A flat natural-born good timin' man
"Every day I tell myself it's temporary," Gary Stewart sings at the beginning of his 1974 hit "Drinkin' Thing," a monument to self-delusion and dependency written by Wayne Carson, who also wrote another Stewart classic, "She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinking Doubles).

His other hits--"Out of Hand," "Whiskey Trip," "Your Place or Mine"--spell out Stewart's forte: documenting the intersection of lust, indulgence, and escape that typified the '70s club scene regardless of the type of music being played. One of a series of wild-eyed Southern boys who came out of Florida during that decade, Stewart learned the Nashville ropes touring with Charley Pride, but there was always rock in with his country and more Harley-Davidson than Hopalong in his character; he was the industry's eternal black sheep.

Seldom has a man's voice been so perfectly matched to his material, soaked in bourbon and cigarette butts and blessed with a vibrato that could change color more rapidly than a chameleon: the engorged quaver that can taste the sweaty promise of "Your Place or Mine" one moment, the next a shaky wobble coming from a barfly on his last legs announcing, "Now he's got you/and I got two/Divorce lawyers on my back" in the less-than-celebratory "Single Again."

Although he withdrew from the public eye to wrestle with personal demons in the mid-'80s, Stewart returned to form--and a degree of fame--in 1988 with Brand New, on the West Coast's Americana-friendly Hightone label. That release reunited him with producer Roy Dea, who had signed him to RCA in the early '70s. Together since, the two have put out a series of good albums on Hightone that appreciate the stomp that drives a two-step and the weeping steel guitar that pulls couples a little closer. Live, he turns up the volume a bit, touring with three electric guitarists and a steel and wearing his Allman Brothers-loving boogie-boy heart right there on his sleeve. He's out of step with radio country, to be sure, and you suspect he wouldn't want it any other way.

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--Matt Weitz

Gary Stewart opens for Mark Chestnutt at Billy Bob's Texas in Fort Worth December 31.

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