Some associate the term “honky-tonk” with a location – a bar where country music is played. That’s the right definition, for sure, but in country music, honky-tonk symbolizes a sound and a feeling captured by very few artists. Sometimes it’s raucous fun as evidenced by Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya,” and other times it’s downright tragic and depressing like on … well shoot, where do I start? On Gary Stewart’s debut album, Out Of Hand, he would come to define and perfect the term on what can only be considered today as a classic.
I’m usually at a loss with words when people ask me to describe an artist they don’t know. “I don’t know … here’s my favorite song by them, no go listen!” With Stewart though, I’d tell someone they’re about to hear the lovechild of Jerry Lee Lewis and the aforementioned Williams.
Stewart also came along at just the right time in country music. The 70s were a strange, almost transitional period in country music. There was room for everyone, and very few cared about the distinctions made between honky-tonk stylists such as George Jones or pop-style vocalists such as Larry Gatlin or Barbara Mandrell. Many country fans of this generation had been lured to country via the rockabilly moment, more specifically, Elvis Presley. As such, many fans never lost their fascination with performers who oozed charisma, energy and sexuality. Stewart was once such artist who met those requirements.
Today, Stewart’s Out of Hand sounds like a country music classic, and it is, but during its time, hardcore traditionalists would have likely said this had more in common with the aforementioned Lewis than Jones, and that’s also a fair point. Despite this, Out of Hand serves as a timestamp of an era gone by.
If one could blame Out of Hand for anything, maybe dock a few points for a lack of originality here and there. This is a country album – of course the usual lyrical suspects will surface. Drinking songs, cheating songs, cheating songs that lead to drinking songs … heck, there’s even a murder ballad thrown in here for good measure.
The problem with the originality argument however is that it doesn’t always mean the result is bad music. Stewart had a rare, almost unmatched energy that lent itself well to some of the more upbeat tunes like “Honky-Tonkin’” and “Sweet Country Red.” But by that same token, he was able to capture pain and heartache like almost no other. Things get started with “Drinkin’ Thing” and his delivery on this song alone should be enough to scare off anybody looking for an album to play at their next party. He didn’t do fun. Even on the aforementioned up-tempo numbers, he can’t quite hide the pain in his voice.
More often than not, the characters in Stewart’s songs are good people caught in bad situations. Whether it be the lust of wanting what one can’t have on the classic, “I See The Want To In Your Eyes” or the title track, like Stewart, these characters are tortured and well, as one song puts it, “draggin’ shackles.” A master of self-destruction, Stewart would go on to produce his only three top ten hits with this album, including the No. 1, “She’s Acting Single (I’m Drinking Doubles).”
What might also be an underappreciated element of this album is Stewart’s use of background vocalists. Considering they’re varied and harmonize well with him, this only serves to strengthen these songs’ choruses and especially their hooks. If you want proof, take a look at the title, “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinking Doubles)” and well … wait, you actually wouldn’t need to do anything else by that point. No, Stewart didn’t do fun as mentioned before, but it’s hard not to boogie to “Honky-Tonkin.”
Stewart’s style is also varied, sometimes opting for straight country on “This Old Heart Won’t Let Go” or going straight for the ghost of Hank Williams on “Back Slider’s Wine.” Other times, Stewart lets the saloon piano fly on “Sweet Country Red.” The album even throws the listener for a twist by weaving the folk-sounding “Williamson County” in, a song that, on the surface, seems nice and gentle thanks to its acoustic guitar, fiddle and dobro. But it actually unravels to become the tale of a man driven to kill his significant other. Surely nobody expected a happy ending for this album, right?
As Bill Malone once said about Stewart, “he combined the zest and bounce of country-pop with the tortured lament of rockabilly and honky-tonk.” Out of Hand is not the album you’ll play at your next social gathering and it’s really not even meant for the jukebox with other broken-hearted strangers around. It’s meant to be listened to alone, when nothing but darkness remains. Unfortunately, both the artist and his masterpiece were long-forgotten by most country fans long before he put a gun in his mouth in 2003. That’s a damn shame, because Out of Hand remains the greatest honky-tonk album ever recorded.
Huge thumbs up
Album highlights: “Williamson County,” “I See The Want To In Your Eyes,” “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinking Doubles),” “Honky-Tonkin,” “Drinkin’ Thing,” “Draggin’ Shackles,” “Back Slider’s Wine”