Sometimes a song or a lyric just hits you and it’s only afterwards, sometimes a long time afterwards, that you can articulate why. Lately I have been knocked out by the writing and playing of John Stewart. (Yes, for those of you who have been reading along, I am going to keep blowing this trumpet for awhile.) A true American original that for over 40 years stood at the crossroads of folk, Americana, pop, rock, and country. His career began with the Kingston Trio before a long solo career. Although he had songs that were well known (Daydream Believer), and periods of success (Albums California Bloodlines and Bombs Away Dream Babies were both hits of their time, and which are both strangely out of print. If any of you have them and can send them to me, I would be extremely thankful.), he remained largely a cult artist. Whether he was playing folk or country or rock, California remained a large part of his sound. His country music, for instance, is way more melodic than the country music that was being made at the same time. Brian Wilson and Lindsey Buckingham come to mind when listening to some of Stewart’s music, even if he is very different from each in many ways. (Stewart influenced Buckingham, who in turn influenced Stewart’s electric guitar playing later in his career. They both recorded together at various times as well.) Stewart is more rootsy than both, yet more melodic than a lot of roots music.
No matter what kind of style Stewart was tackling, his concerns and personality tie everything together. Along with his sense of melody, Stewart both sang of a mythic America while also remaining a critic of America’s shortcomings in living up to its promise. Like Johnny Cash, Stewart seems to be a bridge between an older America and the 60’s counter-culture. He was traveling in support of Robert Kennedy when Kennedy was assassinated.
As someone that almost always prefers studio albums to live albums, Stewart’s The Phoenix Concerts is a real find. It sounds fantastic, as good as many studio albums from that period. Every song is delivered with empathy and soul. Stewart’s between song patter is also extremely charming. That album features The Last Campaign Trilogy which Stewart wrote after Kennedy’s assassination. If you want to get a feel for Stewart’s Country/Americana period, this album is an excellent place to start.
Given that the Buckingham produced Bombs Away Dream Baby (Please dear God let someone rerelease it!) is out of print, a great place to start for his rock and pop period is Blondes. Stewart is a fabulous electric guitar player that really shines from his early 80’s output on. Wires from the Bunker, a collection of unreleased songs from around this same period, is also extremely great and is actually lyrically better than Blondes. Blondes lyrics are more pop oriented in nature than much of Stewart’s work, but it is so musically gorgeous that it really doesn’t matter. On Punch the Big Guy, from 1987, Stewart’s lyrics tackle Reagan era America. The songs are fantastic, but the album, unlike his earlier 80’s work, is slightly marred by 80’s production technique.
Stewart’s career is not only long, but he was a prolific writer. A lot of his albums are also hard to find, which makes getting a true sense of his career difficult. Another interesting thing to add, as part of his career overview, is that unlike a lot of musicians of his generation, Stewart was largely very sympathetic to women. Listen to All Time Women below. (The lines about the Miss America pageant make me laugh every time, especially knowing they were written in the early 70’s. He was, as he often seemed to be, ahead of the game. “A Christian burlesque show”!!!)
Stewart died in 2008. His last album, The Day the River Sang, is excellent. (It was released in 2006.) It’s a beautiful, sad, and yet hopeful album. It can break your heart and make you smile, often at the same time. I started the article talking about how one can often feel something before they can articulate it. I can’t quite articulate why this album means so much to me yet. All I can say is that it just has a lot of heart and soul in it. It feels like saying goodbye to a life well lived. There is nothing particularly amazing about the lyrics to the song Jasmine, up above, but the melody and the way it is delivered knocks me out every single time I put it on. It’s a small universe that I am always happy to get lost in. There are many tracks on that record that I find myself reaching for repeat after they come on.
If you love American music, Stewart’s catalog is deep and rich and worth diving into. No matter what period, there is a great deal to pay attention to. He was more melodic than many of our country singers, he had more rock n roll in him than many of our folk artists, he was more subversive than many of our singer songwriters, and he had more heart and soul than many of our pop stars. Like a lot of California music, his music could often be warm, inviting, and pleasurable to listen to. However, he was also often extremely insightful, giving him an edge at times, percolating beneath the accessibility of his sound. This man was a giant. Hopefully at some point more Americans will be aware that he walked this land.
I really could have picked any number of songs to post here. There are many that probably better demonstrate his intelligence, or the musicality of his guitar playing. I chose ‘Jasmine’ because, again, the melody has been absolutely killing me lately. It is truly a thing of beauty. I think ‘All Time Woman’ demonstrates his wit and his ability to slip subversive lines into a simple yet accessible melody. Quite frankly, it makes me smile. It also showcases the period where he was playing early California influenced country rock, what would become Americana.