West Coast honkytonker Wynn Stewart (1934-1985) truly rocks my world... but why did he always look so damned uncomfortable in all his publicity photos? One of the early stars of the West Coast/Bakersfield scene that would later include Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, Stewart flirted with rockabilly in the late 1950s, but settled into a solid hard country sound when he signed with Capitol. His records from the mid-'60s are some of the best hard country music of that era, though he gradually edged into a softer, mildly countrypolitan style. Wynn was notable as a patron of several West Coast country starts, including as an early duets partner for Jan Howard. Here's a quick look at his work...
Wynn Stewart "California Country: The Best Of The Challenge Masters" (AVI, 1995)
Wow. It's hard to believe this CD -- on a reissue label that no longer exists -- was for years the only Wynn Stewart album in circulation. It's still the only one domestically produced in the United States... what's up with that? This is some killer West Coast country from the late 'Fifties and early 'Sixties, with a pinch of rockabilly spunk thrown in on top. Wynn had a HUGE influence on Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and all them other Bakersfield Sound folks... and here you can find out why.
Wynn Stewart "The Very Best Of Wynn Stewart: 1958-1962" (Varese Sarabande, 2001)
This basically replicates the California Country collection reviewed above, and is now much easier to find. Either one of these CDs would do the trick, though! Great stuff.
Wynn Stewart "Wishful Thinking" (Bear Family, 2000)
A typically humongous Bear Family box set with 10 CDs worth of pretty much everything Wynn ever recorded. I have not yet been privileged to hear this collection, but once I win the lottery, it'll be one of the first things I run out and buy. Meanwhile, I'll just point all you rich folks in its general direction, with a whistful sigh that says, "Hey, now! That's gotta be pretty awesome!"
Wynn Stewart & Jan Howard "The Very Best Of" (Varese Sarabande, 2004)
This much-welcome reissue gathers several smokin' 1958-61 singles, originally out on the Challenge and Jackpot labels. Although it overlaps a few tracks on other recent Wynn Stewart retrospectives, its crowning glory is a look at the formative work of Jan Howard, an artist whose core work -- her late-'60s sides on the Decca label -- remains out of print, despite several big hits in the '60s and early '70s. Howard was generally a mid-tempo ballad singer, so these rollicking early recordings may come as a real eye-opener for fans of classic country and the Nashville Sound... She had some real fire in her! Too bad they couldn't also sandwich in some stuff from her brief stint on Capitol (around '63), but I think fans will be grateful nonetheless to hear these great old tunes in fine, bright, digital sound. Recommended!
Wynn Stewart "Come On (Shake This Shack Tonight)" (Bear Family, 2011)
A great collection that focusses on Wynn's early work, including a bunch of rare singles on indie micro-labels like Intro and Jackpot, as well as uptempo twang on Challenge and Capitol. Early on he flirted with rockabilly in the late 1950s, but settled into a solid hard country sound when he signed with Capitol; this zippy collection concentrates on his early work, opening with his blistering 'billy single "Come On," and also includes work with rocker Eddie Cochran, as well as a bunch of pure, true twang. Great stuff! If you've already checked out the best-ofs above, you might want to check this disc out, 'cuz it's got a lot of "new" material that's a lot of fun. Highly recommended!
Wynn Stewart & Jan Howard "Sweethearts Of Country Music" (Challenge, 1961)
Wynn Stewart "Wynn Stewart" (Wrangler, 1962)
Wynn Stewart "Songs of Wynn Stewart" (Capitol, 1965)
Wynn Stewart "It's Such A Pretty World Today" (Capitol, 1967)
Wynn Stewart "Love's Gonna Happen To Me" (Capitol, 1968)
Sorta sad, considering how great his first Capitol recordings were, just a few years earlier. Wynn is being recast as a countrypolitan crooner, although to his credit, it doesn't quite take. But even though he retains a Merle Haggard-ish gruffness, Stewart didn't seem able to hold onto his hard country edge, and half-hearted stabs at uptempo material such as a remarkably tepid version of "Above And Beyond" are pretty dispiriting. To be sure, there are glimmers of his old spark, on songs such as "Loversville" and "Sing The Same Song," but the delivery is so tame and reserved that the songs aren't nearly as catchy as they oughtta be. Probably a great album for some other country singer to mine new material from, but kind of a snoozer as is.
Wynn Stewart "Something Pretty" (Capitol, 1968)
Wynn Stewart "In Love" (Capitol, 1968)
Pretty soft and slow, although it's not completely syrupy and countrypolitan, and Stewart can still keep your attention... Most of the songs were co-written with Wynn's lead guitarist, Dale Noe, although not much is really that distinctive. Apparently newgrasser Clarence White plays guitar as well, but for the life of me I couldn't tell you where his touch comes in...
Jan Howard & Wynn Stewart "Sing Their Hits" (Starday, 1968)
Wynn Stewart "Let The Whole World Sing With Me" (Capitol, 1969)
Wynn Stewart "Yours Forever" (Capitol, 1969)
Wynn Stewart "You Don't Care What Happens To Me" (Capitol, 1970)
Wynn Stewart "It's A Beautiful Day" (Capitol, 1970)
Wynn Stewart "Baby It's Yours" (Capitol, 1971)
Wynn Stewart "After the Storm" (Playboy, 1976)
Stewart's last album was recorded well after his star had fallen, and it included remakes of some of his best-known hits, such as "Big, Big Love," "Wishful Thinking" and "It's Such A Pretty World Today," as well as some newer material. It has all the earmarks of a so-so album by a has-been artist, but the cool thing about this record is that it's a rock solid effort by an old pro. You can sense Wynn's glumness, but it's overshadowed by his confidence as a performer, an almost defiant competence that says, much like Lefty Frizzell on his final albums, "Yeah, I know you folks have given up on me, but I still know how to kick ass when I sing a song!" This material might not match his early stuff from the start of the 'Sixties, but it's still pretty darn good... Certainly worth checking out!
Hick Music Index