already changed more than enough even before she met me. After college, she moved to New Orleans and kept dodging questions about whether she had picked out a church yet. In a family where hardly anyone left home, she seemed terribly far away. At one point, she announced that she was a vegetarian. Her mother wept at the news. From then on, her father introduced her as follows: “This here is my daughter Grace. She doesn’t eat any meat at’all.” 

I called him Mr. Chuck. We did what families do: We carefully observed the borders of conversational terrain. The election of Obama, no. The best strategy for grilling buffalo burgers, yes.

I remember riding in an airboat with Mr. Chuck and wading through marshy farmland and watching mullet crackle in hot grease. It’s amazing, really, how much there is to not talk about. 

 

When Grace and I first started dating, we were driving somewhere and I put on Gary Stewart’s “Drinkin’ Thing,” and turned it up. This was typical. Stewart is one of those singers I return to again and again—a histrionic country crooner who had a string of hits in the mid-1970s until Nashville concluded he was too bleak, too weird, too rock & roll, too haywire. Too disturbing and too disturbed. Too much. He could be hammy—his sole number-one hit was titled “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)”—but no one careened into barstool pathos quite like Stewart, with quite the appetite for resignation.

By my lights, the opening of “Drinkin’ Thing” is just about the finest expression of elegiac sadness in country music. “Every day—I tell myself—it’s temporary.” The line scans as it only can in the slowed, slurred delivery of Stewart. That voice. His ethereal tenor, heavily adorned with vibrato and growls, brings the quake of a recessional hymn to the mundane routines of self-delusion. The trills in his notes sputter and lift. He sounds like an animal in trouble. Like a lounge singer who’s lost his mind.

Grace knew the song right away. “My dad,” she told me, “is obsessed with Gary Stewart.” Her father sang Stewart’s songs so often that it was hard for her not to feel like she was hearing her father when Stewart was playing.

Mr. Chuck had his share of honky-tonk adventures, but by the time Grace was growing up, he had become one of the rowdy friends who settled down. At thirty, he got remarried to a spunky nineteen-year-old—Grace’s stepmother—and started going to church three times a week. The good old bad old days played on in song: He kept wearing out his Gary Stewart cassette tapes. 

For a spell, Mr. Chuck had a gig hauling pallets. He was getting paid so much he figured he was ripping off the Yankees who hired him. But it turned out the Yankees were ripping off him: Those pallets were coated with cadmium, a highly toxic carcinogen. In 2006, the year before Grace and I met, he was diagnosed with cancer.

Mr. Chuck was a raffish and colorful cuss. I once heard him summarize a ne’er-do-well thus: “What he does is parade around in an eagle suit, when he ain’t nothing but a pond bird.” He told tall tales and made up bawdy songs, which he sang with a stylized tremor modeled on Stewart—“the quiver,” he called it. He sang teasing ballads about his son’s love interests (“Which one’s more beautiful, Tisha or Jade? / One’s got bigger boobies, the other one’s butt’s more poochy”) and odes to Grace’s stepmother (“I’ve been thinking about that little tailhole of yooours todaaay”).

The songs live on as family legend, but I never heard them myself; for all of his acidic bravado, Mr. Chuck could be shy around new people. I think the only time I ever heard him sing was when I mentioned that I was also a longtime fan of Gary Stewart. As if by reflex, he turned and let the quiver loose: “Honky-tonkin’ / Sure makes you feel funky.”

So that was one thing: We both loved Gary Stewart. And we loved Grace. Had he lived, that surely would have been enough to build something in time.

 

Stewart was born in 1944 in Letcher County, in the Appalachian Mountains of southeastern Kentucky, the son of a coal miner who raised fighting cocks on the side. One of nine children (each name started with G), he was named for his mother’s favorite actor, Gary Cooper. When Stewart was a teenager, his father got injured in the mines and the family relocated to Ft. Pierce, Florida, where Stewart would eventually settle for good. As origin story, this seems to capture Stewart’s music: mountain holler and seedy beachside groove. 

When Stewart was sixteen, he introduced himself to a twenty-year-old firecracker named Mary Lou at a drive-in restaurant. He was impressed by the pile of Jimmy Reed and Chuck Berry 45s in the back of her car. Turned out they both liked to hang around in graveyards. Shortly after Stewart turned seventeen, they got hitched. Despite a career built on songs about love trouble, Stewart and Mary Lou stayed married, tumultuously, for the rest of their lives. “My wife understands me and puts up with me,” Stewart once told a reporter. “She’s a real lady. She knows I love sex, women, and drugs.” 

Stewart did a stint in Nashville as a songwriter for hire and eventually got signed to RCA, the Music Row behemoth—supposedly only after he agreed to cut his hair. Starting with “Drinkin’ Thing” in 1974, Stewart had a series of chart-toppers, most of them centered on booze and infidelity. He had a gift for conjuring the emotional atmospherics of the honky-tonk, the juke joint, the dive bar: the big buzz of bad choices, the thrill that’s bound to fade. Whether he was channeling cuckold or tomcat, he sang like a spirit for whom despair has the weight of predestination. Like the gasp of a man letting go. I used to think of it as drinking music, but it’s something more like hangover music—the animating force of Stewart’s art was regret.

RCA often duded up Stewart with the heavy production of the “Nashville Sound,” but on his best work, Stewart’s berserker impulses are uncontainable. Give him a novelty song and he’d repurpose it as a wild-blooded lament, demonic schmaltz. “I have adrenaline,” Stewart said in an interview toward the end of his life. “Once I start singing, I get this quiver in my throat. I can’t fake that.” He said it was like the way his mother used to scream when she got angry at his father and chased him with a knife. 

The Clash and Bob Dylan were devotees. Dylan was particularly fond of “Ten Years of This,” a brutal anniversary song laying bare the self-lacerating inertia of an unhappy marriage (“but I know I’m only lying / what ain’t dead by now is dying”). Dylan told Stewart he couldn’t stop playing it, over and over again. 

Time magazine dubbed Stewart “king of Honkytonk” in the fall of 1976. Stewart himself seemed ambivalent about stardom (a newspaper headline from the time: 50,000 A YEAR, HE HATES SELF). He was, by all accounts, living the honky-tonk life he was singing. “If you don’t do cocaine or bennies, the songs don’t come so fast,” he said later. Stewart took to partying with a Gothic flamboyance, and legends abound. He once came running triumphantly through the RCA hallways with his shirt off, covered in grime. The custodial staff had thrown away a baggie of cocaine he’d hidden in the office, and he had just dug it out from the dumpster out back. 

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. 

 

After the diagnosis, Mr. Chuck was in and out of the hospital, back and forth to specialists in Houston. There were so many treatments and experiments and medications and second opinions that it was hard to keep track. He had surgery to remove one kidney and part of another. He had surgery to repair a perforated bowel. He was determined not to let his children, or anyone, see how much pain he was in. They knew anyway, of course.

His jeans began to sag. He switched to overalls. Overwhelmed by fatigue, he sat on the couch and brooded over old grudges and byzantine family feuds and cable news. The country was going to hell and his body was falling apart. His threats became conditional. If I wasn’t sick I’d tear his ass up. Once, after Grace had visited home, I asked her how he was doing. “He’s smaller,” is all she said. 

He made sure the house was paid off. He said that he wanted to sleep under the stars more often, and so he did. He bought a small herd of Florida Cracker cows. Well past doctor’s orders, he rode his favorite horse, Donkey, and worked the herd.

Grace and I had caused a minor scandal in the family by living together before we were married. It wasn’t right, Mr. Chuck complained, that we were “shacking up.” But by the summer of 2010, during one of his last stays at the hospital, he told Grace, “You and Davey go on and have a baby. It don’t matter if you’re married, I don’t care.” He wanted a grandchild. He knew he was running out of time. 

That August, things took a turn for the worse. I joined Grace in Florida, where she had gone earlier in the summer. For two weeks we spent every day at the hospital. Sitting vigil at another family’s tragedy is an awkward business. On call for comfort, neither action nor distraction is appropriate. You wait in silent readiness, like the Queen’s Guard.

The family’s minister came to pray. Fox News stayed on constantly, even after Mr. Chuck was no longer conscious to hear it. The happenings of the world did not pause for us. The midterm elections were a few months away. The Tea Party was threatening to storm more town halls to protest Obamacare. The pundits raged. One night, the nurse came in to give him a sponge bath and he cried out every time his body was turned. 

A parade of large men in large hats and large boots came through to pay their respects. One of them confided in me, “I don’t understand how someone could get through all this without Jesus.” He hid his face in his hands. Every so often, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” would play over the hospital speakers. That meant a baby had been born. 

From time to time, I would wander the halls of the hospital just to move my legs, just to be alone. I remember thinking that the whole place smelled like diapers and cold steel. The waiting rooms looked like airport scenes in slow motion. Hospitals are massive repositories of joy and grief, good news and bad news and the harrowing in-between. Save for churches, they must be the spaces in America with the most prayer per capita. People occupied themselves with their smartphones. They would giggle sometimes, and then look up nervously, as if they had broken the glum decorum. I wanted to reassure them—the place was in need of giggles. 

Finally a moment came to make myself useful, when Grace’s stepmother had a request: She wanted to play some Gary Stewart songs. “He needs to hear that honky-tonk music,” she said. I cued up the classics on my laptop. We sang along like old friends at closing time. 

After a while, someone began to cry. Crying can be as contagious as laughter—soon Grace, her stepmother, and her sister were all crying by his bed, holding each other up as if they were about to fall. 

I had just that summer discovered a Gary Stewart song I’d never heard before, “Honky-Tonk Man,” a B-side from 1981, recorded not long before Stewart was dropped from RCA. Stewart always had a genius for melodrama, but on this number he digs so deep that he almost buries himself in self-parody. The story of a honky-tonk singer who gains fame and adoring crowds, the lyrics are triumphant, but Stewart trembles and growls and gurgles out syllable by aching syllable, an anthem of abject surrender. For all of its campy oddity, it is nevertheless a devastating recording. Melodrama, in extremis, is horror. “Want to hear a man sing his own epitaph?” McDonough wrote. “Seek out ‘Honky-Tonk Man.’” 

I have no clue whether Grace’s father had ever listened to “Honky-Tonk Man.” And I cannot know whether he could, in any meaningful sense, hear it that day. But I played it there in the hospital room, as the women of his family cried together. Not for the first time, we had in that room a collective emotional instinct that we had reached a climax. That we had reached the end. In fact, there were many, many more hours to go. I closed the laptop. The crying subsided. The room was silent but for the dwindling rhythms of his breathing and the beeps of hospital machinery.

 

Iwish I’d gotten to see Stewart play. The writer Ron Rash described watching him in 1981 in front of a small crowd at a no-account dive: “Stewart looked like an antic scarecrow as he strutted, gyrated, howled, and moaned on a stage not much bigger than the beat-up Cadillac he and his band had arrived in.” A soundman told McDonough that Stewart was indifferent about prestigious big-city gigs, “but get him into some backwoods shithole and he’d really fly. Stewart was just one of those downward mobility guys.” 

In his later years, Stewart had periodic comeback efforts, both in the studio and on the road. He developed a following on the honky-tonk circuit and on Indian reservations in the South and Southwest (Stewart, like Mr. Chuck, had Native American blood on his mother’s side). He was clean some of the time, although those who saw him play swore he must have been on something. A bandmate told McDonough, “I think alotta his reputation comes from people mistakin’ his weird ways—an’ Gary can be weird—for bein’ drunk or stoned.” 

In 2003, the week before Thanksgiving, Mary Lou died suddenly of a heart attack in her sleep. Stewart would sing no more. Several weeks later, he shot himself through the throat and died.

One obituary quoted a friend who explained that Stewart “couldn’t put his pants on without Mary Lou around.” When I told Grace that, she said, “Sounds like my dad.”

By the time he died, Stewart had been relegated to where-are-they-now curiosity. According to those closest to him, many of his best songs have never been released, scattered across demos or never recorded at all. Both a throwback and a freak, Stewart was always hard to place. He had the outsider swagger and death-haunted growl of Outlaw Country, but the danger in Stewart’s music is his own manic fragility. Johnny Cash sang a lot of songs with a homicidal persona; Stewart went the other way—the broken man. Maybe a soul as wobbly as Stewart was always meant for a cult following—Navajo reservation towns and Texas saloons, Mr. Chuck and me. 

Some time after Mr. Chuck’s death, I was listening to “Drinkin’ Thing.” Or it could have been “I See the Want To in Your Eyes” or “Single Again” or “Your Place or Mine.” Slide guitar, a driving beat, and the way he sang—a gruesome register in the high lonesome sound. Grace walked into the room. “Turn it off,” she said. 

Thus began a ban on Stewart that lasted nearly two years. Until, one day, Grace decided we could listen again. She missed it, we both did—the peculiar joy of listening to a sad song together with someone you love. For all of their blues, Stewart’s songs aren’t bummers, they’re ecstatic revelries. Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. Stewart would have heard that in church growing up, as Grace did, as did her father. His music glimmered on the vivid edge of life’s brief frenzy. 

Those songs still remind Grace of her father, of course. They always will. It’s just—that’s all right, now. This is the gentle logic of mourning: In time, we sing again. 

When we got married, two years after Mr. Chuck died, we played a few Gary Stewart songs at the wedding reception. We danced, got good and drunk. Had Mr. Chuck lived, he surely would have ribbed us for our hippie-dippie ceremony (“It was so dang y’all,Grace’s stepmother told us). But I think he would have had a good time anyway. He might have pulled his hat down low and watched us dance. He might have prayed for us, as we celebrated our unknowable future, stretching out like wild country.


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David Ramsey’s work has been anthologized in Da Capo Best Music Writing, Best Food Writing, Cornbread Nation: The Best of Southern Food Writing, and the Norton Field Guide to Writing. He lives in DeLand, Florida.