Monday, April 14, 2008

Goodbye, Lonesome Picker.

Sometimes, bad news seems to hide from me, taking its sweet time to reveal itself. So it was with the death, in January, of John Stewart. I finally got the news yesterday morning, paging through the New York Times "Week in Review" section, and seeing a teaser for an on-line only op-ed piece by Roseanne Cash.

I first knew of Stewart as the replacement for Dave Guard in the Kingston Trio (more about them in a soon to come--I promise!--post). Guard was an intelligent musician with an adventurous spirit that led to his break with the Trio when he thought their act was getting too formulaic, but Stewart brought a warmth and passion, as well as his own kind of intelligence, to the group. His voice was also an improvement over Guard's. I was a huge Trio fan through my high school and college years, and two of my favorite albums of theirs, #16 and Sunny Side, are from the Stewart period.

He left the Trio in the late 1960s to go solo, working as both a songwriter and performer. Perhaps his best known song, "Daydream Believer", was recorded by the Monkees, in my opinion one of the most underrated bands, and TV shows, of the '60s, and released in 1968. The following year, his album California Bloodlines, consisting entirely of his songs, was released. I fell in love with that album when I first heard it, in the summer of 1970, while visiting a friend in Greenwich Village. Along with contemporaneous work by Gram Parsons, Stewart, in this album, helped to lay the foundation for what has come to be called "alt/country" or "Americana" music, and today is exemplified by bands like Wilco and Son Volt, and singers like Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Tom Russell and Lucinda Williams.

Here are a pair of video clips from Stewart's career. The first is an audio of one of my favorites from California Bloodlines, "You Can't Look Back", accompanied by a series of reproductions of album covers and photos:



This one was made less than a year before his death, in a cafe in Pawling, New York, where he performed "Mother Country". This version, I venture, tops the one he recorded 38 years before on California Bloodlines:


So long, John, and thanks for so much.

Update: There's a splendid memorial site for John, with some YouTube clips, here.