In 1975, hardcore honky-tonk singer shot to Number One on the country chart with “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles).” Penned by Wayne Carson (“The Letter,” “Always on My Mind”), and distinguished by Stewart’s jagged-edged vocal lying somewhere between Hank Williams and Jerry Lee Lewis, the tune was one of the first of country’s burgeoning Outlaw sub-genre to reach the chart summit.
Stewart, the son of a Kentucky coal miner, had first arrived in Nashville in the mid-Sixties. Living in Florida, where he grew up playing a variety of music from country to blues, he was encouraged by songwriter Mel Tillis, a fellow Floridian, to relocate to MusicCity. In 1970, Stewart was among the artists in a band called Riley, who recorded a country-rock LP titled Grandma’s Roadhouse. Recorded at the legendary Bradley’s Barn studio, where Stewart worked as an engineer’s assistant, the album, with only 500 copies pressed, quickly faded into obscurity. Meanwhile, Stewart enjoyed some success as a songwriter, but his efforts as an artist on a couple of different labels went largely unnoticed.
When Motown Records and their publishing arm, Jobete Music, arrived in Nashville to record a series of demos in hopes of attracting country artists to cut their material, music publishing executive Henry Hurt recruited Stewart to sing on the session. Stewart was paid $30 to sing on three classic Motown tracks: “Baby I Need Your Loving” and “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” both hits for the Four Tops, and Stevie Wonder’s “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday.” [Listen to Stewart’s country-meets-soul take on “Baby I Need Your Loving” above.]
After becoming one of a very small number of people to have heard the demo tracks, RCA producer Roy Dea helped Stewart get a deal with the label in Nashville. Stewart, who had returned to Florida by this time, would go on to have several Top 20 hits, including “Drinkin’ Thing,” “Your Place or Mine” and “In Some Room Above the Street,” as well as his solitary chart-topper in 1975. Recording for RCA until the early Eighties, including a series of duets with songwriter Dean Dillon, Stewart would once again return to Florida while battling a lingering back injury, coupled with alcoholism, addiction and the 1988 suicide of his son, Gary Joseph Stewart. Stewart soon rebounded, with help from Dea, who approached the indie label HighTone, which went on to release a trio of new albums. The LPs renewed interest in the singer-songwriter, who was especially in demand in the clubs and honky-tonks around Texas for the next several years. All of that changed, however, with the November 2003 death of his wife, Mary Lou, after a battle with pneumonia. A month later, the inconsolable Stewart was dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
While Stewart’s legacy would remain solid, one of his most ardent fans went in search of additional material from the singer-songwriter. Mark Linn is the Nashville-based founder of the Delmore Recording Society label, which reissues mostly archival material, and according to the label’s website, material by artists who were “under recorded, or whose recordings were never released due to some vagary of the business.” In 2010, Delmore released Grandma’s Roadhouse, by the band led by singer Riley Watkins and featuring Stewart on guitars, piano, harmonica and vocals. With hopes of putting together an LP collecting Stewart’s demos and rare tracks, Linn visited the singer’s family. Although he knew of the existence of the Motown demos, it seemed no one, even in Stewart’s inner circle, had a copy or had even heard the material. After a 10-year search, the tapes were found.
On Saturday, April 21st, Delmore Recording Society will celebrate Record Store Day with the 45 r.p.m. single release of Mowtown, Stewart’s versions of the Motown classics, “Baby I Need Your Loving,” and “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday.” The title, Mowtown, is being used for release because that’s the company name Stewart used on his original Musicians Union contract, which is reproduced as the back cover for the 7-inch single.
“This could have been just a generic male vocal in a country style demo, but Gary sang the living hell out of these three songs,” Linn tells Rolling Stone Country of the material on this rarest of rare Stewart recordings. “Somehow they got into the hands of Roy Dea… and the rest is history. To me, this release is what Record Store Day is – or should be – about. Gary died with Henry Hurt’s business card in his wallet, apparently trying to track down a copy from the man who set up the session.”
The Stewart single is limited to 1,000 copies and will be available at record shops worldwide on Saturday.