(The following paragraph was written for a country music poll ballot in December, right before I glanced up from my laptop, and saw the wordcrawl beneath Larry King: “Singer Gary Stewart has just been found dead in his Florida home.” [Wife died, and he shot himself in the neck, a fairly slow way to go.])
On Live at Billy Bob’s Texas, Gary Stewart is but a ghost of himself. Now fitting the “quiet ones you gotta watch” barkeep’s pro-file, this free(dom’sjustanotherword)bird of yore (once hyped as the “Springsteen of country,” when he and the new Boss were go-cart Mozarts versus mid-’70s murk) no longer shivers and wails, but leaves dusty fingerprints all over gleaming, surging honky-tonkcore, the Lost City of his Greatest (mostly shouldabeen) Hits. The band’s eager, but also well disciplined, and totally unannotated, like ghost riders in the sky.
(Later): Yeah, another dead guy. Once upon a time, he was Dr. Fun and Mr. Doom (and self-awareness, and headlonging), simultaneously. Gary still sounds like an impossibly corny, truly inspired evangelist, on Out of Hand/Your Place or Mine, his two best LPs on one CD. Songs flash by like whole lives, but really they’re just his moments, ticking away.
Live cuts like “An Empty Glass (That’s the Way the Day Ends)” turn the tides down like blankets, till I’m bathed in the sweetest taboo (of self-pity). Tiring, soothing. I just stare through his stare, on the rocks, as he imagines/avoids/follows her stare. “Maybe you feel cheated, for having married so young,” he mutters to himself and his significant other, while shifting on his bar stool, in the still-rousing “Ten Years of This.” (“A million nights alone!”) So: Mebbe getting married is cheating? No! Not always!
The Live CD is labeled with Gary’s chipmunky, half-quizzical half-smirk. (“Crazy world, haint it.”) Vividly painted. Like one of those commemorative plates advertised on late-night basic cable. I try to put it away, but then a-l-l-l his damned drinkin’/cheatin’ songs start swirling through their rounds again. Scores unsettle themselves, in Gary’s man-made afterlife. (Reminding 25-years-teetotaling me: For the first time in eight years, I gotta find another job, and now Bush wants Mars.) Art sucks.