John Stewart, the Lonesome Picker, Rides Into the Sunset
A part of my past died Saturday, with the death at age 68 of John Stewart, a former member of the Kingston Trio and the composer of "Daydream Believer," "Never Goin' Back (to Nashville)" and "July, You're a Woman." My intense connection with John's music came about during my college years, the late 60s and early 70s, when he emerged as a solo artist with the album "California Bloodlines." John's work gave rise to a genre of California country-folk rock that influenced artists such as the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Emmy Lou Harris and Fleetwood Mac.
As a solo artist, John never achieved the popular success of the many performers he influenced. There was one exception, and that was with the City of Phoenix, Arizona, my hometown. There a disc jockey named William Edward Compton championed Stewart's work on a local "underground" station, and Stewart became hugely popular. Stewart's cowboy-flavored rocking ballads, filled with a love of the country and its people based on enduring turn-of-the century American values, rather than jingoism, played well with Phoenix audiences.
The love affair of Phoenix with John Stewart culminated when John recorded "The Phoenix Concerts," an album taped live over three nights of concerts in a packed Phoenix auditorium to an enthusiastic and adoring crowd. John's music was cross-generational enough that I attended one concert with my new girlfriend (her first exposure) and one with my parents, and they all enjoyed the shows. Well, the girl broke up with me soon afterward (which was all for the best, because the following Fall I met my wife of 31 years ), and the album was no great success either, much to the disappointment of John and his record label, who had hoped for a breakthrough album. I suspect that 75% of the total sales were to residents of the Phoenix metropolitan area. Nonetheless, it is still available, and may be the best comprehensive introduction to John's classic solo work of that period.
When I went to Stanford, I turned on my dorm mates to John's music, which had the effect of creating a small but dedicated group of fans in Toyon Hall on the Stanford campus. I remember one incident when John, who lived in the Bay Area, was playing a small club near Palo Alto, and was somewhat astonished when I and a group of my mates showed up at the gig, and knew all of his songs by heart. A mention of Phoenix and William Edward Compton resolved the mystery for him.
Another anecdote: John lived, toured and performed for many years with composer and singer Buffy Ford. In one of his songs, he referred to Buffy's formidable mother as his "mother-out-law," a wonderful lyric. Buffy would usually join John onstage at his concerts, to sing one of the songs their fans most loved, "Cody," about an elderly, infirm former cowboy living in his memories of his Montana youth. One concert, in response to calls from his fans for Buffy to come onstage to sing "Cody," John announced to the fans' heartbreak that they had broken up. Fortunately, the breakup was temporary. John eventually acceded to his mother-out-law's demand that he "marry the girl" and their marriage continued until John's death this past Saturday.
For a news account of John's death, see here. For a description of John's life and musical career, please go here. For a short critical review of his music, please read here. And here, as a farewell to the Lonesome Picker, and an introduction to the narrative, sentimental flavor and poetry of his best work, are the words to "Mother Country":
There was a story in the San Francisco Chronicle that of course I forgot to save.
But it was about a lady who lived in the 'good old days'
When a century was born and a century had died
And about these 'good old days' the old lady replied
"Why they were just a lot of people doing the best they could"
"Just a lot of people doing the best they could"
And then the lady said that they did it, "pretty up and walking good."
What ever happened to those faces in the old photographs.
I mean, the little boys…….
Boys? . . . . . Hell they were men
Who stood knee deep in the Johnstown mud
In the time of that terrible flood
And they listened to the water, that awful noise,
And then they put away the dreams that belonged to little boys.
And the sun is going down for Mister Bouie
As he's singing with his class of nineteen-two,
"Oh, mother country, I do love you.
Oh, mother country, I do love you."
I knew a man named E.A.Stuart, spelled S.T.U.A.R.T.
And he owned some of the finest horses that I think I've ever seen.
And he had one favorite, a champion, the old Campaigner.
And he called her "Sweetheart On Parade."
And she was easily the finest horse that the good Lord ever made.
But old E.A.Stuart, he was going blind.
And he said "Before I go, I gotta drive her one more time."
So people came from miles around, and they stood around the ring.
No one said a word.
You know, no one said a thing.
Then here they come,
E.A. Stuart in the wagon right behind
Sitting straight and proud and he's driving her stone blind.
And would you look at her
Oh, she never looked finer or went better than today.
It's E.A. Stuart and the old Campaigner, "Sweetheart On Parade."
And the people cheered.
Why I even saw a grown man break right down and cry.
And you know it was just a little while later that old E.A. Stuart died.
And the sun it is going down for Mister Bouie
As he's singing with his class of nineteen-two,
"Oh mother country, I do love you.
Oh mother country, I do love you."
Vaya con Dios, John. The news of your death even made a grown man break down and cry.