John Stewart (1939-2008)
I was saddened to learn about last weekend's death of John Stewart, a truly underrated singer-songwriter whose late '60s-mid '70s output has become a staple of my listening in recent months and is in the upper echelon of that period's bounty of great folk-inspired pop outings.
Stewart first gained notoriety as a member of the darlings of early '60s commercial folk, The Kingston Trio, and would have left behind an enviable musical legacy even if he had done nothing other than compose "Daydream Believer," the Monkees' chart-topping 1967 reading of which is one of the better pop singles of all time. But the early portion of his solo output reveals a consistently brilliant songsmith, a strong and effecting vocalist, and among the most authentic of the roots-inspired troubadours of the era.
Stewart's proper solo debut (following a duet album with his wife and singing partner of more than 40 years, Buffy Ford, who survives him), 1969's California Bloodlines, is his most acclaimed release. It is unabashedly rootsy, though mostly shies away from the overt nods toward traditional country being embraced by Dylan, the Byrds, and others at the time. Recorded in Nashville, it leans west in its themes and much of its sound, and it is difficult to find comparisons to draw. Perhaps Merle Haggard had he been more influenced by Dust Bowl-era folk, though this doesn't account for Stewart's poetic lyricism. It does seem he is still perfecting his vocal delivery throughout. Resembling Johnny Cash, but with far greater range and variance, it does grind a bit on a couple of the more wistful numbers. On the more upbeat numbers, though, Stewart's vocal interactions with the Nashville sessioners are a great pleasure. When he gets into the music on "Mother County" and "Never Going Back," his voice has a jubilant and almost hair-raising quality. Add to that category "July, You're A Woman," a startlingly beautiful tale of spontaneous passion for a stranger.
The German Bear Family imprint teamed Bloodlines with a slightly downsized version of its follow-up, 1970's Willard. Produced by Peter Asher--soon to be churning out polished chart hits with James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt--it is more conventional sounding, but perhaps also more even. That said, the first track that really grabs me here is the down-home "Belly Full of Tennessee," which seems like it may have been held over from the Bloodlines sessions. But the L.A. band turns in a similar-quality stomper on "Golden Rollin' Belly," my favorite here. "Friend of Jesus" and "All American Girl" are both a little schticky but still enjoyable, and should have been hits for someone.
Collector's Choice Music has reissued Stewart's two 1971 albums, The Lonesome Picker Rides Again and Sunstorm. There's nothing really wrong with Picker, though it lacks standouts. "Freeway Pleasure" is a beautiful, acoustic folk confessional and the best track here. The version of "Daydream Believer" unfortunately seems like filler and maybe an intentionally deprecating take on Stewart's most famous composition. Sunstorm is much stronger, opening with the amazing "Kansas Rain," which could certainly be held up with the most heralded of '70s singer-songwriter triumphs. There's not a weak tune here, though "An Account of Haley's Comet" is certainly odd.
Another Bear Family two-fer combines 1973's Cannons In the Rain and 1975's Wingless Angels into one essential package. Cannons is the most laid-back Stewart album yet, but finds him especially strong of voice. The folky "Chilly Winds" and poppy "All Time Woman" are highlights, as is the catchy "Road Away," the most sprightly track on the record. The rockier "Wind Dies Down" is great, too. And there is little excuse for "Hung On Your Heart" not having been a hit at the height of country-pop love ballads.
Angels kicks off with the lilting "Rose Water," followed by the ambitious title track, great in its own right but magnificent and haunting when Stewart throws in an orchestrated snippet dubbed "Survivors II," which stands in stark contrast to its apparent progenitor, a beautiful slice of folk-Americana (though the singalong chorus could be shorter). "Some Kind of Love" is a heartbreaking should-be country standard, and "Josie" is another one that should have put Stewart on the pop charts alongside the other country-inflected soft-rockers of the era. This is maybe the best Stewart album I've gotten a hold of, and for now it's the last.
There is one more gem from this period out there, though. Recorded between Cannons and Angels, Bear Family's The Complete Phoenix Concerts is maybe the best place to go for an introduction to Stewart. Delivering a set of classics backed by a great band, many of the versions here match or surpass the studio recordings and provide a nice overview of many of his best songs of the era.
Stewart would find his chart success before the '70s were out with the single "Gold"--backed by Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks-- and the lp Bombs Away Dream Babies, and would record fairly prolifically for the remainder of his life. While his passing did warrant some headlines in the national press, his work beyond the Kingston Trio and "Daydream Believer" seems to now be the province of hardcore followers. I was thinking just recently that the next few years will doubtless see the passing of many of those who have become my musical icons and heroes, and doubtless some of these will pass largely under the radar. Stewart got his due for some of his magnificent body of work, but the great records noted above aren't likely to ever garner widespread notice again. At 25, I wonder if I will be the last to remember names and songs like John Stewart's...and hope I won't be.