Though country singer Gary Stewart will likely be best remembered for one of the best country song titles of all time, "She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinking Doubles)," his real legacy will be as part of a Seventies vanguard that put a rock & roll edge back into country music during a period when it had gone soft. Stewart was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound on Tuesday at his home in Ft. Pierce, Florida; he was fifty-eight.
Born in Letcher County, Kentucky, on May 28, 1945, Stewart's family moved to Ft. Pierce when he was a child, after his father was injured in a mining accident. He was living in Ft. Pierce in the mid-Sixties when he started singing country music in local nightclubs. Stewart and Bill Eldridge, a local cop, began writing original material together and with some encouragement from Mel Tillis, they had several tunes covered successfully by Nashville hitmakers including Del Reeves and Billy Walker.
Stewart then moved to Nashville where he worked at famed producer Owen Bradley's studio, Bradley's Barn. His career took off with the 1975 release of Out of Hand, on which Stewart perfected his own brand of honky-tonk that was informed by blues, soul and southern rock. With his barroom whelp and raucous musical approach, Stewart sounded like nobody else in Nashville, closer in spirit to Jerry Lee Lewis (whose voice his own echoed) than the countrypolitan sounds produced in Music City at the time. And the songs were unrepentant reports from the frontline of the barroom: "Whisky Trip," "Drinkin' Thing," "An Empty Glass," "Single Again." The title track from Out of Hand earned Stewart a Number Four country single and "She's Actin' Single" reached the top of the chart.
"She's Actin' Single" made for a confused legacy for Stewart. The Nashville humor in the title only covers the song's gutbucket despair until one hears the lyrics that include lines like, "The truth is, I'm not man enough to stop her from doing me wrong . . . my heart is breaking like tiny bubbles. She's actin' single, I'm drinking doubles."
Stewart continued to be successful throughout the Seventies, and he inspired a new generation of back-to-basics neo-trads like Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam in the Eighties. He released five low-profile albums between 1980 and 2000, and in 1988, Stewart's career was revived by Hightone Records, which reissued some of his older material and also put his newer recordings into record stores. The label issued The Best of the High Tone Years in 2002, and this year Stewart released Live at Billy Bob's Texas.
Stewart's life almost seemed to write its own song. He reportedly battled alcohol abuse in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Fifteen years ago, his son shot and killed himself, followed by the death of his wife of more than four decades. Stewart is survived by a daughter.