Saturday, October 17, 2009

Hardcore Country

Category: 50 Songs to Hear

SONG: Playboy
ARTIST: Wynn Stewart
SONGWRITER: W.S. Stevenson / W. Chandler
ALBUM: None, issued as a single
YEAR/LABEL: 1959; Challenge

Wynn's sound is what influenced Buck and me both.
(Merle Haggard)

If any one artist will make someone shake their head and think, "How on earth did this person NOT become a superstar?
" it's Wynn Stewart. Stewart was a singer's singer with a good tenor voice and a driving hard country sound that kowtowed to nothing -- not rock and roll, not the Nashville sound. That may have been part of the problem, along with the fact that he was based in Bakersfield, California instead of Nashville.

Some of Stewart's best work was during his tenure of Challenge Records. Most of it was not commercially successful, but most of it was exceptional. Case in point: "Playboy."

The opening fiddle and driving shuffle beat warn everyone before Stewart uttered a note issued a warning to the listener that this song, to steal a Vern Gosdin album title, contains country music. There was absolutely nothing "Nashville sound" about this tune. The steel guitar played as Stewart sang of the misery of a lost love and how life as a nightclub-hopper was nothing more than "this false front I'm wearing" that "is just to cover my blues." This is country music at its pure honky tonking best.

Buck Owens and Merle Haggard may have been influenced by Stewart but they didn't match him, even though both went on to Hall of Fame careers while Stewart languished in "cult" status. His best-known song is "It's Such a Pretty World Today," ironically a compromise into the world of "Nashville sound."

Wynn Stewart died of a heart attack on July 17, 1985 at the young age of 51, leaving a legacy of superb music, most of which lies undiscovered by the masses in an exhaustive Bear Family box set. Songs like "Playboy" indicate why that is one of the saddest things to say about country music.


The entire California Country: The Best of the Challenge Masters album
-- it is unfortunately out of print, but if you find it you will have in your possession some of the greatest music to come out of the Bakersfield scene -- or anywhere else in country music -- in the 1950s and early 60s.

"The Waltz of the Angels" (available on Capitol Country Classics - 1950s) -- the first hit version of a song later covered by nearly everyone from George Jones to Johnny Paycheck displays the true beauty of the tune and Stewart's voice.

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