Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
John Stewart has been writing songs for over 40 years, dating back to 1960, when he fronted the folk band, The Cumberland Three. The sweet lyricism of Stewart’s writing had immediate impact after the internationally renowned Kingston Trio recorded several of his original compositions and released them on their albums. And then, finally, in September 1961, Stewart himself materialized at the center of the Trio, replacing Dave Guard on banjo, guitar and vocals.
Stewart played with the Trio from 1961 through 1967, when he abandoned the folk circuit for a solo career, looking for a new sound to wrap his songs around. After he left the band in 1967, he spent a portion of 1968 with Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy’s “last campaign”; in fact, Stewart’s songs introduced many of the young senator’s speeches on his run for the presidency that ended in assassination on June 5, 1968.
Finally, in 1969, Stewart traveled to Tennessee and hired a group of Nashville’s premiere session men to begin laying down the tracks for a collection of songs that would eventually bloom into “California Bloodlines.” Hailed by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of Rock’s top 200 albums of all time, “Bloodlines” paints poemscapes of the rural heartland as it folds into the rivers and dirt roads of the American West. The songs, so tight and evocative, come skillfully guided by the deep drone of Stewart’s vocals, recollecting the early voice of Johnny Cash, pulling Dylan’s signature folk-rock sound away from the big city streets and back into the belly of the cattle fields that line the Kansas/Missouri borders.
“California Bloodlines’ is a vision of America written after traveling around the country spending my boyhood on race tracks,” recalls Stewart, whose father was a long-time horse trainer. “When I left the Trio I was reading Kerouac and Steinbeck, with Andrew Wyeth prints hanging on my wall. All that somehow took me to the songs on that record. Looking back, I left the Trio because I wanted to be a singer-songwriter on my own. I was hanging out with Phil Ochs and Eric Andersen, and it was the time to be writing songs. I wanted to jump in the river.”
Following the huge success of the Monkees’ version of his pop classic “Daydream Believer,” and with “Bloodlines” steadily ascending the charts, it appeared that John Stewart was embarking on a brilliant run. And then the seams began to slowly unravel. Several critically acclaimed records for different labels disappeared inconspicuously, and Stewart eventually dropped from notice. Struggling, the veteran songsmith joined forces with Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac fame and the result was “Bombs Away Dream Babies,” released on the RSO label in 1979. The “Bombs” album, with backing vocals by Stevie Nicks, featured many strong selections, including the top-five hit “Gold,” a piece that shined a pained eye on what it’s like trying to make meaningful music for a mass audience. But sadly, “Bombs” would be Stewart’s last commercial success; in 1980, he was abandoned by the RSO label.
Shortly afterwards, Stewart formed his own label, Homecoming Records, and focused himself on the job of marketing his work. Stewart has recorded many stunning albums for his imprint, including 1987’s “Punch The Big Guy” (which contained “Runaway Train,” a major hit for Rossane Cash) and 1997’s “Rough Sketches” (now being distributed by Folk Era records). These albums remain every bit as compelling as anything that’s being done now. Unfortunately, without the advertising muscle of a major label, the music is often left to languish, wallowing in waste and obscurity, embittered by the cruel immorality of a generation that chooses money over the blood of the human soul.
“I guess I started ‘Homecoming’ so I could get my records to my fans,” Stewart said. “It was was about getting my music to the people who wanted to hear it. In retrospect, my career has been the ‘Wizard of Oz’: I once imagined it to be this big thing just waiting behind the curtain, but it turned out to be this little thing behind the curtain. And that’s OK: I have had alot of fans stay with with me for decades. And I’ve been spared the curse of fame.”
Even without a major label to lead the way, Stewart has continued performing and writing, and his latest record “Havana” (Appleseed Records) proves that he hasn’t lost any of the lyric power that propells his finest pieces. “Havana” has some truly memorable songs that will appeal to new and old Stewart fans alike. Highlights include the guitar-driven “Davey On The Internet,” and the beautifully wistful “Cowboy In The Distance.” However, the centerpiece of the album is “Star In The Black Sky Shining,” probably the finest song Stewart has ever written: Actually a poem set to music, “Star” is a zen-like meditation on the journey of one man’s soul as it moves toward the distant silhouette of heaven in a dream.
” ‘Star In The Black Night’ was a real gift,” Stewart said looking back in time. “It just came to me. Actually it’s the kind of song you wait for, a song that can be altering for people to hear. As a singer, as a writer, that’s what you wait for.”
The depth of “Havana” notwithstanding, Stewart’s career typifies the perils of the business of selling music: here is a man of immense talent who has proven himself for over four decades and who still doesn’t receive the recognition he deserves. I imagine these record executives in their pressed suits have decided that Stewart’s music is not “commercial” enough for the rock driven radio of today’s world. But the more accurate assessment would be to say that John Stewart’s vision is not slick enough for the shopping mall mentality of America in the 21st century.
The emptiness of landscapes buried in the broken promises and tired dreams of a dying people. Hope betrayed. The cold and silent passage of time. Bones now fading back to dust. It’s hard to dance to this kind of music. And it hurts when you make us think.
Many of John Stewart’s recordings are available through Folk Era Records (folkera.com); other Stewart albums can be found on Appleseed Records (appleseedrec.com). Each of these independent labels have dedicated their operations to the presentation of socially relevant music of the highest order. Besides the Stewart cds, Folk Era’s catalog includes brilliant and diverse records by Glenn Yarborough, The Limeliters and The Tarriers. Appleseed Records recently released Roger McGuinn’s first studio album in eight years (“Treasures From The Folk Den”) to wide critical acclaim and a Grammy nomination. The Appleseed imprint also features five-star selections by Pete Seeger, Eric Andersen and Ramblin Jack Elliot. The remainder of the Stewart catalog can be found on the world-wide web at www.chillywinds.com.