GARY STEWART: COUNTRY’S LITTLE BIG MAN

June 26, 2013 – 4:24 pm

Chet Flippo, former editor at Rolling Stone and a journalist who championed country music, died on June 19, 2013 after a long illness. He was 69. Below is a December 18, 2003 article Flippo wrote on Gary Stewart, a country singer who had gone too soon.

He was just a little slip of a guy. He was so skinny that he could almost, as they used to say about Hank Williams, “change clothes inside a shotgun barrel.” But when Gary Stewart opened his mouth, big things happened. The guy sang big, and he lived big. What a shame he died small.

When I heard that he had fatally shot himself this week, I lit a candle and played a song for one of the most soulful country singers I ever met. His passing struck a personal chord with a lot of people I knew and a lot that I didn’t know. I was surprised and pleased to see an amazing amount of Internet chatter about Stewart and to see the great many heartfelt tributes that people were posting online.

He was simultaneously more country than most country artists of his time and more of a staunch, down-and-dirty Southern rocker than almost all of the Southern rockers. I’m not sure that he ever realized just how good he was. A Gary Stewart performance was an amazing thing. Think of Jerry Lee Lewis boiled down into an even more devilish imp who was not going to let you get away without a Holy Ghost blessing from the fount of rockin’ country.

That show translated especially well in New York City, where I was living when I first saw him perform. His shows were like fevered honky church services. Much of the time, he was a wild man, onstage and off. He scared a lot of people by his intensity. But downtown New York was very receptive to that combustive aura of an artist burning talent at white heat. I didn’t know him well, but he became a friend instantly when I met him at New York’s Lone Star Café.

I was then in the process of writing a book about Hank Williams, and Stewart was fascinated by the life and the legend of Hank. And he was especially drawn by the strange link he felt with Hank’s self-destructive tendencies, the romance of self-destruction. The moth to the flame syndrome that’s killed creative people from the poet Rimbaud to the actor James Dean to the country star Hank Williams to the rock stars Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin was burning in young Gary Stewart. We talked about the motivation behind Hank’s songs, about his decline, about his burnout. And, of course, about the music.

You owe it to yourself, if you’ve never heard Gary Stewart, to give the man a listen. Such songs as “Out of Hand” and “Your Place or Mine” are pure honky-tonk havens. The title of “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinking Doubles)” is treated like a country joke these days, but that song itself is a primer in lyrics that come straight from the dark night of the soul. Stewart put his heart and soul into his music, but he also bought into the old romantic notion of the outlaw singer as doomed wastrel and he thought that drugs and alcohol were crucial parts of the equation.

I wonder if he died of a broken heart and if that’s what impelled him to turn a pistol on himself. He was haunted by the suicide of his son Gary Joseph, who shot and killed himself in 1988.

Stewart’s career itself had evaporated. Like Hank Williams, he was bothered by chronic back pain. In Stewart’s case, it came from a car wreck. And then his beloved wife of more than four decades, Mary Lou, died. There was just nothing much left for him. I know that same situation had also happened to the only other country star that I personally knew who shot himself. Faron Young simply could not stand the sheer vacuum and banality that his life had become after his career and personal life dried up and he lost his stardust. So he bit the bullet. Early in his career, Young summed up the romantic credo in his first No. 1 song, when he sang “I wanta live fast, love hard, die young - and leave a beautiful memory.”

Stop and consider this: Gary Stewart’s contemporary Billy Joe Shaver lost everything in the past few years. All of his loved ones - his mother, his wife, and his son (who was also his musical partner) - were gone in a short span of time. His career went away. He suffered a massive heart attack. He was knocked down to his knees but he’s gotten up and fought back and actually gone on to create new music. What’s the difference between Gary Stewart and Billy Joe Shaver? Why did one pick up the gun and why did the other go back to pick up the microphone? I don’t know.

Note: The above article was posted at cmt.com and circulated by Rock & Rap Confidential.

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CHET FLIPPO, FORMER ROLLING STONE EDITOR, DEAD AT 69

Chet Flippo, a former Rolling Stone editor who was the editorial director of CMT, died this morning (June 19, 2013). He was 69. No cause of death was available.

Flippo started writing for Rolling Stone when he was studying at the University of Texas in Austin, where he earned a master’s degree in journalism. He became Rolling Stone’s New York bureau chief in 1974, and took on the title of senior editor when the magazine relocated from San Francisco in 1977.

In addition to writing about artists including Bob Dylan, John Lennon and the Rolling Stones – the latter in a confrontational 1978 cover story – Flippo helped boost the profile of country music with his coverage of artists such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Dolly Parton. He left Rolling Stone in 1980 to write his first book, Your Cheatin’ Heart: A Biography of Hank Williams, which he followed up with titles about Paul McCartney, the Stones, David Bowie and Graceland. Flippo also contributed to The New York Times, Texas Monthly and Q magazine.

In the early ’90s, Flippo taught journalism as the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, before moving to Nashville in 1995 to work as Billboard’s bureau chief there. After leaving for Sonicnet in 2000, he joined CMT in 2001, where he wrote the influential column “Nashville Skyline” - a forthright survey of artists he deemed worthwhile and music-industry transgressions he decried.

“Chet was a fierce advocate for country music long before country was cool,” CMT President Brian Philips said in a statement. He continued, “Chet articulated the virtues and joys of country music with a passion and intelligence that helped make the genre respectable even among snobs and city slickers.”

Flippo was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1943, and served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. His wife, the journalist Martha Hume, died last December. - Eric R Danton, Rolling Stone

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  1. 3 Responses to “GARY STEWART: COUNTRY’S LITTLE BIG MAN”

  2. Only one thing to do then, BigO - find us some Gary Stewart bootlegs! Meanwhile, the rest of us can look up “The Essential Gary Stewart” or his 1975 classic Out of Hand.

    By Tony on Jun 26, 2013

  3. Agreed, Big O! Any chance you have some Gary Stewart tucked away in a corner somewhere? Would be great to hear some live stuff from him…

    By golgo hakase on Jul 3, 2013

  4. Gary was performing near by in November of 2003, my son was home for a year after being gone three years without my not knowing where he was.He wanted to attend Gary’s concert but I forgot to get tickets. My son passed away Nov. 20, 2003. Gary passed away the next month. Oh, how I regret not getting those tickets!!! I love his music & so did my son!

    By wilma crownover on Feb 24, 2014

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