Weblog of Leland Rucker
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The Lonesome Picker Part Two


The news of the death of John Stewart came Saturday with the numbing swiftness of the Internet: a couple of emails with RIP John Stewart in the title. Shocked, I posted an attempt at a obituary Sunday morning. Reading it, it didn’t seem enough. Stewart’s music has been a constant back to my childhood, and somehow writing about how much his music meant to me is the only way I can think coherently about his passing.

I first became aware of Stewart when I saw him perform on a television program in 1961 as a member of the Cumberland Three. I had become a Kingston Trio fan at age 13, when a classmate taught me Trio songs and harmonies a cappella from the albums. (We peformed the Trio’s “New York Gals” at a church dinner.) I don’t think I made the connection that it was him I had seen on television until later that year when he replaced Dave Guard in the Kingston Trio. (There is a nice two-page summary of Stewart’s early rock days in Joe Smith’s fascinating book, On the Record.)

This was a tough assignment. The Trio was vastly popular, and many felt that Guard, the mouthpiece of the group’s live shows, was the heart of the group. Stewart talked many years later about his feelings of inadequacy replacing him and his belief that Guard was the Trio’s soul. One night, at Chautauqua in the 1980s, he played Guard’s “Fast Freight” after talking about that very thing onstage, and he mentions it in a song called “Always Young.”

Stewart was more than up to the task. He was tall, adopted the dead-pan delivery and rapier wit of Guard onstage, played the banjo and sang lead vocal on chart hits like “The Rev. Mr. Black” and “Desert Pete.”

He penned “New Frontier” after hearing the inauguration address of John F. Kennedy, and he once told me that the album named for the song was the best Trio album produced during his tenure. I agreed. I was a Kennedy kid. In 1960 I gave a speech for him to our school assembly – my Lutheran classroom voted 14-2 for Nixon — so the song seriously resonated with me. The album also included the hit “Greenback Dollar.”

I didn’t keep up with later Trio albums after Something Special, but I bought a double-album on Tetragrammaton Records that documented a live Las Vegas that showed how far the Trio’s fortunes had diminished by 1966. But I was entranced with Stewart’s performance of an unrecorded Bob Dylan song, “Mama You Been on Mind,” buried on side four.

After leaving the Trio, Stewart did an album with Buffy Ford for Capitol called Signals Through the Glass before releasing California Bloodlines, his signature record, in 1969.

The album still rings absolutely true 39 years after its release, and I have listened to it hundreds of times. I wore out three vinyl copies, more than any other title beside the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man. Stewart included songs that were set in his home state. The title track explained that it was his lineage that determined his basic beliefs. But more important to this Midwesterner, other songs referenced Plains states like Nebraska and Missouri.

I was dazzled and amazed at the sharpness of the vignettes that described characters like the razorback woman, the lonesome picker or the grandmother calling the kids to supper. I didn’t know, of course, that the songs’ subject matter and locales had been influenced by Stewart and Ford’s participation in the campaign of Robert Kennedy in the spring of 1968 that inspired young people like me (I had seen RFK during a rally in Ft. Wayne a couple months before his death) to get involved in the political process before he was assassinated in Los Angeles.

Stewart told me years later that he kept a notebook as they crossed the country. Using that, he said he locked himself up that fall with a bunch of pot and wrote most of the songs on Bloodlines and some others that he planned for an album reflecting on the Kennedys. (This finally came to fruition with The Last Campaign.)

But I didn’t need to know that. The songs spoke for themselves. “The Pirates of Stone County Road,” for instance, set in some small Midwestern town, is a two-verse memory of kids playing buccaneers with the back porch as their frigate. The verses end with the voice of an old woman calling them to supper, while the song’s gentle motion leads to a powerful crescendo as the chorus kicks in: “And we’d sail, pulling for China, the pirates of Stone County Road weathered and blown, and we’d sail, ever in glory, ‘til hungry and tired, the pirates of Stone County Road were turning for home.”

I’m still humbled by the simple complexity of this lyric and its gentle, powerful melody. I can’t remember the circumstances, but Frank and I sang this at a teacher’s convention in Independence, Mo., and you could have heard a pin drop. It’s that powerful.

I first heard “July, You’re a Woman” on a single by Pat Boone. The Boone version was fine, but I fell much harder for Stewart’s earthier take on Bloodlines. It would remain a favorite over the years. “Mother Country” was actually two lyrics mashed together, one about the Johnstown Flood, the other about an old California horseman who, just before he died, rode his horse, the Old Campaigner, stone blind in front of a large crowd. I loved the line about forgetting to clip the newspaper, and the lyrics had a strange symmetry; the blending of these two subjects was, to me, as brilliant as the compelling way he sang/talked the lyrics.

“Omaha Rainbow” was another favorite. Shit, I’ve driven along the curve of I-80 as turns south and west out of Omaha with a thunderstorm passing through. I knew what he was writing about.

The other especially cool thing about the album was the musician credits, which rather than being tabulated on the back of the album, were recited by Stewart at the end of the final song, “Never Goin’ Back,” and included the cream of Nashville’s musicians. Along with The Gilded Palace of Sin, the debut release of the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, recorded in Nashville about the same time, Bloodlines cemented my newfound appreciation for the steel guitar.

I bought the record whilst locked in mortal combat with my commitment to Christianity and the Lutheran Church-Mo. Synod. I had left home my junior year in high school to begin study for the ministry. The deeper I waded into church doctrine, the more questions I had about my dedication. The tension first broke in 1969, when I decided to forego Concordia Seminary in St. Louis that fall and instead entered the teaching program.

My conflict with the church got deeper after I started teaching, and it was a song from Bloodlines, “Missouri Birds,” that helped bring it to a head. Set in my home state, specifically crossing the Mississippi River bridge on I-70 in St. Louis, its lyrics perfectly outlined my dilemma.

The protagonist watches the flocks flying south along one of the great Midwest flyways and hears “that song they’re singing to me: go into the world while you’re young.” In the second verse he is reminded of the preacher’s words that echo from the old church steeple, “stay here with the decent people, settle down and marry while you’re young.” Going out into the world and leaving the relative security of the church was one of the most difficult decisions I ever made, and it was good to have Stewart’s comforting words as I finally made the transition.

My brother Vincent and I saw Stewart for the first time in December 1970 at the old Vanguard coffee house on Main Street north of the Plaza. He had Chris Darrow in his three-piece band, and the opening act was the comedian Pat Paulson. The show included all my favorite songs, some new ones I hadn’t heard, and it just blew me away. At one point, he played “Daydream Believer” and mentioned that it was the last hit for the Monkees. “Maybe I should write one for Nixon and Agnew,” he quipped. We went home and tried to work out “California Bloodlines,” a song we still play when we get together.

It was an exciting time. I caught a Byrds/Burrito Brothers bill at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln in September of 1970, Van Morrison for the first time at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit the first week in December, during my student-teaching stint, and Stewart in KC over Christmas break. My interest in music was starting to head into an even more obsessive phase, and Stewart became part of the growing awareness.

A few days before I saw Stewart that first time, I stopped in Chicago on my way back from Detroit to surprise Frank Kresen, another music obsessive I had met at Concordia Senior College, Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

Frank came to Ft. Wayne to make up a couple of classes in the fall of 1968, and we became fast friends through our mutual status as music-trivia buffs. We got drunk the night we met and discovered that we both thought that Bob Seger’s “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” was a perfect single, and that the moment at the end of the Zombie’s “Tell Her No,” when the song stops for a breath, is the greatest moment in rock music. Every weekend that semester we got together and played music for each other and talked shit about it.

After Frank returned to Chicago, we kept in touch, writing each other long letters about our growing music tastes, which we found wonderfully compatible, and you can see today in those letters how it was becoming part of our ethos. We were beginning to speak a special language that was only understood by a small circle of friends. But we were finding a growing community around the country who, like us, read Rolling Stone and Creem. We dubbed ourselves a karass, loosely interpreting a piece of Kurt Vonnegut’s hilarious religion in the novel Cat’s Cradle.

In one of those letters, written April 1970, I list some albums I had just bought, a Lightnin’ Hopkins Vanguard collection, Rick Nelson’s In Concert, John B. Sebastian, Brewer and Shipley’s Weeds, I write for the first time about California Bloodlines: “The old Kingston Trio and Cumberland Three man is really into country, and this album is superb in all respects. He gets all the Nashville boys together for some pickin’ and singin’, like Charlie McCoy, Kenneth Buttrey, Hargus Robbins. Includes “July, You’re a Woman,” his classic (recorded on a single by Pat Boone, which I liked until I heard Stewart’s on The New Spirit of Capitol collection.”

In August 1971, I moved to Chicago for a teaching position as a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at St. John’s Lutheran Church, a small congregation in the far-western suburb of Roselle. Frank and I moved into a rambling old farmhouse on Lake Street, took a lot of acid, and began playing music together. Stewart became an increasingly major influence on us as we took things a step further and tried to make it professionally as the Coalition. (It didn’t seem that delusional at the time!)

It’s safe to say that I tried my damndest to BE John Stewart during this period, which lasted at least through Crayon Angel, a band I formed with Vincent and two friends from college. We found much to love in Stewart’s seventies albums, all created from the same cloth as California Bloodlines. The songs on Sunstorm were mostly set on the Great Plains, and songs like “Cheyenne,” “Wheatfield Lady,” “Kansas Rain” and “You Can’t Go Back to Kansas” spoke deeply to my Midwestern sensibilities. “All American Girl,” from Willard, spoofed accurately the “parochial girls” I dated through college. We could find something to appreciate in almost all his songs. I loved it, for instance, when “All the Brave Horses,” from the Lonesome Picker album, a song which Frank and I always felt had political overtones, was later wrapped into the very political “The Last Campaign Trilogy” on the Phoenix Concerts live set.

Frank and I caught Stewart at a short-lived, fancy Chicago folk club called Smile in April 1972. We sat close enough to watch what fret he put his capo on for certain songs, and even knicked that cool lick for “California Bloodlines,” the first time I learned a song by watching the performer himself play it. There were few people there, and he complied with my request for “The Pirates of Stone County Road.” But when I hollered out for “Baby, You’ve Been on My Mind,” the Dylan song I remembered from the live Kingston Trio record, he scowled over at me and said gruffly, “I don’t do covers.” I didn’t think his response was as funny at the time as I do now.

Next: The “Gold” period, finally meeting Stewart and seeing him many times over the years in Colorado.

2 comments

1 Phoebe Smith { 02.03.08 at 6:29 pm }

Hi, Leland! My mom referred me to your blog after John Stewart died. At first I was scared that The Daily Show host had met some tragic end! She doesn’t know pop culture well enough to make that distinction. Now I realize that she was referring to man who wrote that song I’ve been hearing Vince play since I was a kid! Of course, I always thought Vince was responsible for such a beautiful melody! What next? No Santa?

2 Phoebe Smith { 02.03.08 at 6:39 pm }

I’ve never heard the original, but I certainly love Vince’s version of California Bloodlines! This segment is making me downright homesick. . .

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